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Delineate business interests from ancestral land claims
by Mau Malanes

A near-tipping point-level of chaos is threatening Baguio, a former Ibaloi land that became a chartered city on Sept. 1, 1909 by the American-established Philippine Assembly.

Earlier on June 1, 1903, the American colonial government’s Philippine Commission designated Baguio as the country’s Summer Capital. Its reason: The center of government was transferred to this mountain resort every summer so colonial officials would escape the heat and dust of Manila.

Designed in 1904 for an ideal population of 25,000 by American architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, Baguio City has since grown in recent years into a densely populated metropolis of more than 300,000. The “summer capital” tag has helped attract more and more people to settle in this 57.5 square-kilometer mountain city.

As of 2010, an average of 5,542 people live in every square kilometer of the city’s inhabited area.

As its population has continued to grow over the years, Baguio apparently has not kept pace with the demands of urbanization as more people have since been seeking to reside here legally or otherwise.

That houses and buildings have continued to rise within formerly pine-clad steep hills, creeks, and watersheds clearly show one thing – the lack of urban planning. Alongside this, concerned citizens say, is the lack of political will to implement government laws and decrees, which, they say, can help officials plan the city well. 

The result is urban chaos in which a considerable number practically wants to appropriate for himself or herself a piece of land in the city at any costs. 

But Baguio’s case is not simply an urban planning mess. The city also remains hounded by an unsettled historical injustice, which the Ibaloi suffered as a result of American colonization.

Along with other indigenous peoples in the country, Ibaloi folk felt victorious after the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act or IPRA was passed in 1997. The historic legislation, despite what many consider as its flaws, was expected to help settle a long history of land grabbing.

But for the legitimate Ibaloi claimants, reclaiming ancestral lands taken from them as a result of colonization proved as difficult as the Lenape’s (Native Americans) desire – if ever they had contemplated about it – to reclaim, among other areas, the site where the American Stock Exchange Building stands in Manhattan.

IPRA promise

Buoyed by the promises of IPRA, some claimants have begun processing their Certificates of Ancestral Land Titles or CALTs at the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, the body mandated to enforce the IPRA.

Early this year, some claimants were put into the limelight when they tried reclaiming a former American colonial government employees’ home-turned hotel atop Session Road.  An NCIP adjudication office granted descendants of Cosen Piraso, a Baguio Ibaloi pioneer, permission to take hold of the city’s oldest hotel, Casa Vallejo, which, they say is within their CALT coverage.

Had they succeeded, the Piraso descendants would have been a showcase for IPRA. Under new management, the city’s oldest hotel would have been possibly renamed “Balei Piraso,” which sounds more indigenous than the hotel’s Spanish name. 

But the Piraso descendants faced opposition from various fronts. There was the Natural Resources Development Corporation or NRDC, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ corporate arm, which has been the custodian of Casa Vallejo in recent years. 

The city government has also questioned the CALTs NCIP issued over government lots. There were also concerned citizens, who fear that Casa Vallejo, which they consider as “a heritage site,” may disappear amid the effort to restore the ancestral rights of the Ibaloi.

Casa Vallejo used to be home to government employees during the years when the American colonial government had developed and populated Baguio from 1909 to 1923, before it was operated as a hotel by Salvador Vallejo, a Spaniard, and his descendants until 2000.

Reports said Casa Vallejo’s plight quickly generated a change.org online petition mounted by Baguio residents to save the historic hotel.

The furor over Casa Vallejo also prompted a congressional inquiry into the CALTs the NCIP issued over government lands in Baguio.

Amid the noise the Casa Vallejo case created, the University of the Philippines Baguio in late January invited concerned leaders and citizens for a public forum. The forum was aimed to look beyond Casa Vallejo and to understand better the whole ancestral land issue in Baguio.

The uproar over Casa Vallejo simmered down after the NCIP national office in early February ordered its regional office here to suspend issuing CALTs. But the suspension was temporary, said NCIP-Cordillera Director Amador Batay-an, who assured legitimate claimants his office will act on their CALT applications once “things have been cleared.”

Beyond Casa Vallejo

Other than Casa Vallejo, the NCIP has granted CALTs and Certificates of Ancestral Domain Titles or CADTs to what the city government claims as government property.

Last October, Baguio Rep. Nicasio Aliping Jr. filed Resolution 419, directing the House Committee on Indigenous Peoples to probe titles issued by the NCIP over city government lands, public places, and reservations.  

This included portions of Wright Park now covered by 29 Transfer Certificate of Titles (TCTs); Forbes Park and Teacher’s Camp reservations, three TCTs; Philippine Military Academy and Loakan Airport airstrip, six TCTs; Baguio Dairy Farm, six TCTs; and Casa Vallejo, eight TCTs.  

After the noise created by the Casa Vallejo case, the House of Representatives Committee on Indigenous Peoples announced in February it would investigate land titles the NCIP issued. 

North Cotabato Rep. Nancy Catamco had written Baguio City Mayor Mauricio Domogan, requesting him to provide his comment or position on the reported controversial issuance of ancestral land titles in the city. 

But even before House inquiries could proceed and produce results, reports about titled ancestral lands being sold are disturbing. Titled ancestral lands inside the reservations of Camp John Hay and the Baguio City Economic Zone are being sold indiscriminately, according to reports quoting the DENR-Cordillera. 

Elsewhere, indigenous peoples take pride in claiming that if one looks at Google Earth, the green patches of the earth, where forests have remained intact, are found in indigenous territories. Reason: IPs have managed their forests in a sustainable manner so much so they would not extract more than what they need, always considering the needs of the next generations (at least until the seventh generation). 

Closer to home, the clan-managed muyong woodlot in Ifugao and the community-protected pine forests of Sagada and other towns in Mountain Province are good examples. Unfortunately, the areas within the vegetable belt of Benguet, where mossy and pine forests have been transformed into vegetable plots, are bad models. 

The reports about Baguio’s ancestral lands being sold, especially to non-indigenous business people, are giving the IPRA a bad name. If this is so, IPRA is practically facilitating the sale of ancestral lands to private individuals, who are free to transform the property into subdivisions or commercial centers, for example. 

Fears and concerns

The IPRA is considered as a “curative law” Congress shaped to help IPs regain what government formerly declared as public lands. 

But concerned citizens have one fear: What if claimants succeed in reclaiming government-declared reserves and the reclaimed lands get sold to private individuals, who, in turn, would develop the lands for commercial purposes? Then there goes the city’s remaining green patches and watersheds.

That ancestral lands can be disposed of by the CALT holder is one of the flaws of IPRA. Section 8(a) of IPRA states that transfer of property rights granted by the CALT holder is allowed only when the transaction involves family members or tribal members. But Section 8(b) implies that the CALT may also be transferred to non-tribal members because it provides the original CALT holder up to 15 years to redeem the property if the sale is “tainted by the vitiated consent of the indigenous cultural community or the indigenous Filipino, or is transferred for an unconscionable consideration or price.”

The eventual sale and transformation of ancestral lands into commercial centers or other purposes have serious implications for the city, which has yet to come up with a comprehensive development plan.

Continuing conversations

The controversy created by the Casa Vallejo case and the reported sale of ancestral lands shows that the IPRA is not enough to “cure” the aftermath disease brought about by American colonization. 

As it has to plan how it develops, the city can look into how ancestors used to resolve community matters and issues. 

As a gateway to the rest of the culture-rich upland Cordillera, Baguio can tap into its own rich cultural tradition such as its tongtong institution to finally help resolve its issues.

Following the tongtong tradition (which is similar to the dap-ay of Mountain Province), the city can continue what UP Baguio began early this year at the height of the Casa Vallejo uproar – a public forum, which UP Baguio Chancellor Raymundo Rovillos calls “continuing conversations.” 

It is at these forums where Baguio’s best minds and hearts converge. From that UP Baguio forum, some recommendations were already put forward, upon which concerned agencies could act. 

For example, University of the Cordilleras College of Law Dean Reynaldo Agranzamendez put to task the NCIP to come out with an inventory of pending CALTs and CADTs so the public will be informed. 

Such recommendation, if acted upon, will definitely help the city in mapping its territory, which is much-needed in urban planning. 

These continuing forums can help expose those who are described as “dubious” ancestral land claimants from the rest who have legitimate claims.

And these forums are also opportunities for ancestral land claimants and the rest of the Baguio citizenry to come face to face and put their heads together in envisioning what is the common good for the city.

Through these forums, government and private sector and experts in various fields – law, urban planning, engineering, management, culture, history, arts, ecology, medicine, farming, and others – can work and collaborate together in salvaging what has remained of this city which every concerned citizen calls his or her home.

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:: Designing the present and future Baguio
:: Saving the Balili River: Count me in
:: The ‘little’ Paradaans you and I can save
:: Traffic: Is there any way out?
:: Curing the ills of overdevelopment
:: When development becomes a bane
:: Preserving Bued River; Protecting a heritage site

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