Written by Arlie O. Calalo
Monday, 25 March 2013 00:00 [ tribune.net.ph ]
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has warned the public against buying tracts of land in areas covered by the government’s agro-forestry program, saying these are public forest lands that are inalienable or could not be disposed of.
In a statement e-mailed to The Tribune, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon Paje issued the warning after authorities have discovered a massive land-fraud scheme involving an Antipolo City-based group selling lands located within the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape (UMRBPL), which was declared a protected area by virtue of Proclamation 296 signed by President Aquino in 2011.
Formerly known as the Marikina Watershed Reservation, the UMRBPL is a 26,126-hectare protected area covering the upper reaches of the Marikina watershed in the province of Rizal, flowing through Antipolo City and the towns of Baras, Rodriguez, San Mateo and Tanay.
“Any part of a proclaimed protected area is classified as public forestland and could not be in any manner disposed of, much less sold as a titled property,” Paje said.
The new land scam has come to public attention after a television investigative program featured Vanguard for Resourcefulness and Self-Reliance Livelihood and Housing Foundation Inc. (VRS Foundation), which was reportedly involved in the selling of lands within the UMRBPL.
In an entrapment operation held last Feb. 20 at the group’s office in Antipolo City, VRS Foundation officer Juanito Sta. Maria was arrested after receiving marked money from a DENR asset, who posed as buyer of a real property being sold by the foundation.
The operation was carried out by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group of the Philippine National Police and the DENR led by Assistant Secretary for Internal Audit and Anti-Corruption Daniel Nicer.
Further investigations revealed that VRS Foundation was also engaged in buying certificates of stewardship contracts from upland farmers taking part in DENR’s Integrated Social Forestry Program and would use these CSCs as bases to resell plots of lands in the guise of “transfer of rights.”
Started in the 1980s, ISFP grants a 25-year stewardship contract to qualified forest occupants, allowing them to settle and till the upland areas; in return they agree to protect and reforest these lands.
However, Paje said that under the ISFP regulations CSCs cannot be assigned or transferred without permission from the DENR secretary. “Rights to ISF areas cannot be transferred, sold or even titled; more so if they are inside protected areas.”
Paje called on all other victims to come forward and file charges against the foundation, urging them to report to Nicer’s office any unlawful sale of public land, especially those involving DENR people.