Legal Status of Parcels of Land in Boracay

If you’re planning to purchase or deal with land located in Boracay, you may want to check on two things: (1) whether the parcel of land belongs to the portion already declared as agricultural, as this is the only portion which may be alienated or disposed of; and (2) if it is classified as agricultural land, whether there is sufficient basis for the owner to claim title to it, as discussed in the case digest below.

The recent case decided by the Supreme Court (Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources vs. Yap, G.R. No. 167707, 8 October 2008) is a consolidation of two petitions, both of which center on whether the private claimants have a right to secure titles over their occupied portions in Boracay.  The twin petitions pertain to their right, if any, to judicial confirmation of imperfect title under Commonwealth Act (“CA”) No. 141, also known as the “Public Land Act”. They do not involve their right to secure title under other pertinent laws.

Boracay Island in the Municipality of Malay, Aklan, with its powdery white sand beaches and warm crystalline waters, is reputedly a premier Philippine tourist destination.  The island is also home to 12,003 inhabitants who live in the bone-shaped island’s three barangays.

In 2006, during the pendency of the first petition (for confirmation of imperfect title over parcels of land in Boracay), President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued Proclamation No. 1064:

  1. classifying Boracay Island into 400 hectares of reserved forest land (protection purposes) and 628.96 hectares of agricultural land (alienable and disposable); and
  2. providing for a 15-meter buffer zone on each side of the centerline of roads and trails, reserved for right-of-way and which shall form part of the area reserved for forest land protection purposes.

In deciding the matter, the Supreme Court extensively discussed the Regalian Doctrine and traced various laws governing land ownership and registration. The Regalian Doctrine dictates that all lands of the public domain belong to the State, that the State is the source of any asserted right to ownership of land and charged with the conservation of such patrimony. Thus, all lands that have not been acquired from the government, either by purchase or by grant, belong to the State as part of the inalienable public domain.

A positive act declaring land as alienable and disposable is required.  In keeping with the presumption of State ownership, there must be a positive act of the government, such as an official proclamation, declassifying inalienable public land into disposable land for agricultural or other purposes.

All lands not otherwise appearing to be clearly within private ownership are presumed to belong to the State. The burden of proof in overcoming the presumption of State ownership of the lands of the public domain is on the person applying for registration (or claiming ownership), who must prove that the land subject of the application is alienable or disposable.  To overcome this presumption, incontrovertible evidence must be established that the land subject of the application (or claim) is alienable or disposable.  There must still be a positive act declaring land of the public domain as alienable and disposable.  To prove that the land subject of an application for registration is alienable, the applicant must establish the existence of a positive act of the government such as a presidential proclamation or an executive order; an administrative action; investigation reports of Bureau of Lands investigators; and a legislative act or a statute.  The applicant may also secure a certification from the government that the land claimed to have been possessed for the required number of years is alienable and disposable.

In this case, no such proclamation, executive order, administrative action, report, statute, or certification was presented to the Supreme Court.  The records are bereft of evidence showing that, prior to 2006, the portions of Boracay occupied by private claimants were subject of a government proclamation that the land is alienable and disposable.

It was Proclamation No. 1064 which positively declared part of Boracay as alienable and opened the same to private ownership. There was nothing invalid or irregular, much less contrary to the Constitution, about the classification of Boracay Island made by the President through Proclamation No. 1064.  It was within her authority to make such classification, subject to existing vested rights. In issuing Proclamation No. 1064, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo merely exercised the authority granted to her to classify lands of the public domain, presumably subject to existing vested rights.  Classification of public lands is the exclusive prerogative of the Executive Department, through the Office of the President.  Courts have no authority to do so.  Absent such classification, the land remains unclassified until released and rendered open to disposition.

Private claimants are not entitled to apply for judicial confirmation of imperfect title under CA No. 141.  There are two requisites that must be complied with:

  1. open, continuous, exclusive, and notorious possession and occupation of the subject land by himself or through his predecessors-in-interest under a bona fide claim of ownership since time immemorial or from June 12, 1945; and
  2. the classification of the land as alienable and disposable land of the public domain.

The second requisite (alienable and disposable land) is absent because, as discussed, the island remained an unclassified land of the public domain and, applying the Regalian doctrine, is considered State property. Where the land is not alienable and disposable, possession of the land, no matter how long, cannot confer ownership or possessory rights.

The private claimants may not also apply for judicial confirmation of imperfect title under Proclamation No. 1064, with respect to those lands which were classified as agricultural lands.  Private claimants failed to prove the first element of open, continuous, exclusive, and notorious possession of their lands in Boracay since June 12, 1945.

The continued possession and considerable investment of private claimants do not automatically give them a vested right in Boracay.  Nor do these give them a right to apply for a title to the land they are presently occupying. Nevertheless, the private claimants may resort to the following:

  1. those with lawful possession may claim good faith as builders of improvements.  They can take steps to preserve or protect their possession.
  2. They may look into other modes of applying for original registration of title, such as by homestead or sales patent, subject to the conditions imposed by law.
  3. More realistically, Congress may enact a law to entitle private claimants to acquire title to their occupied lots or to exempt them from certain requirements under the present land laws.  There is one such bill now pending in the House of Representatives.  Whether that bill or a similar bill will become a law is for Congress to decide.

(Note: This case digest is presented solely for discussion and should not be interpreted as a legal opinion.)

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