Public lands, private uses

A long time ago, people who cleared the land and made it productive regarded themselves as its stewards if not its owners.  Then, government came and declared all land that has not been properly titled as public domain.  Thus, overnight, with the exception of a few who knew the rudiments of land registration, the natives of this land became squatters.  Indigenous Filipinos know this only too well.

Public land has remained the government’s main asset.  This is privatized in a great variety of ways.  Some of it is leased to private entities for long periods. Much of it is sold, or given away.

Government manages to raise a lot of money through privatization. When the transaction is transparent and open to all, and the proceeds are used for a specific social purpose, the public does not mind parting with a portion of its inheritance.  However, it may complain when state property is sold just to augment the government’s regular budget.  For this is like robbing the future generation of its patrimony just to feed the present.

Today much of the available public land is in the hands of many government agencies – departments, boards, bureaus, municipalities, schools, government corporations, etc.  Some, like the Lung Center of the Philippines, manage to metamorphose into quasi-private foundations.  In this form, they then claim sovereign rights over the public lands in their possession.

I believe there is no existing master list of public lands, including those in Metro Manila, which shows their size, condition and location.  Such information, vital to any kind of social planning by the State, is carefully concealed in the inaccessible filing cabinets of various government offices.  An interesting preliminary survey of Metro Manila’s principal land owners, undertaken in 1982 preparatory to the establishment of the first LRT, gives us some idea of the magnitude of the real estate holdings of various government agencies.

A small office like the Civil Aeronautics Administration, for instance, is supposed to own 64 hectares in Metro Manila, while the Land Transportation Commission is listed as having 41 hectares.  The National Government Center covers 247 hectares.  Information like this is a matter of public interest.  But land does not wear identity tags. That is why the public was surprised to learn recently that the farm in the heart of Quezon City on which fighting cocks were being bred by a private lessee was Lung Center land.

Whether as State agencies or as foundations, custodians of public lands have engaged, over the years, in the privatization or commercial exploitation of what is still, in theory, public wealth.  The majority of these transactions however are not known to the public, nor are they conducted through a carefully monitored bidding process.  Thus, we may assume that the public interest is not always assiduously protected in these business deals.

Some of these lands, like those supposedly under the care of the Philippine National Railways, bear all the signs of having been abandoned to landless urban settlers.  The squatting of land is an instance of privatization, except that there is no transfer of money to the public coffers.   Even so, it is not qualitatively different from the illegal sale or lease of public lands to private individuals or corporations.    These lands are being leased for shamefully low fees to favored individuals or corporations, who then sub-lease them to end-users at commercial rates.

We call them rentiers, and they are found at every level of the government hierarchy — shrewd operators who are able to convert their privileged access to public resources into a regular source of income. They own no factory, they employ no workers, and they assume no risk. Their political connection is their only capital.  The expenditure of saliva is the sum total of their effort.

Such rentiers attach themselves to strategically situated politicians and appointed officials usually at the beginning of a new administration.  They are the ones who bother to do research on the kinds of public resources over which the boss exercises control. They skillfully negotiate the private use of these resources, pocketing the bulk of the proceeds while making sure that some token income is reflected as accruing to the office.

Such corrupt practices thrive because the pervasive privatization that is taking place in our country today is hidden from public view.  The secrecy is possible because, in the case of public lands, there is no available central list of government-owned lands.  Nor is there a central office that scrutinizes and approves such transactions.

We may be shocked by the manner in which the Lung Center of the Philippines has used its lands.  But perhaps that is nothing compared to what other government instrumentalities have done to the properties under their trusteeship.  What is ironic is that while millions of destitute families in Metro Manila live dangerously along esteros and under bridges, land that is collectively owned by the Filipino people is being sold or rented for pitiful sums of money to a few lucky and well-connected entities.

If government had some sense and compassion left, it could set aside a small portion of this public land in the city for mass housing, instead of waging a cruel and recurrent war against the urban poor.


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