In many parts of the country today, both in the cities and in the countryside, syndicated groups, armed with fake land titles and with huge doses of underdog righteousness, are invading large tracts of public and privately-owned land. They swoop in overnight, putting up instant shanties on bare land, bringing in families from nowhere, and giving the seized territory the look of a settled community. The longer they are allowed to occupy the land without being questioned by the authorities, the deeper they dig in, and the more aggressively they defend the property.
Most of the settlers come from the genuinely poor and land-hungry sectors of our society, but their leaders do not. The latter are veterans in the land-grabbing business. They are typically wellconnected racketeers who know which properties are idle, which lands have disputed titles, and which owners are vulnerable or too weak to fight. They are often in cahoots with local officials, and with unscrupulous functionaries at the land registration office.
For a small amount of money, to be paid over a certain period, landless peasants and homeless urban poor families are assigned home lots in these illegally occupied lands. Their pressing needs become the moral cover for the nefarious activities of the syndicates. Their fragile homes and malnourished children serve as the public face of what is at bottom a well-organized crime. Politicians dance carefully around them because of the votes they represent. The mass media hold them up as emblems of an unequal society, oblivious to the white-collar criminals that prey upon them.
Time confers upon them “rights” to these occupied lands, which they often sell to second and third generation buyers. They know the risks they take in occupying what is obviously not uninhabited frontier land. Yet they persist, hanging on to the likelihood that the legitimate owners, just to avoid protracted disputes, may offer them a compromise that assigns them one corner of the property in exchange for vacating the remainder of the squatted land.
Early this year, the University of the Philippines in Diliman fell victim to such massive and coordinated land occupation. On a quiet weekend in February, about 200 people descended on the 77hectare north side portion of the campus along Commonwealth Avenue known to UP students and alumni as the Arboretum. This part of the campus is dominated by the quaint egg-shaped experimental nuclear reactor rising above a patch of forest. The invaders put up shanties and tents along Commonwealth Avenue and pronounced ownership over 54 hectares of the campus.
The settlers, many of them Muslim refugees from strife-torn Mindanao, claimed they had bought their home lots from a certain Abdul Raof Dimaporo. Dimaporo in turn says he bought the property in January 2003 from a Luis Menor, a former security guard in the university. Menor’s claim to the property is based on a Spanish title that he says he bought from Antonio Pael. The Supreme Court has long declared this title spurious.
It is a testimony to the anarchic character of land registration in the country that such spurious documents continue to command attention from anyone at all. The ex-security guard, Menor, had first sold the UP Arboretum to Jorge Chin and Renato Mallari, who somehow managed to register the land in their names. But their alleged failure to complete the payment to Menor prompted the latter to turn around and sell half of the same property to Dimaporo. Dimaporo, in turn, was able to persuade a Quezon City judge to issue a temporary restraining order against Chin and Mallari, who tried to evict them. Incredible! They were all doing business with fake titles, behind the back of a university that was ready to enforce its rights only through legitimate means.
By the time the UP could persuade the Quezon City government and the Philippine National Police to lend a helping hand, the largely Muslim community had grown to more than 2000 people. They had put up about 300 structures, including the shell of a mosque, and several permanent houses made of concrete and steel. The other day, a demolition team came in to clear the area. Fearing violence, the UP administration sought the intervention of respected Islamic leaders. The war against Muslim rebels in Mindanao, and the resentments this induced, had given the situation at the Arboretum a volatility that UP wished to diffuse.
Luckily, violence was avoided. Now, UP has to hire more security guards to protect the area against future intrusions. This is an unwelcome burden to an institution that is already reeling from the impact of annual budgetary cuts. The University of the Philippines has already lost large sections of its campus to illegal settlers. Unable to fence and protect its land area, it has been forced to permit other government offices and quasi-government agencies to build on its land to stop further encroachment by squatters. Lack of resources prevents the university from building essential structures like laboratories, classrooms, research centers, and faculty offices.
As state subsidy to public education declines, the pressure for the UP to generate its own income through joint ventures with the private sector increases. This is a trend that is occurring almost everywhere. Against the voices of those who desperately seek to protect the purity of learning from the contamination of commerce, the university is faced with no choice but to augment the public subsidy it gets with income from other sources. It’s either that or it risks losing the campus to land invaders.
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