Beyond The Build: The National Land Use Plan

green forests

This proposed bill and hopefully soon to be approved law (in this new administration) will seek to rationalize and institutionalize the use of the country’s limited land and water resources.

By “rationalization”, the bill when enacted will prescribed the use of land and water into its different alternative (and competing) uses, i.e., for food production, for development, and to be protected as in forest areas and mangroves, striking a balance between science and economics.

By “institutionalization”, the proposed law will serve as a framework for the sound management and development of the country’s land and water resources. In doing so, we set limits to what portion of the country’s land will be open for development and the kind of development therein (i.e., as in residential/commercial, industrial and/or infrastructure), excluding hazard-sensitive areas, such as those prone to flooding, near fault lines, and areas exposed to potential tidal waves and landslides.

It is meant to protect arable land and water areas for food production, a key element if our country is to achieve food security, and our forest and mangrove areas, which play a vital role in not only ensuring environmental sustainability but also in mitigating natural disasters such as hazards mentioned earlier due to weather disturbances.

The absence of an encompassing legislation has not been kind to the environment. Time and again, natural disasters have taken lives (by the hundreds and even thousands) due to mudslides, avalanches and flooding when forest lands and mangrove areas are harvested carelessly for commercial use, and worst, when hazard-sensitive areas are allowed to be developed into residential communities.

On the other hand, arable land has been recklessly converted (and continue to be converted to this day) for housing and industries, one of the reasons why to this day, we continue to import our staple food (rice and corn) and potentially soon also sugar. In many cases, even irrigated land has been transformed to other uses, a blatant squander of tax payers’ money spent for the irrigation system precisely invested to improve productivity of the land. The problem is that even with existing laws, the process of land conversion is fraught with rampant corruption from the lowest level of government to the national level.

Another consequence is that the quality of urbanization that we have seen during the last half century (in the absence of a “dynamic” framework) has been “incoherent”, driven in most cases by private sector out of the need to expand (unguided at that) the borders of urban centers to accommodate the growing population (pushed largely by in-migration) and the need for more industries. Government response has been mostly reactive, spotty and resorting to band-aide solutions in addressing emerging “hot spots” without the benefit of land-use planning based on science and long-term considerations. The result is as equally distressing as its effects on the environment and agriculture - cities characterize by overcrowding, congestion, informal settlers, traffic, and communities unserved or underserved with proper basic amenities such as piped water, sewage system and electricity, and mounting garbage pile, among others.

So why is this bill (latest version) not yet a law?

Various versions of the bill (18 in the lower house and 4 in the upper chamber since 1994) have been crafted and debated in both chambers of congress but has remained to this day mere intentions, even if the results it seek to define is deemed imperative and essential. There have been other laws passed in recent history that pursue the same objective/s, but the scope and coverages have not been as circumspect as the current draft, its execution deficient and wanting, and in a few cases, the need to harmonize conflicting laws. Still, the proposed law languishes on the tables of influential lawmakers. They say some provisions are contentious yet no constructive and exhaustive dialogue have ensued between the executive (who originated the draft) and legislative branches to resolve issues. Then there are allegations of conflict of interest with business interests of some lawmakers where provisions of the law tend to limit “flexibility” of their businesses. And of course, do not discount lobbying efforts of big business who will be affected by the proposed law.

It is not going to be expected to be “perfect” in its current draft form. But neither will it be “fixed” or cast in stone if and when enacted in its present form. It is a framework that allows updating of information on the ground for consideration, and regular review by Congress, and if necessary, revised and amended to ensure its responsiveness to the changing needs and circumstance.

The previous administrations (of Aquino and Duterte) has called time and again for congress to prioritize the bill, yet its passage is still in future-tense. Hopefully, we should see it coming into fruition in its “truest” form and substance with new administration (of President Marcos) who has listed agriculture and food security as one of its top priorities.

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