The longest wait in the urban struggle for land


“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” — Aldo Leopold

Land, is so important for everybody. People from the mountain communities see the land as their mother who unselfishly provides all their needs. Settlers in the cities and urban areas look at it as part of the struggle for survival in a society where money and power is in the hands of the few elite.

People who go to the urban areas hoping for a better life leave their villages behind to escape problems such as militarization, development aggression and government neglect only to arrive and settle on empty lands thought to be either idle or abandoned. They are to be called squatters or illegal dwellers by the government. As if to lighten the discriminatory label or to be “politically correct” some call them informal settlers. For the indigenous people of the Cordillera, they maximize the use of the land.

They spend sleepless nights as the dangers of demolition threaten them. From years of developing these idle lands, they would discover that some rich people have titles over the lots where they built their homes.

For years, these informal settlers fought for the freedom to own these lands they had nurtured. They soon came to compose a battle cry “land to the actual occupants”. Of course, they respect the original owners and those who have ancestral claims, what they do not understand is why are many of the so-called claimants who claim to have titles are from the National Capital Region or other foreign lands.

This is the case of the people of San Carlos Heights of Barangay Irisan in Baguio City.

Start of the long road

It was on August 7, 1992 when the residents filed a petition with the office of the Solicitor General for the revival of an investigation of the then created 1986 special task force committee for a possible filing of a Reversion Proceedings case by the Solicitor General (Sol Gen). The said case was in pursuant to Section 101 of the Commonwealth Act No.141 against the Original Certificate of Title (OCT) Nos. 0-97; 0-13; 0-67; 0-09; 0-47 and 0-108 due to fraud and misrepresentation attendant to the issuance of said titles by the Regional Trial Court (RTC), acting as Land Registration Court.

The Land Management Bureau (LMB) then required the petitioners to submit within 39 days sworn statements of at least two disinterested persons who have personal knowledge on the land issue in San Carlos Heights. The petitioners complied with the order and filed a formal petition on November 11, 1992 alleging that they are the rightful owners of the land under OCTs 0-47 and 0-108 which were allegedly fraudulently issued through a judicial proceedings in a reopening Civil Residential Case No. 1 GLRD Record No. 211.

Then LMB Director Abelardo Palad formed a committee composed of lawyers and special land investigators to continue the investigation on the veracity of the allegation in the petition on the said OCTs which were named under Celin Sobli, et al’, and Joseph Gabol, et al respectively and its offshoot titles. The committee formally conducted hearings from January 19 to June 16, 1993.

On June 22, 1993, the counsel of the petitioners submitted formal offer of evidence. The case slept for the next four years.

Reviving the case amid demolition threats

On October 16, 1997, the case was submitted to the Regional Director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Cordillera Administrative Region (DENR-CAR) for proper action by the Land Management Services.

DENR-CAR issued an order setting the case for a preliminary conference on February 24, 1998. Series of proceedings and exchanges of formal offer of evidences and motions followed. Uneasiness and worry deeply affected the petitioners as they continually received questionable demolition orders from the city government.

Through the years, the residents single clamor was for the proper resolution of this case. And that whether or not OCT 0-47 and 0-108 were fraudulently issued; whether or not the RTC, acting as Land Registration Court acted without and in excess of jurisdiction and whether or not there is valid reason to cause the cancellation of said OCT and its derivative titles be clarrified. The case was endorsed to the Sol Gen on May 31, 1998 to carry out proceedings for the cancellation.

On June 14, 2000, the Sol Gen filed a civil case numbered 4735-R at the RTC Branch 3 for annulment of Title and Reversion against Erlinda Villanueva and Jaime Villanueva, Realty Development Corporation (RDC), Corazon S. Castro, Ricardo Enriquez, Teresita Galacgac, Nicolas Zarate, Remedios Zarate Carolino, Luzviminda Anuran, Conrado Nano, Evelyn Sapuay and the Registry of Deeds (ROD) of Baguio City.

In the case filed, the Sol Gen stated the defendants have the competence to be sued and be served summons and other proceedings. The ROD of Baguio is impleaded as a nominal party and may be served summons. The Sol Gen in its prayer said that the OCTs 0-47 and 0-108 be declared null and void basing it in a memorandum report on the findings of the National Mapping and Information Authority (NAMRIA) signed by then administrator Liberato A. Manuel.

The report stated “the parcels of land covered by OCT 0-47 and 0-108 fall within the public forest of Baguio City based on map No. LC-1024 which was then certified on July 31, 1933 and in addition, the same areas fall inside the proposed Baguio Forest Reserve per Map No. FR-142 in their file.

The Sol Gen commented that OCT 0-108 was originally registered in the Baguio ROD on February 11, 1965 pursuant to decree No. 1024002 issued in LRC Civil Reservation Case No. 1, record 211 and on the otherhand, 0-47 was registered on October 11, 1960 pursuant to Decree No. N-80102. The Sol Gen said that it is clear that the parcels of land in question were part of the forest zone at the time subject titles were issued.

The prayer furthered the court to order the aforesaid defendants to surrender their respective “owners’ duplicate copies of title to the Baguio ROD and direct the latter to cancel the same as well as the originals. The Sol Gen also prayed the RTC to decree the reversion of the parcels of land covered by the said titles to the State for appropriate disposition in accordance with law and direct all defendats or any other person claiming under them to desist from exercising acts of ownership or possesion over the disputed parcels of land.

Years passed by and countless hearings and proceedings over the case were done and the residents waited for slow developments. The petitioners attended the last hearing for the 2005 on December 21 with all hopes of having a meaningful gift for the yuletide season that time. RTC Branch 3 of the First Judicial Region Judge Fernando Pamintuan ordered the counsels of the petitioners and the defendants to submit and present formal offer of evidences and no hearings will be required as it will depend on each presentation of evidence.

The cancellation

In a 21-page decision of Judge Pamintuan dated September 5, 2006, the two OCTs were declared null and void saying they were acquired fraudulently. The court then ordered the Baguio ROD to cancel the titles issued that originated from the OCTs as the subject lands are classified as forest lands.

Ninety-four Transfer of Certificates of Title (TCT) which were created under the two OCTs were also declared void. The titles cover Puroks 22, 23, 24, 25, 26 and 27 of San Carlos Heights.

That time, the affected residents organized under Lobinder treated the decision as an initial victory in acquiring the land they are occupying. This also served as a temporary relief from the threats of losing their homes and a shield from the dangers of demolition mysteriously being approved by the city officials favoring the rich so-called claimants.

Meanwhile, the defendants argued that they were “innocent purchasers” and protected by the Torrens system. This is a land registration system in which the government is the keeper of all land and title records, and a land title serves as a certificate of full, indefeasible, and valid ownership (

According to Pamintuan, the defense of being an innocent purchaser for value of the defendants can not be sustained by the Court for the simple reason that their original root title was already defective. He also emphasized that the Torrens titles could not be used as a shield for fraud.

Not surrendering to the court decision, the defendants filed an appeal raising some issues of error by the court.

On August 15, 2012, the Court of Appeals (CA) in Manila declared the appeal as not meritorius because the RTC did not err in ruling that OCTs 0-47 and 0-108 as well as all subsequent titles derived thereto are canceled and that the subject lands be reverted to the State. They will remain as forest lands. The decision of Judge Pamintuan was affirmed.

Again this is another victory for the residents. First step perhaps in acquiring the land they occupied for decades. Another struggle is about to begin if ever the defendants will not bring the case to the Supreme Court, that is the long process of dealing with the government to award the lands to them.

Technical descriptions and legal terms are hard to understand. But the proceedings of the case let the residents know the roads and ways of the law on lands.

People’s movements born out of the land struggle

From the years of waiting and haggling, many organizations were formed among the ranks of San Carlos Heights residents. They organized themselves with hopes that from their collective actions will bear fruitful results. Some individuals however claiming that they had better ideas tried to be popular among the residents and even tried to take advantage of the problematic situation. That is a product of “money talks” system. Some claiming to be leaders also tried to insist that they can offer a better option.

From these organizations, the original concept of “land to the actual occupants” prevails. Lessons have yet to be drawn and documented so that others may learn from the rich experience of an urban people in their struggle for a piece of residential land. #