Sumilao, Calatagan, and social justice in the Philippines

It’s been weeks since the Sumilao land case has been satisfactorily resolved (hopefully), we have another, almost similar case under the radar screens of mainstream media and the blogosphere.

This time it is a 508-hectare property at Calatagan in Batangas owned by the late Ceferino Ascue. The land was put under agrarian reform in 1990, two years after the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law was enacted. The land was distributed to 318 tenant-farmers under the Operation Land Transfer (OLT) provision of Presidential Decree 27; 818 Emancipation Patents were distributed.

The farmers tilled the land and cultivated rice, corn, vegetables and other crops for the ten years, paying land amortizations to the government.

Five years (1995) after the land was put under agrarian reform, the heirs of Ascue sold the property to Asturias Industries (sounds familiar?). Not only did the heirs ignored that fact that they no longer owned the land at time of sale, the Register of Deeds of Batangas did not annotate the distribution of that land in the land title.

Asturias Industries then began its campaign to get the land. It applied for a Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) and an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for a 2336.8-hectare land including the Ascue Estate in July 1997.

Asturias used those documents to question the distribution of the Ascue Estate under PD 27, claiming that the distribution was made erroneously, since the land was never used for planting rice and corn, and that Ascue did not recognize any tenancy arrangements.

The Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer (PARO) of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) began its investigation of Asturias’ complaints. Task Force Baha was formed, and it found that “(1) procedural lapses attended the OLT coverage; (2)significant portions of the OLT-covered area were planted to sugar cane; and (3) the landowner did not recognize tenancy relations with the ARBs (agrarian reform beneficiaries).” A validating team from DAR Region IV Office noted that “it cannot be established beyond reasonable doubt that the property is planted to palay or corn and tenanted.” It then recommended the nullification of the emancipation patents.

DAR Undersecretary Conrado Navarro sustained Asturias’ complaints in August 4, 2000, basing his decision on the following:

(1) the landholding was not primarily devoted to the production of rice or corn;

(2) the tenancy relations was not clearly established and

(3) the land long ceased to be agricultural as it is “mineralized.”

This case was appealed to the Office of the President, the Court of the Appeals, and the Supreme Court. The SC upheld the DAR decision in 2005.

Everything that went for Asturias were legal. But were they right?

Social justice is a curious concept, an alien one to most of us Filipinos. It is almost utopian: fair treatment to everyone, and impartial sharing in the benefits and resources of the society. I myself can’t explain it with confidence and conviction.

That said, agrarian reform is a pillar of Philippine social justice as part of the provisions of the Charter (see Article XIII, Section 1). As always, the spirit of the law doesn’t matter; as long as we can get away from it, we twist the law to our advantage. It has become apparent that you can actually use the law to give some semblance of legality to what is morally wrong (going against the spirit of the law).

Having said that, what can I say about the Calatagan case? I just find it ironic that we are having a so-called rice crisis now, and 500 hectares of agricultural land became mineral land in a poof. Also, every thing that Asturias did were legal. But were they right?

Read a briefing on this case here.

3 thoughts on “Sumilao, Calatagan, and social justice in the Philippines

  1. Calatagan is a really nice place to go to if you can afford it, rumor has it that beach front properties cost way more than most posh Manila condominiums. Which is a wonder because many of the residents who actually own places there never really visit.

  2. may be we should take a look whether this transaction was coupled with political interest which is the normal case in the philippine political environment…because there is a possibility that the national government and of course the local government of batangas have hidden interests for this transaction but take note, the local government officials i mean, for their personal ends, they themeselves being like a trademark of a signature clothes…i am a calatagueno, and i am after only for the good of my kababayan…

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