Land conversion in CARP once final cannot be challenged anymore — SC

Published October 7, 2021, 7:48 AM

by Rey Panaligan 

Supreme Court (SC)

The Supreme Court (SC) has scored the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) for its flip-flopping orders on land conversion which declared certain landholdings outside the coverage of the government’s agrarian reform program.

It reiterated that once a conversion order in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) had been issued and had attained finality, it can no longer be questioned.

Resolved by the SC was the petition that challenged DAR’s orders issued between 2006 and 2007 on a land conversion ruling handed down by DAR in 1975.

“Once final and executory, the conversion order can no longer be questioned. It can no 1onger be modified or reversed. Parties cannot assail said order without running afoul of the doctrine of estoppel,” the SC said citing its previous decisions.

The SC ruling which was made public last Oct. 4 and written by Associate Justice Rodil V. Zalameda granted the petition filed by CAT Realty Corporation (CAT) which challenged the 2012 and 2013 rulings of the Court of Appeals (CA).

Case records showed that Central Azucarera de Tarlac, CAT’s predecessor-in-interest, filed with DAR a petition for conversion of 23 parcels of agricultural land, with an aggregate area of 386.7 hectares, located in Bayambang, Pangasinan.

On Sept. 4, 1975, DAR issued the conversion order and declared the landholdings suitable for residential, commercial, industrial, and other urban purposes.

It said the conversion was recommended, after investigation, by the Agrarian Reform Team, the Agrarian Reform District Office and the Department of Local Government and Community Development. It also said the tenant-farmers, the occupant-tillers and/or squatters in the subject land were amenable to the conversion.

As conditions for the conversion, the DAR ordered, among other things, that bonafide tenants should be paid disturbance compensation, should be allocated not less than 300 square meters of land which will be paid at minimum cost, and the displaced tenants, squatters or tillers be given employment priority in any agro-industrial projects that may be set up.

After almost 30 years from 1975 or on Dec. 15, 2004, the conversion order was challenged by the Center for Agrarian Reform Empowerment & Transformation, Inc. (CARET), Alternative Community-Centered Organization for Rural Development (ACCORD), Benjamin C. De Vera, Jr., and Tenario Garcia. They claimed that CAT failed to develop the property.

On Aug. 2, 2006, then DAR Secretary Nasser Pangandaman revoked the 1975 conversion order as far as on areas not developed by CAT.

More than two months later on Oct. 11, 2006, Pangandaman granted the motion of CAT and revoked his Aug. 2, 2006 order as he reinstated in full the 1975 order issued by then Secretary Conrado Estrella. It was found that CAT had paid the disturbance compensation by giving the tenants a subdivision within the property.

But almost a year later on Sept. 6, 2007, Pangandaman reversed his Oct. 11, 2006 ruling and granted the motion filed by CARET and ACCORD. On Aug. 15, 2008, CAT’s motion was denied by Pangandaman.

CAT filed a petition with the CA but it was denied. It then elevated the case to the SC.

In granting CAT’s petition and reversing the CA’s ruling, the SC said:

“At the outset, the Court notes that the Conversion Order dated 04 September 1975 had already attained finality.

“Indubitably, the conversion order of the DAR was a final order, because it resolved the issue of whether the subject property may be converted to non-agricultural use.

“The Court upholds the Order dated 04 September 1975 considering that: (1) the Conversion Order has long attained finality; thus, parties are now estopped from questioning the final and executory conversion order, (2) CAT Realty and its predecessor-in-interest complied with the conditions stated under the conversion order; as such, there was no· sufficient ground to cause its partial revocation, and (3) the subject property cannot be subject to agrarian reform since the same was already declared suitable for non-agricultural use prior to the effectivity of RA 6657 on 15 June 1988.

“Further, Section 46 Article VIII of the 2002 Comprehensive Rules on Land Use Conversion provides that a petition for revocation must be filed within ninety (90) days from discovery of the facts which warrant the revocation or withdrawal, but not more than one (1) year from issuance of the Conversion Order.

“Clearly, private respondents (CARET, ACCORD and others) failed to file the petition for revocation within the 90-day period.

“At any rate, private respondents cannot assert that they belatedly discovered the facts to warrant revocation — only in 2004. Since private respondents claimed to be the legitimate tenants who have long been occupying the subject property, they cannot simply feign ignorance. of the facts and circumstances surrounding the subject property just for the purpose of circumventing the 90-day prescriptive period.

“The subject property has long been declared suitable for residential, commercial, industrial, and other urban purposes under the Conversion Order dated 04 September 1975.

“The Conversion Order had already attained finality and its conditions were duly complied with. Thus, the DAR is bound by such conversion. It bears repeating that once final and executory, a conversion order can no longer be questioned.

“WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The assailed Decision dated 19 June 2012 and Resolution dated 31 July 2013 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 107977 are REVERSED and SET ASIDE. The Order dated 04 September 1975 of the Secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform is REINSTATED. SO ORDERED.”