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Bacolod City, Philippines Monday, August 17, 2020
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OPINIONS

Illegal structures in NNNP

Rock & Refuge

Once again, the issue of illegal structures in the Northern Negros Natural Park in Negros Occidental surfaced when Silay City Mayor Mark Golez issued notice of violations and subsequently cease-and-desist orders to business establishments catering to tourism in barangays Patag and Lantawon recently.

These two barangays of Silay are located within the NNNP, which has been declared as a protected area by virtue of Republic Act 11038, or the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 2018.

Golez claimed the 36 establishments are operating without business permit, building permit and other necessary local permits, and the owners of these tourism enterprises are not paying taxes, depriving Silay City of millions of pesos, in terms of income. These business establishments include resorts, restaurants, and coffee shops.

Golez added that some owners had appealed to him to allow them to continue to operate, as they are willing to comply with the requirements of the city government. However, aware that these locations are within the NNNP, Golez said he should refer the matter to the Protected Area Management Board before taking any further action, which is basically the right thing to do.

The proliferation of illegal structures in the NNNP is not only limited in Silay City but is also true in the town of Salvador Benedicto, and most likely in other parts of the protected area, too. The NNNP covers the cities of San Carlos, Silay, Talisay, Victorias, Cadiz, and Sagay and the municipalities of Salvador Benedicto, Murcia, Calatrava, Toboso, and EB Magalona. It has the largest remaining forest cover among the protected areas in Negros Island and known for its amazing biological biodiversity, with confirmed presence of numerous threatened endemic species. It is also an important watershed.

The presence of illegal structures in the NNNP has been a concern for quite a time, and the PAMB did not take any decisive action on this. These structures were constructed without a permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and approval from the PAMB. Aside from tourism related facilities, there are private vacation houses owned by prominent families that have been constructed in the protected area.

The DENR had once issued cease-and-desist orders on these structures, but, to date, no concrete action has been done resulting in the proliferation of additional structures.

A number of original occupants of the former Northern Negros Forest Reserve had sold their lots to outsiders, who then constructed resorts and vacation houses in the area. Some of these former occupants were holders of the Certificate of Stewardship Contract issued by the DENR. Buying and selling of this land tenure instrument is illegal, as well as the construction of structures and fences without prior permit from the DENR and PAMB. These violations necessitate the conduct of administrative proceeding and eventual filing of cases in court. The local governments covering the NNNP, PAMB and the DENR were probably reluctant to take concrete measures, as reportedly, these new occupants are influential persons in the province.

It is good that the mayor of Silay City started to make appropriate action, and I wonder what would be the action of the DENR and PAMB. I learned that some DENR personnel in the province are insinuating to issue Special Agreement for Protected Areas to the owners of these resorts and private vacation houses, but this is not acceptable, as the occupants already committed violations and they are no longer in good standing.

I am also in the position that the SAPA shall only be issued for purposes of public good, services, and benefits, but not for personal advantage, like private vacation houses. Otherwise, how would the PAMB and DENR prevent others to follow such action?

In Barangay Patag, I am aware that some holders of the CSC started to develop their areas for tourism. This should be promoted by the PAMB so as to establish community-based tourism, but there should be clear regulations. The case of Patag is quite unique because it is also declared as a tourism site with the passage of RA 8059 way back in 1995. That was the time when the NNFR was not yet declared as a natural park. The purpose of Patag being declared as a tourism site and part of the NNNP should, therefore, be harmonized.*

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