A forest zone in Barangay Data in Sabangan, Mountain Province will now be reclaimed for the public’s use after the Supreme Court recently ordered a permanent environmental protection order (PEPO).
Associate Justice Jhosep Lopez of the SC’s Second Division, in a 22-page decision, denied the consolidated petitions for review on certiorari filed by petitioners spouses Robles and Rose Maliones, et al.
The petitions challenged the rulings of the Court of Appeals which had affirmed the Regional Trial Court’s grant of environmental reliefs under the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases in favor of Mario Timario, Jr., as one of the 41 respondents.
The SC has upheld the findings of the RTC and the CA that there exists an actual or imminent threat that can be attributed to Maliones et al., including the activities they are conducting on the land that violate environmental laws and cause prejudice to the life, health, or property of residents of Barangay Data.
Also, the SC has affirmed that since the land is presumptively part of the public forest, the acts of the petitioners of fencing, planting, and building on the land are contrary to the provisions of Presidential Decree 705 or the Forestry Code, particularly Sections 51, 52, 53, and 78.
The High Tribunal said there is no evidence on record that petitioners obtained the requisite permits or authorization to enter, occupy, and clear the forest land they claim.
The Community Environment and Natural Resources Office has reported that petitioners’ earth-moving activities were being done on a portion of the public forest, which were not rebutted by the petitioners.
On Oct. 30, 2015, the respondents launched a citizen suit through a petition for enforcement of rights and obligations under environmental laws, cancellation of tax declarations, issuance of temporary environmental protection order (TEPO) and PEPO against the petitioners.
The citizens claimed that Maliones et al. were issued tax declarations over the portions of the land in sitios Am-amoting and Batacang in Data, which were classified as outside of the alienable and disposable zone by the Director of Forestry.
This enabled the petitioners to improve the lot including bulldozing, cutting trees, earthmoving, fencing and conducting kaingin destroying the natural view of the site, and excluded the public from its use and enjoyment.
On Nov. 5, 2015, the RTC issued a TEPO ordering petitioners to cease and desist from bulldozing, cultivating, introducing improvements, and other earth-moving activities on the land.
The TEPO was made permanent by the RTC on Oct. 10, 2016. The court has ordered the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Cordillera to prevent petitioners from converting the portion of the forest zone covered by their tax declarations into vegetable farms and from engaging in other illegal activities.
The RTC decision was affirmed by the CA until the case reached the SC.
The SC decision clarified that the present petition under the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases is not the proper remedy to assail the validity of the tax declarations in the name of petitioners, nor to seek the recognition of the native title petitioners claim to have inherited from their predecessors.
The SC decision said it shall “refrain from resolving the underlying issues on the ownership of the subject land and the recognition of the parties as indigenous cultural communities/indigenous peoples in the present environmental case which must be addressed in the proper case and in the correct forum.”
But the decision stated it is free to grant reliefs available to the residents in accordance with the law.
With this, the SC issued the PEPO, ordering the petitioners to cease and desist from conducting illegal activities that cause damage to the forest zone and pollution of the soil, water, and the environment.
They were also prevented from claiming private ownership over the communal forest of Batacang and Am-amoting covered by their tax declarations. Petitioners were likewise ordered to remove their barbed wire fences that restrict the community from the use and enjoyment of the communal forest zone.
The SC also ordered the DENR-CAR to prevent the petitioners from converting the forest zone into vegetable farms and their other illegal activities; plant trees at the denuded portions of the area; guard and patrol the area from violators; and perform all measures needed to protect and preserve the environment.
The office of the provincial assessor and municipal assessor were also ordered to desist from issuing tax declarations without compliance with the provisions of Section 84 of PD 705 and other related laws. They were also ordered, where appropriate, to cause the cancellation of the tax declarations of petitioners over the land. – Ofelia C. Empian