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Friar lands remain a legal curse a century of disputes after

By Chito Lozada
03/26/2012 [ tribune.net.ph ]

After more than a century of legal disputes since the US government tried resolving the friar lands question in the Philippines, the vast estates owned by Spanish Catholic monastic orders remain a labyrinthian issue among local courts and the much-assailed irregularities in the bureaucracy and the justice system had further made life difficult for those staking their claims on these prime pieces of land.

When the Americans took over the Philippines from 300 years of Spanish rule in 1898, among the first problem that confronted the new colonizer was the disposition of the so-called friar lands.

These huge tracts of land are owned mostly by three predominant Spanish religious orders, the Dominicans, Augustinians, and Recollects, and comprise about one-tenth of all the improved lands in the islands.

The Philippine Revolution prior to the American takeover was mainly fueled by discontent among local peasants with the feudal practices among these estates.

In the Treaty of Paris signed in 1898 between the Spanish and American governments to settle the war between the two countries, the US government agreed to protect the friars’ rights over these

will be sold to the US government.

The US purchased some 170,000 hectares of these lands for $7 million for resale to tenant farmers who in turn pays on installment.

The problem started from there as disputes arose over the accuracy of land surveys and the terms of repayment, and the contentions did not stop ever since.

A recent decision of the Supreme Court, however, over a huge parcel of these contested friar lands are expected to further raise the tension among those claiming ownership of these lands.

Last March 6, the SC, in a close 8-7 decision denied with finality appeals made by three families claiming possession of a 34-hectare prime lot near Ayala Heights subdivision in Quezon City known to many as the Piedad Estate, one of the biggest piece of friar land in the country.

The Manotok, Barque and Manahan families have separately appealed an Aug. 24, 2010 decision of the SC that denied all private claims to the 34-hectare portion of the Piedad Estate and awarded the lot to the government’s ownership.

The Supreme Court decision, in turn, is being contested by the families since the swing vote that resulted in the denial of the petitions came from Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo whose vote in favor of denial was certified by Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Del Castillo has been on leave since Feb. 6 as a result of proceedings in the House of Representatives to impeach him over a plagiarism issue.

The private parties are wondering how a Supreme Court Justicemc can vote on en banc deliberations while on leave or not even present during deliberations.

The SC in its decision reasoned, among others, in its decision to deny appeals with finality that the high court needed to be more judicious in settling conflicting claims over friar lands “with the statutorily prescribed record-keeping of sales of friar lands apparently in disarray.”

“The prospect of litigants losing friar lands they have possessed for years or decades had never deterred courts from upholding the stringent requirements of the law for the valid acquisition of these lands,” the majority SC decision penned by Associate Justice Martin Villarama said.

The dispute over the choice lot arose after a suspicious fire in 1988 that razed the Quezon City Register of Deeds Office and with it several original land titles.

One of the contesting families, the Manotoks, said a reconstitution of a title to the lot was filed before the Land Registration Authority (LRA) by heirs of Homer Barque which the Manotok family opposed and a long legal tug of war started that ended in the Supreme Court en banc.

The Barques presented as evidence to their reconstitution claim a deed of conveyance supposedly issued by the Department of Agriculture and Commerce in 1937 but the Land Management Bureau (LMB) official who allegedly verified the documents denied issuing a certification for it. Also there were no copies ot those papers in the National Archives.

The Barques submitted as evidence a copy of a subdivision plan with a stamp from the LMB but the LMB denied it came from their office.

The couple Rosendo and Felicitas Manahan based their claim on LMB records purporting thst the original settler of the disputed lot was their ancestor Valentin Manahan based on a copy of Sale Certificate 511 and at least three LMB officials backed their claim.

However, no original or certified copy of the sale certificate was ever presented in court by the Manahans and there was no record of that document in the National Archive.

The court eventually reprimanded the LMB officials for backing the claim on unsubstantiated bases.

The Manahans also failed to show proof that they paid real estate taxes on the property until 1991, after the spurious fire atbthe

The Manotok’s ancestor Severino Manotok bought the property from the government which was paid on installment for over 10 years with the payment being acknowledged by the Director of Lands in 1932.

The law required the government to transmit the deed of conveyance to the register of deeds after which the buyer’s transfer certificate of title (TCT) is issued. Severino received the certificate and started paying realty taxes on the land in 1933 until now, including the taxes on the improvements the family had built on it.

The SC subsequently ruled that the Barque title was not entitled to reconstitution but at the same time ordered a hearing at the Court of Appeals to determine the ownership of the Manotoks on the property.

The CA recommended that the Piedad Estate lot be returned to the government based on the absence of a proof that the Secretary of Agriculture of Natural Resources during the early 1900s when the lot was bought signed the government’s deed of conveyance.

The SC, acting on appeals from the Manotoks, later on upheld the CA decision which stated that the Manotok’s TCT must be cancelled since the statute said “no sale . . . shall be valid until approved by the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources.”

The Manotoks appealed the decision saying that it has no control over the requirement for the government official to sign the deed of conveyance particularly since the required action of the official comes prior to the delivery of the deed to the buyer and what is delivered to the buyer is not the same copy retained by the register of deeds.

Thus, the Manotoks complained that they should not be made to suffer for a failure of the government.

The decision in turn, as a precedent, is expected to affect several other individuals whose properties stand on the many friar lands in the country since it, in effect, voids the transactions involving millions of people to whom the lands were parceled out and who cannot produce proof on the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ ministerial approval.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) had indicated that all the titles examined by the Land Management Bureau (LMB), an agency under it, and so with other land titling agencies have no signature of government officials that was required under the statute.

The DENR, thus, issued an order that sought to cure the dilemma and which deemed as legal all those titles not bearing the signature of the officials specified in the statute. The recent SC ruling in effect ignored this DENR cure.

Based on government records, the numerous haciendas, estates and other tracts of friar lands have a total land area of 145,636 hectares and at an average of 1,000 square meters per owner, the decision had the potential disenfranchising the claim of 1.5 million Filipinos.

The SC decision on reversion of the lot to government ownership caught the Manotoks flatfooted since what it was contesting was the reconstitution effort of the Barques and that no notice was given them on the possibility of reversion.

In his dissenting opinion, Senior Justice Antonio Carpio said that former Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Michael Defensor issued an affidavit stating in gist all the deeds examined by the Land Management Bureau (LMB) and other relevant government agencies involving friar lands do not have the signature of the government official being required on the Manotoks.

Acting on a similar concern raised over the missing signature on age-old deeds by Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal on the equally controversial friar land called Banilad Estates in Cebu province issued a memorandum order stating all deeds of conveyance that do not bear the signature of the Secretary are deemed signed or otherwise ratified provided, however, that full payment of the purchase price of the land and comliance with all other requirements for the issuance of the deed of conveyance under Act 1120 have been accomplished by the applicant.

Carpio said the memorandum order was issued to remove doubts or dispel objections as to the validity of all Torrens transfer certificates of title issued over friar lands where such doubts or objections arise either from the lack of signature of the then Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
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