POSTSCRIPT / January 18, 2007 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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It's better to strengthen than to abolish the LRA

LRA RAIDERS: Is Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez aware that his department is being raided by another department maneuvering to take away its well-performing Land Registration Administration and its P2.4-billion annual earnings?

Why is Sen. Pia Cayetano in a hurry to pass her own bill — to the exclusion of other bills and in disregard of reasonable objections — transferring LRA funds and functions to a new office being sponsored by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources?

Where really lie the blame, and the solution, for the anomalies in land titling that involves several government agencies? Is the core problem traceable to the bureaucratic structure and/or in the pertinent laws governing operations?

These are some of the questions being raised, but ignored, with the seeming haste to adopt the Land Administration and Management Project (LAMP), an undertaking being pushed by the DENR with World Bank and Australian support.

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MERGER: Its proponents say LAMP will enable the government to reform the land administration system. To enhance its appeal, they throw in the motherhood slogans on economic development, poverty alleviation and sustainable management of natural resources.

The grand idea is to merge the Land Management Bureau (DENR), Land Management Service (DENR), NAMRIA (DENR) and Land Registration Authority (DoJ) into an autonomous Land Administration Authority (LAA) under the Office of the President.

Thirteen bills were filed in the House of Representatives (DENR versions that appeared to have been prepared by one hand) and one bill by Rep. Salacnib Baterina as LRA’s version.

House Bill 4846, the Land Administration and Reform Act (LARA), had been passed on third reading. On Feb. 23, 2006, it was forwarded to the Senate, where several senators wrote counterpart measures that had been pushed aside by the Cayetano version.

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LOBBY AT WORK: Admittedly, the bills do not presume to finally resolve the detailed, complex and multi-dimensional problems attending the management of the country’s critical yet finite land resources.

But with enough warm bodies and lobby funds at work, LARA as embodied in the merged House bills had moved forward. In the Senate, more conscientious members should demand deeper study and a full hearing before voting on the Cayetano bill.

While the bill’s avowed objective may sound laudable, the Senate should find out who or what interests are behind the single-minded campaign to create LAA. Senate President Manuel Villar, an expert in land acquisition and development, should take interest.

Haphazard legislation may just dislocate an established system and create more bureaucratic problems, including the emerging of new modus operandi for graft and fraudulent land titling.

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TIME-TESTED SYSTEM: The current system is not perfect, but has been generally effective despite lack of budgetary support and recognition. What it apparently needs is upgrading and refinement, not total replacement.

Do we gamble and replace our time-tested Torrens system of land titling and registration? Established in Australia, the Torrens way is still extant there. It is being used in a number of States of the US, as well as in South Korea, among other places.

The present nationwide network of Registries of Deeds under the LRA is extensive enough. There are offices in practically every city and province, serving as repositories and guardians of land titles and records of transactions.

In existence for the past 103 years, the LRA is the authority on judicial titling of lands and the protection of the Torrens system. Through the years, its career officials have become authorities in their spheres of activity.

Do we now shuffle and rename existing offices and control their income in the guise of reform? Is it reform to abolish the LRA, which has been practically the only bureaucratic gem in the preservation and protection of the rights of the landowner?

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GOLD MINE: One sore point is that the Cayetano bill (SB 2156) would give the proposed LAA the authority to retain and use all its revenues from fees, charges and other sources.

This goes against the normal practice of having agencies turn over to the national treasury all their incomes and for them to then ask for needed funds through the budget process.

The LRA has attracted schemers with its P2.4-billion annual income earned by its lean workforce of 2,700 nationwide. The agency has been consistently among the government’s top three revenue earners in the past decade.

Imagine the political and business potential of P2.4 billion in the hands of a super agency directly under Malacanang!

One good feature of the present land management system is its check and balance mechanism. Do we allow that key safeguard to be thrown out with the adoption of an autonomous scheme?

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SINS OF OTHERS: During the Senate deliberations, the LRA was unfairly portrayed as the hotbed of everything that ails the country’s land management system. That is just not true, but it is opportune that such accusation was brought up.

The records will show, for instance, that the overlaps in land surveys (a prime cause for fraud and erroneous land titling) do not occur at the LRA. Titling is done in the LRA primarily not on its initiative, but at the behest of judicial determination.

It is actually at the DENR — which is pushing the House and the Cayetano bills — where these errors, or fraud, occur. The DENR issues those land surveys that sometimes turn out to be questionable.

Spurious titles have also been known to be issued not through LRA machination but through CLOAs issued by the Department of Agrarian Reform and through CALTs and CADTs from the National Commission on Indigenous People.

Why blame the LRA for the sins of other offices?

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TECHNICAL JOB: Some of the other agencies marked for the chopping board — the LMB and NAMRIA — do not deal directly in land registration or administration.

Their functions are limited to administrative aspects of original registration, such as original survey and a cadastral survey of alienable and disposable land of public domain and the processing of applications for administrative land titling and issuance of patents.

These functions, not undertaken by the LRA, can be regarded as add-on functions. Why does not the Congress just integrate their work into the LRA? That is a more practical way of strengthening the present land administration.

It makes better sense to move some technical capability (like land surveying) from the DENR to the LRA.

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WORKERS AGITATED: An accredited LRA employees’ organization is calling on lawmakers to rethink the bills. They say that the abolition of the LRA and creation of the LAA will not result in speeding up land titling and registration, but slow them down.

I can understand the sentiments of LRA employees who are usually blamed for delays in the acquisition of ownership, titling and disposition of land. These are actually the function of the DENR, an administrative agency.

As for the judicial titling and issuance of decrees, the LRA performs these functions pursuant to final judgments of courts in land registration cases.

Original survey and cadastral survey of Alienable and Disposable (A & D) land of the public domain, and the processing of applications for administrative land titles, and adjudication of ownership and issuance of patents are DENR functions.

On the issue of slow and dubious land titling, the DENR should look at itself in the mirror and not blame a DoJ agency.

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MANEUVERS: The true solution is not in a policy shift but in the strict implementation of existing laws. If these land laws are no longer efficacious, then immediate amendment of the laws governing land registration and procedure is the solution.

Strengthening an already institutionalized system is the answer, not the abolition of a well-performing and well-earning government office and creating in its place a totally new agency.

The Cayetano bill unduly disturbs personnel efficiency, hanging as it does like a Sword of Damocles over the head of LRA officials and employees.

At an agitated time like this, give LARA a rest. Find out who are behind this expensive campaign and why they are doing it.

And, big question, who is this DENR factotum who has been puffing up himself, tailoring the bill to suit his qualifications, and maneuvering to become the first LAA director-general?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 18, 2007)

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