Senate debate on farms and subdivisions highlights lack of land use policy

Jonathan de Santos - Philstar.com
Senate debate on farms and subdivisions highlights lack of land use policy
In this file photo, agrarian reform beneficiaries work on a farm in Leyte in 2016.
Philstar.com, file

MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Raffy Tulfo was in action on the Senate floor early Thursday morning as he debated land use policies with Sen. Cynthia Villar, whose family includes real estate development in its portfolio of businesses.

Senators had been deliberating on the proposed budget for the Department of Agriculture when Tulfo asked what the department was doing to protect farmlands from being sold to developers who convert them into commercial and residential land.

"That's our business," Villar said in response and in explanation.

"I want to tell you that we don't buy agricultural land in the provinces. Nobody would buy houses in agricultural land. We only buy in cities and capital towns," she said, adding that buyers want the option to resell the property in case of emergencies.

The senator added that conversion of farmland into developments like subdivisions is allowed and added "if [developers] buy your land, they buy it [at an expensive price] and you can reinvest the money and you can make more money than planting on those lands."

She said that farmers who sell their land to developers can buy agricultural land somewhere else and plant there instead.

"Hindi po ganoon ang nangyayari (That is not what has been happening), ma'am, eh," Tulfo said. He also said that developers can build subdivisions without reducing farmlands.

The tense interpellation wandered into implementation of the Rice Tarrification Act, which Tulfo said has made farmers' incomes shrink in the face of cheaper rice imports. Villar, author of the bill that liberalized rice importations and collected tariffs to fund development of the rice industry, said that the law would help farmers in the long run.

"Hindi pa rin po tunay na nasasagot yung pong katanungan ko po na ano pong ginagawa ng DA na yung mga farmland ay nako-convert na po at nagiging residential area na po at commercial area?" Tulfo said as he stressed the need for a National Land Use Act that the Duterte and succeeding Marcos Jr. administrations have urged Congress to pass.

(My question on what the DA is doing abour farmland that is being converted into residential or commercial areas)

What is the National Land Use Act anyway?

Proposals for a national policy on how land in the Philippines is used have been pending in Congress for years, with every administration certifying its passage as urgent.Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri — now Senate president — filed a version in 2017 calling for a land use policy that "provides for guidelines in major areas, as follows: agricultural lands, forestlands and watersheds, coastal zones, mineral lands, energy resource lands, settlements development areas, industrial development areas, tourism development and heritage areas."

Advocacy group Campaign for Land Use Policy Now pointed out that same year that "no less than the chief executive of our country...has called for its passage in his State of the Nation Address in July 2017 and it has consistently been in the Common Legislative Agenda of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council."

The House during the Duterte administration passed a national land use bill that would have the national and local governments "determine the specific uses of land and other physical resources" in the country.

Among its provisions was the full protection from conversion to other purposes of "irrigable lands, all lands developed or possessing the potential for development of high value crops, and all agricultural lands that are ecologically fragile and whose conversion will result in serious environmental problems."

Passage of the bill bogged down at the Senate, however.

Villar on Thursday said that local government already have their own land use plans and policies even without a national law.

"The power of determining the implementation of the land use is with the local government. Why will you... You will remove it from the local government and transfer it to the national government? Do you think that is better?" she said soon before the session was suspended as she and Tulfo disagreed on whether it would be better for the national government to regulate land use and conversions.

Speaker Martin Romualdez (Leyte), the president's cousin, in July committed to have the House pass a national land use bill as the president asked in his first State of the Nation Address.

He said the bill needs to be passed to "harmonize and integrate conflicting laws, policies, principles and guidelines on land use and physical planning" because there are overlaps among existing laws and policies.

Senate President Zubiri has refiled a proposed land use bill, as have Sens. Pia Cayetano and Jinggoy Estrada. The bills have been referred to the Senate environment committee, which Villar chairs.

"Ano tingin ninyo mga ka-CLUP?" Campaign for Land Use Policy said Thursday on its Facebook page as it shared a link to an article on the debate between Villar and Tulfo.

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