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Converting protected areas First of 2 parts

The issue in Northern Negros Natural Park is getting more intense with the recent action of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in issuing cease-and-desist orders to individuals, who have reportedly constructed vacation houses in the area, particularly in the upland town of Salvador Benedicto.

Murcia Mayor Andrew Montelibano was singled out to have been issued with the order, although the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office has clarified that it will similarly issue CDOs to several other individuals, who have been found to illegally construct structures in the protected area.

Montelibano was reportedly building a rest house in a 90-square-meter lot inside the NNNP. Construction of structures inside the PA without prior approval from the Protected Area Management Board and DENR is a violation of the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, or Republic Act 7586, the main policy governing PAs in the country, like NNNP.

The PAMB, which membership includes Montelibano and other mayors of towns and cities covering the PA, is the site-based policy-making and approving body of NNNP.

While I would say there are a lot of violations on this provision of the NIPAS Act in many PAs in the Philippines, it is good that the DENR is now making this particular requirement of the law feasible in NNNP. The DENR’s action was prompted by the strong stand of Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr. to free NNNP from illegal occupancy and structures. Marañon expressed his displeasure about the findings of the Task Force Ilahas, that about 100 hectares within the NNNP are already encroached on by private individuals from the lowlands.

Salvador Benedicto Mayor Jose Max Ortiz was quoted in this paper last Saturday to have said that he is pushing for the conversion of certain parts of NNNP into alienable and disposable lands, particularly the sites where the town hall, public market, police precinct, schools and other government structures of his town are located. He is also proposing to include the conversion into A&D lands those sites in NNNP that are along the highways, and where houses are already constructed.

The intention of Ortiz is not actually new, since accordingly, there was already a bill filed in the last Congress for this purpose.

The proposal of Ortiz, although quite practical and may even gain support from some residents, should not only be taken in the local context and in isolation with the entire protected areas system in the Philippines. This is relative to the declaration of NNNP as a component of the NIPAS, and therefore, has certain policy implications and may create a precedent that would jeopardize the very purpose and intent of the country’s PA system.

This is where the position of the DENR is very crucial, being the primary government agency mandated to administrator the NIPAS.

Declared protected areas, including NNNP, enjoy the status of being “national parks” in terms of their land classifications, as provided in the 1987 Constitution. These areas are specifically allocated in the same way with the three other land classifications – alienable and disposable lands, forestlands and mineral lands.

Therefore, modification of the boundaries of PAs, like the proposal to declare some parts of NNNP as A&D lands, shall only be allowed through a law passed by the Congress.

This process may sound so simple and easy, but as far as I know, there are no efforts that have succeed in converting any part of the NIPAS sites as A&D lands in the Philippines, since RA 7586 was enacted in 1992.

Ortiz was further quoted in this paper referring to Proclamation 1064, issued by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, that declared parts of Boracay into A&D lands as a precedent case.

While it is true that such proclamation may be used as one of the references in converting portions of NNNP into A&D lands, there are other important circumstances that should be taken into account, and that is the status of NNNP as a PA and one of the Key Biodiversity Areas in the Philippines, a condition that is not comparable with the case in Boracay (to be continued).*

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