Lack of security over the land despite the issuance of land titles such as Emancipation Patents (EPs) and Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOAs) is a serious concern among farmer beneficiaries and agrarian reform advocates. It is a continuing threat that needs to be blocked and overcome through legal and even extralegal means.
The law on the matter is quite clear. After qualifying as beneficiary under P.D. 27 or R.A. No. 6657, a farmer beneficiary is awarded with an EP or a CLOA as the case may be. These documents are land titles that are also brought under the operation of the Torrens System. They should enjoy the same indefeasibility and security that are afforded to an ordinary Torrens title. And just like any other Torrens title, they may be invoked by the farmer-awardees as conclusive evidence of ownership of the land described in such titles and over time as proof of their acquired vested right over the same land.
Unfortunately, in the implementation of agrarian laws, farmers already awarded with land titles may still be stripped of their right over the land notwithstanding the lapse of several years. The filing of retention, exemption, exclusion, and conversion cases has paved the way for cancellation titles in utter disregard of the farmers' vested right over their lands.
For the farmers of Hacienda Maria in Agusan del Sur, they had to go all the way to the Supreme Court just to secure a re-affirmation of the indefeasibility of their titles. They were awarded with EPs in 1984-88 under the Operation Land Transfer Program of P.D. No. 27. The processing of the award started as early as 1973 with participation of the landowner. In 1997, (more than 20 years after the coverage or more than ten years after the issuance of titles), the landowner filed petitions for cancellation of EPs awarded to the farmers on the ground of alleged erroneous coverage of about 277 has. Thus, the latter's legal struggle began.
The Regional Agrarian Reform Adjudicator (RARAD) and the DAR Adjudication Board (DARAB) ruled in favor of the landowner, ordered the cancellation of the EPs, and directed the Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer (PARO) to cover the land under R.A. No. 6657. The Court of Appeals dismissed the petition filed by the farmers on technical grounds - failure of all the petitioner-farmers to sign the verification and certificate of non-forum shopping. On certiorari, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the farmers in 2006. The Court said that there was substantial compliance with technical rules and even assuming that there was no compliance, a relaxation of the rule would be justified for two compelling reasons - social justice considerations and the merit of the Petition.
On the merits, the Court held that certificates of title issued pursuant to Emancipation Patents are as indefeasible as TCTs issued in registration proceedings. EPs and CLOAs are, in themselves, entitled to be as indefeasible as certificates of title issued in registration proceedings. The Court further stated that the recommendation of the DAR's Hacienda Maria Action Team to have the EPs cancelled and the lots covered under the Republic Act No. 6657 with the farmer-beneficiaries later on being issued with CLOAs, would only delay the application of agrarian reform laws to the disputed 277.5008 hectares, leading to the expenditure of more time and resources of the government.
In a very strong language, the Court held that the DARAB was grossly mistaken when it took the position that the EP is not the same as or in the same category of a Torrens title considering that it is a title issued through the agrarian reform program of the government and its issuance, correction and cancellation is governed by the rules and regulations issued by the Secretary of the DAR.
What was deemed as gross mistake on the part of the RARAD and DARAB would take a toll of about nine years of legal battle on the part of the farmers. The members of KAMMPE (Kahiusahan sa Malahutayong mga Mag-uuma Para sa Ekonomikanhong Kalambuan), the farmer-owners in this case, had to endure that long period of uncertainty over their ownership of the land.
But as one of the cases handled by BALAOD-Mindanaw (together with HEED, KAISAHAN, and PESANTEch), the nine-year period of legal battle did not take place merely within the walls of the quasi-judicial bodies and the courts. The handling of Hacienda Maria case was part of BALAOD's advocacy for resource tenure improvement and access to justice. In pursuing the advocacy, the core strategy used was paralegalism. Such strategy basically involves the legal empowerment of the farmers so that at the end of the day, they will have the capacity to discuss their options and make informed decisions on their legal problems. When such legal problems reach the stage of a case in the DAR, DARAB, or the courts, the farmers will continue to actively participate in strategizing for legal as well as extralegal options.
During the duration of the case, BALAOD worked with several partners: the community through the organized farmer beneficiaries or KAMMPE; its Mindanaw-based partners - HEED Foundation, Inc., and its Manila-based partners (KAISAHAN, SALIGAN, and PESANTEch); and other campaign-oriented ARRD networks.
In advocating for the re-affirmation of indefeasibility of farmers' titles through the Hacienda Maria case, several strategies were employed. On the ground, the farmers and local partners regularly participated in legal clinics where options available were discussed. It was also important for the farmers to further strengthen their organization in the light of the protracted legal battle. Networking and campaign at all fronts (at the local and national DAR, in Congress, and in several ARRD advocacy groups) were done highlighting the Hacienda Maria as among the tragic faces of farmers' insecurity despite having been awarded with lands and as a take-off point for policy proposals. In terms of advocacy directed at the Courts, the legal team (which includes the KAMMPE paralegals and partners) employed both legal and metalegal tactics - i.e., legal research and arguments, mobilization, and use of media.
In litigating the Hacienda Maria case, the BALAOD's experience was not limited to a simple preparation and exchange of pleadings. Neither was it a ballgame dictated by its legal advocates. The litigation was still anchored on the empowerment of communities in claim-making for their rightful entitlements. In the process, the skills gained by the farmers did not only help their case but also improved their capacity to engage the authorities in governance. In terms of policy, the successful resolution of the case also contributed to the adoption of the same ruling on EPs and CLOAs as titles in the new CARP extension law.
Indeed, the legal battle over the land spilled over the hearts and minds of the farmers, their partners, and other stakeholders. When the finish line was successfully reached, it was not a simple legal case that won. It was not a mere reiteration of the obvious - of what the law says on EPs and CLOAs as titles. It was the combined blood, sweat, and tears of all the people involved. The battle became a shared journey among the farmers, the legal team, and other advocates who learned from one another and became better persons and advocates in the course of the campaign. But certainly, the result was a sweet, sweet victory - a case won loaded with meaningful experiences. Kudos to BALAOD and Hacienda Maria advocates!