TUBA, Benguet – The Supreme Court (SC) en banc upheld the Permanent Environment Protection Order (EPO) issued by the Court of Appeals covering the 3,114-hectare Mount Sto. Tomas forest reservation to be able to serve its purpose for forest protection, timber production and aesthetic preservation.
In a 19-page decision penned by Associate justice Ricardo R. Rosario, the high tribunal denied the petition for certiorari of former Baguio City Rep. Nicasio M. Aliping, Jr. that sought to reverse the previous decision of the former 4th Division of the Court of Appeals (CA) that issued the PEPO over the said forest reserve way back in May 2015.
In denying Aliping’s petition for certiorari, the SC stated that portions of the assailed CA decision do not violate petitioner’s right to the equal protection of the laws as his invocation of the same is misplaced.
Further, it pointed that specific portions of the CA decision are exclusively directed at Aliping as the same permanently enjoins him and it is only him to develop and enhance his claim located within the Mount Sto. Tomas forest reserve.
Indeed, the High Court recognized that the assailed CA decision does not impose any similar restriction on other residents and other owners of vegetable gardens within the forest reserve even though the proliferation of residential areas and vegetable gardens have been recognized as a potential contributor to the degradation of the water sources of the reserve.
‘Be that as it may, we find that item 4a of the dispositive portion of the assailed decision cannot be considered as discriminatory against petitioner. It should be emphasized that, unlike the other residents and owners of vegetable gardens within the Sto. Tomas forest reserve, petitioner was impleaded as one of the respondents of the kalikasan petition. In fact, petitioner is the only resident and vegetable garden owner within the Sto. Stomas forest reserve that had been so impleaded. The reason behind the disparity is obvious. The kalikasan petition lists, as one of its causes of action, anthropogenic activities specific only to petitioner such as the illegal tree cutting and earthmoving within the forest reserve resulting from a road construction project. No similar activity was inputted against the other residents and owners of vegetable gardens within the reserve,” the decision stressed.
The SC pointed out that the directive is nothing more than a specific remedial response to the earthmoving activities committed by petitioner within his claim that had been confirmed, during the proceedings a quo, to be a major contributor to the siltation of the streams and tributaries leading to the Amliang Dam 3 and the Bued river.
According to the ruling, a similar directive could not have been made against the other residents and owners of vegetable gardens within the reserve because they were never specifically impleaded in the kalikasan petition, nor have they been accused of, much less proven to have engaged in earthmoving activities comparable to that committed by petitioner, thus, the specific portion of the assailed decision was exclusively directed against Aliping.
The EC explained that the prosecution of one guilty person while others equally guilty are not prosecuted, however, is not, by itself, a denial of the equal protection of the laws. Where the official action purports to be in conformity to the statutory classification, an erroneous or mistaken performance of the statutory duty, although a violation of the statute, is not without more a denial of the equal protection of the laws. The unlawful administration of officers of a statute fair on its face, resulting in its unequal application to those who are entitled to be treated alike, is not a denial of equal protection unless there is shown to be present in it an element of intentional or purposeful discrimination.
It stipulated that this may appear on the face of the action taken with respect to a particular class or person, or it may only be shown by extrinsic evidence showing a discriminatory design over another not to be inferred from the action itself. But a discriminatory purpose is not presumed, there must be a showing of ‘clear and intentional discrimination.’
Moreover, the decision revealed that there is simply no evidence that the CA, in formulating the said directive, had been guilty of intentional discrimination against Aliping.
On the other hand, the SC reiterated that the established circumstances clearly showed that the directive was conceived, not to purposely single out petitioner, but merely to provide specific relief to an anthropogenic activity unique only to petitioner. Too, the directive cannot be made to embrace other residents and owners of vegetable gardens within the Sto. Tomas forest reserve because their situation, as far as the present case goes, is different from that of the petitioner.
The SC claimed that Aliping’s invocation of his right to due process in the said case is also misguided. The voluminous records of the case attest that the assailed CA decision, including the subject directive had been the product of bonafide proceedings in which petitioner actively participated. Verily, petitioner had been given ample opportunity to be heard before the verdict against him was handed down. Moreso, the decision found that portions of the assailed decision cannot be considered as arbitrary or oppressive. The directive only permanently enjoins Aliping from performing acts to develop or enhance his claim such as bulldozing, levelling or any earthmoving activity, and continuing with the road construction project which are the same acts identified in the assailed decision to have contributed to the siltation, and continuing degradation of the streams and tributaries leading to the Amliang Dam 3 and Bued river. The directive, in other words, is a necessary thing to do to prevent further damage to the waterways indigenous to the Sto. Tomas forest reserve.
Contrary to the assertions of the petitioner, the SC underscored that there was ample evidence presented during the proceedings a quo linking him to the tree cutting and earthmoving activities in the reserve whether within or without his claim. It emphasized that the CA aptly observed it is conceded fact that the petitioner caused earthmoving activities in his claim without any environmental compliance certificate, tree cutting permit, special land use permit, road-right-of-way or excavation permit.
The SC exhorted that evidence on record proves that the said roads, both going in opposite directions from the claim of the petitioner were not old logging roads as he claims but are newly opened, and has a total length of more than 2 kilometers, which requires a permit pursuant to PD No. 1586.
The decision said that petitioner undertook such activities precisely to improve access between his claim and such roads within the reserve. The confluence of the foregoing circumstances to the mind of the justices, clearly indicates that the construction of the 2 offending roads was made at the behest of Aliping and no other.
The SC insinuated that Aliping is also accountable for the illegal tree cutting and earthmoving activities whether within or without his claim that resulted from the said construction, hence, the affirmation of the assailed decision.