September 30, 2023

A municipal trial court has acquitted former Baguio Rep. Nicasio Aliping Jr., who was charged for violation of Presidential Decree 705, or the amended Forestry Reform Code, over the alleged destruction of a portion of Mount Sto. Tomas forest reserve in Poblacion, Tuba, Benguet in 2014.

In a 21-page decision dated Sept. 29, Judge Noe T. Aquino of the 5th Municipal Circuit Trial Court of Tuba-Sablan said the area where Aliping or his agents introduced improvements is within a private claim by virtue of a tax declaration.

The court said the destruction of vegetation within the claimed property of Aliping is within a private claim and does not fall within the jurisdiction of the criminal charge under Sec. 78 of PD 705, which penalizes the unlawful occupation or destruction of forest and grazing lands.

The decision also stated while Mt. Sto. Tomas was declared a forest reserve by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 581 issued on July 8, 1940, the reservation is subject to prior rights.

Aliping claimed ownership of parcels of land located at Kabuyao, Poblacion by virtue of Tax Declarations ARP 99-0010-05853 and 99-001-05854, both covering an area of 26,885 square meters, which are in the names of Rosalie Liestner and Felimon Coyupan, respectively.

Liestner bought her property from spouses Felimon and Cotina Coyupan, who are long-time residents of Mt. Sto. Tomas, Poblacion, Tuba and whose parents and predecessors-in-interest had been continuously residing in the area as early as 1990. Filemon was born at Mt. Sto. Tomas in 1916.

The court said although the private claim of Aliping is within a forest reserve, it remains not part of the forest reserve.

“And since they are private lands, the case against him for entering and occupying a forest land, perforce, has to fail,” reads the court decision.

Before Aliping bought the parcels of land, he was informed by the Tuba Municipal Assessor’s Office that more than 280 tax declarations and more than 80 titles were issued to private individuals and corporations covering portions of Mount Sto. Tomas forest reserve.

The decision also took note of a Court of Appeals action which implements the Writ of Kalikasan, and the Permanent Environmental Protection Order over Mt. Sto. Tomas implicitly recognized the validity of the tax declarations already issued on properties inside the forest reservation.

This was why the CA earlier tasked the regional Department of Environment and Natural Resources and its attached office, the Environmental Management Bureau, to take short and long-term measures to conserve whatever remains of the Mount Sto. Tomas forest reserve.

The court, meanwhile, explained it is not unmindful of the importance of the Mt. Sto. Tomas Forest Reserve to a safe, healthful, and balanced ecology. 

But it stressed only after these tax declarations have been cancelled and parcels of land, they cover reverted to the government as forest land, can the concerned government agencies institute criminal or legal actions against the occupants if they refuse to vacate after proper demand.

During pre-trial, the court learned Aliping was not issued permit to gather, cut, collect, or remove pine and alnus trees from anywhere within the forest reserve. He was not also issued any excavation permit for his earthmoving activities in the area.

Aliping, however, said he wrote the Mayor’s Office for an excavation permit dated April 14, 2014 and has sent letter to the barangay requesting for an endorsement of his earthmoving activities. – BMC release