March 15, 2019
President Rodrigo Duterte made a surprise announcement earlier this week in Sagay City, Negros Occidental, that during the second half of his presidential term, he would be stepping up the distribution of public lands to landless citizens.
It was more than another applause line in his speeches in the countryside. This time, he spoke to a highly controversial issue at the heart of church and state relations in the country.
The President said that land distribution in his remaining years could include Church or friar lands acquired during the Spanish era. He told the Catholic Church: “Let’s reach an understanding about the land titles that you have now. Just wait, I’m still having lands surveyed.”
This is an issue with a lot of history and controversy. President Duterte could not have touched a rawer nerve in the often rancorous relationship between the state and the numerically dominant Catholic Church.
He has revived the question over friar lands, which at one time preoccupied US colonial policy upon its takeover of the Philippine archipelago in 1898.
This concerned the disposition of large landed estates owned by Spanish monastic orders on the islands.
For more than 300 years the Roman Catholic Church and the orders had been intimately involved with Spanish colonial government in the country. During that time, three religious orders — the Dominicans, the Augustinians and the Recollects — acquired about one-tenth of all the improved land on the islands. The discontent of Filipino peasants with this situation was a major cause and contributing factor in the Philippine Revolution of 1896-1898.
In the Treaty of Paris (1898), which settled the Spanish–American War, the United States government agreed to protect the friars’ property rights. But it also realized that it would be dangerous to allow them to return to their lands.
During talks between the two sides, an agreement was reached under which the US government purchased 410,000 acres (about 170,000 hectares) for the sum of $7,000,000. The land was then resold to tenant farmers on an installment basis.
The solution was not entirely satisfactory; numerous disputes arose over the accuracy of surveys and terms of repayment. Continued monastic possession of certain parcels of land became a source of contention thereafter. It became part of the issue of land reform, which vexed the Philippine government in much of its history
The President made some striking points in his remarks in Sagay City. He cited Novaliches in Quezon City as having vast tracts of Church lands. He said:
“That’s why it came to be called Novaliches. It belonged to the priests and was mostly friar lands. The priests took in tenants, but the money went to them only.”
He then explained why he wants to “give away all government-owned lands to the people.”
“They are of no use to the government, anyway. The mountains are vast. Except for the military reservation. There’s nothing like that in the mountains,” he said.
Realistically, however, government takeover of the so-called friar lands is not just a matter of the President wishing and the Agrarian Reform department dutifully obeying.
Firstly, this is a matter of public policy. Our government system operates under the principle that the “President proposes, Congress disposes.”
Since Duterte cannot dictate policy, he must persuade Congress to pass a law on the matter.
Secondly, this is a matter of law. Neither the Catholic Church nor the religious orders will sit back and yield the lands in question without a major court struggle.
For all its power and influence in 1898, the US went through the process of negotiating an agreement and purchasing some of the estates.
Then as now, the whole question of the friar lands needs a serious policy study undertaken by competent professionals.
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