The proliferation of informal settlers in urban centers all over the country is a common problem of local officials. These people intrude into private properties, public lands, and forest reservations. Their presence often has a significant impact on the environment and the delivery of basic services to the people, among others. Republic Act (RA) 7277 or the Urban Housing and Development Act, popularly known as the Lina law, specifically provides the guidelines for local governments in dealing with the situation whereby those who built their structures on public lands and private properties before March of 1992 are guaranteed relocation sites.
The move to urban centers primarily for jobs and greater opportunities of people from the rural communities or other poorer areas is the primary factor for the significant increase in the number of informal settlers in Baguio City and the capital town of La Trinidad, Benguet. Legitimate land owners are at the losing end when their properties are squatted upon by purported informal settlers. Often, in the end, they are forced to sell their properties to the illegal occupants just to have peace of mind. Small land owners who worked hard to acquire these properties, who went through the legal process of acquiring them but do not have the necessary resources to immediately develop them, lose out in the end. The government officials’ leniency in the strict implementation of the pertinent rules and regulations governing squatting favours the informal settler more than the legitimate owner. Because of the tedious legal process to retrieve their lands, many landowners tend to give up. The informal settlers, without wasting their time, effort and resources, end up owning a piece of land in the city.
One angle in this issue is the modus operandi of well-resourced land speculators. It has been observed that unscrupulous land speculators resort to legal delays in the cases filed against their eviction just to demoralize the legitimate land owners. Others resort to the law, like the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), or the provision of the Lina Law for relocation sites before abandoning a squatted private property.
Obviously, informal settlers have the guts to fight it out with the legitimate property owners because of the snail-paced disposition of the anti-squatting cases pending with the City’s Anti-Squatting Committee. The Committee has been observed to often tolerate the obvious delaying tactics of some quarters. At times, they seem to favor the concerns of the informal settlers over the valid claims of the legitimate land owners, thus, casting doubts on the credibility of the members.
On the other hand, many landowners are dismayed over the way the city officials handle the valid demolition orders. There are several ways informal settlers get away with their illegal activity. They appeal for a stay in their eviction with a promise to voluntary dismantle their structure but do not keep their word. They go to the local chief executive with drama stories to soften the heart of the concerned officials to grant their appeal for a temporary reprieve. Ironically, after the grant of their request, they go to the extent of harassing the legitimate land owners until the latter give up.
We challenge our city officials to be decisive in the issuance and implementation of valid demolition and court orders to dismantle illegal structures that were erected over public and private properties. Let the demolition of the over 350 illegal structures within the Baguio Dairy Farm and the 60 illegal structures within the BIBAK property along Harrison Road be the test for the local government’s political will in its non-tolerance of informal settlers, especially those who obviously are land speculators or who do not fall under the definition of urban poor.
We call on the barangay officials to fully exercise their mandate and take the primary lead in policing their own ranks. They must demonstrate their political will to stop informal settlers from building structures in the lots they do not actually own. They must be vigilant on what is happening in their areas of jurisdiction and act with timing and precision to prevent the proliferation of illegal structures in their places.
We deplore some of our city officials who tolerate illegal structures in barangays primarily because of fear of losing votes during elections over the interest of legitimate landowners. What we ask is for the fair and just implementation of our anti-squatting laws. We might wake up one day to find that the trees in our forests have been replaced with human structures that affect the state of our environment and health, the scenery and beauty of our city, as well as its cool and romantic weather.
We call on these local officials to act as authorities and not as politicians who prioritise their political survival over upholding people’s legitimate interests, especially small landowners. They must balance the interests of legal owners and the need for housing for those coming to the city for livelihood.