By Raul J. Palabrica
Philippine Daily Inquirer
FOR FILIPINOS, REGARDLESS OF their station in life, land represents security or peace of mind.
Our farmers are prepared to kill, and be killed, to protect the land they till or on which they depend for their livelihood.
Informal settlers will resist with all their might, even put their lives on the line, the demolition of shanties they call home.
According to statistics, some 39 million Filipinos live on land they do not own or, if they have the right to build on it, do not have the documents to prove that entitlement.
The problem is not confined to Metro Manila. The provinces that have become hubs of trade and commerce in their regions are going through the same experience.
Although occupants of government-owned properties have priority in owning the land they occupy, the titling processâ€”which is judicial in natureâ€”is long winded and, since it requires the services of lawyers, costly.
With the signing into law on March 9 of Republic Act No. 10023, relief is in sight for low-income Filipino families who do not want to be â€œsquattersâ€ in their own country.
Authored by Sen. Richard Gordon, the law allows Filipinos who actually occupy public residential lots to apply for a free patent title over those parcels of land.
In a free patent, title over the property is given by the government to the occupant without any monetary payment.
It is similar to homestead titles over disposable public agricultural lands that the government gave to landless farmers during the 1950s to cool the heat of the then Hukbalahap insurgency.
To qualify for the free patent, the applicant should have, by himself or through his predecessor-in-interest, actually resided on and continuously occupied the subject lot under a bona fide claim of ownership for at least 10 years.
The 10-year requirement represents a 20-year reduction of the occupancy period required under existing laws.
The occupancy can be proven through the sworn statements of two disinterested persons residing in the barangay of the city or municipality where the land is located.
The application should also be supported by a technical description of the lot, and a map based on an actual survey conducted by a licensed geodetic engineer and approved by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The law applies to all lands classified or zoned as residential areas, including town sites as defined under the Public Land Act.
Also covered are â€œresidential areas located inside a delisted military reservation or abandoned military camp, and those of local government unitsâ€ that are not otherwise considered protected areas.
With the greater public interest in mind, however, the law excludes lands needed for public service or public use, forest lands classified as such by the Forest Reform Code, and nature reserves and other protected areas covered by the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 1992.
There is a limit though on the size of the land that can be applied for by qualified applicants. In highly urbanized cities, it should not be more than 200 square meters; in other cities, it should not exceed 500 square meters. For first class and second class municipalities, 750 square meters is the maximum; for the rest of the municipalities, the ceiling is 1,000 square meters.
The free patent application should be filed with the DENR and, for good measure, the law fixes the period within which it should be acted upon.
Properly implemented, the law can unlock the value of otherwise stagnant real property.
Depending on the holding period the DENR may require in the implementing regulations, the lot owners can use their property as security for loans that can provide them with capital for small-scale entrepreneurial activities.
Credit institutions are more comfortable lending money to people who have property that can be levied upon in case they renege on their payment obligations.
With their home lots at stake, the debtors become more careful about the use of the money they borrowed to fund their business
. Messing up the business or diverting the money from its intended objective could throw their families, literally, to the dog house.
But the most significant effect of giving free patent titles to deserving families is the self-confidence or pride it will create.
The Gawad Kalinga housing projects best illustrate this development. The communities where the informal settlers were resettled and given their own houses and lots are today models of cleanliness and orderly living.
Suffused with pride over their new found status as property owners, the residents, individually and collectively, properly maintain their homes and surroundings.
The high morale translates to a community spirit that encourages the homeowners to discard the dog-eat-dog mentality that once ruled their lives and instead be law abiding and respectful of each otherâ€™s rights.
Hopefully, the informal settlers who are entitled to the benefits of the law will use them properly and not allow themselves be used by unscrupulous parties.
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