SC Grants Permanent Environmental Protection Order to Preserve Forest in Mountain Province
December 28, 2023
The Supreme Court has ordered the cessation of bulldozing, cultivating, building of improvements, and other earth-moving activities that cause irreparable damage to a forest zone in Sabangan, Mountain Province.
In a Decision penned by Associate Justice Jhosep Y. Lopez the Court’s Second Division denied the consolidated petitions for review on certiorari filed by Spouses Robles and Rose Maliones, et al. (petitioners). The petitions challenged the rulings of the Court of Appeals (CA) which had affirmed the Regional Trial Court’s (RTC) grant of environmental reliefs under the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases in favor of Mario S. Timario, Jr., et al. (respondents).
On October 30, 2015, respondents instituted 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 permanent environmental protection order (EPO) against petitioners.
Respondents claimed that a parcel of land in Barangay Data, Sabangan, Mountain Province (subject land), where they freely pastured their farm animals and held other community activities, have been issued tax declarations in the names of petitioners. Respondents also claimed that petitioners have introduced improvements in the subject land, leading to the exclusion of the public from its use and enjoyment.
Respondents further expressed concern over petitioners’ alleged violations of environmental laws, including Presidential Decree No. (PD) 705, as amended, or the Revised Forestry Code. According to respondents, petitioners are illegally occupying and destroying parts of the public forest.
Respondents thus sought to enjoin petitioners’ earth-moving and bulldozing activities, cutting of trees, kaingin, and the use of fertilizers and pesticides, as these threaten to irreversibly damage and destroy a part of the public forest. While respondents do not claim ownership over the subject land, they nevertheless prayed for the cancellation of the tax declarations issued to petitioners.
On November 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 subject land.
The TEPO was later made permanent by the RTC in a Decision dated October 10, 2016. The RTC also ordered the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) – Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) to stop and 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 DENR-CAR was also ordered to, among others, cause the planting of trees in the denuded portions of the subject land damaged by petitioners’ activities.
The RTC was affirmed by the CA, prompting the present petitions before the Court.
In resolving the petitions, the Court upheld the factual findings of the RTC and the CA that there exists an actual or imminent threat that can be attributed to petitioners, including the activities they are conducting on the subject land that violate environmental laws and cause prejudice to the life, health, or property of residents of Barangay Data, Sabangan, Mountain Province.
The Court also affirmed that since the subject land is presumptively part of the public forest, the acts of the petitioners of occupying, fencing off, clearing, planting on, sowing on, and building on the subject land are contrary to the provisions of PD 705, particularly Sections 51, 52, 53, and 78.
The Court added that there is no evidence on record that petitioners obtained or possessed the requisite permits or authorization to enter, occupy, and clear the forest land they claim. In fact, the City Environment and Natural Resources Office expressly declared that petitioners’ earth-moving activities were being done on a portion of the public forest. These facts were not rebutted by the petitioners, held the Court.
The Court also 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.
Thus, the Court held 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.”
“Nonetheless, this Court is not precluded from granting reliefs available to [respondents], in accordance with Section 1, Rule 5, of the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases,” stressed the Court.
The Court thus made permanent the TEPO earlier issued by the RTC, and issued an EPO, ordering petitioners to cease and desist from bulldozing, cultivating, introducing improvements, other earth-moving activities, cutting trees, kaingin, and other illegal activities that cause irreparable damage to the forest zone and pollution of the soil, water, and the environment.
They were also enjoined 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 Court also ordered the DENR-CAR to:
- Stop and prevent petitioners from converting the forest zone covered by their tax declarations into vegetable farms, and from engaging in any illegal activities, including cutting of trees, kaingin, earth-moving and land conversion activities, and from using chemical fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides, and other substances that pollute the soil, water, and air;
- Cause the planting of trees in the denuded portions or the rehabilitation of the areas damaged by earth-moving and bulldozing activities;
- Guard and patrol the subject area to prevent the repetition of illegal and destructive activities and cause the apprehension and prosecution of all violators; and
- Perform all needed measures to ensure the protection and preservation of the environment.
The Court further ordered the Punong Barangay of Data, Sabangan, Mountain Province to perform his/her mandated obligation to actively participate in the environmental management and protection programs of the government, and to render assistance in the enforcement of environmental laws and in the apprehension of violators.
The Offices of the Provincial Assessor and Municipal Assessor were likewise ordered by the Court 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 to, where appropriate, cause the cancellation of the tax declarations of petitioners over the subject land.
The foregoing government officials and agencies were further directed by the Court to submit a quarterly report of the actions and measures undertaken in accordance with the Decision. (Courtesy of the Supreme Court Public Information Office)
Full text of G.R. Nos. 252834 and 258836 (Spouses Maliones v. Timario, Jr., February 6, 2023) at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/252834-spouses-maliones-et-al-v-mario-timario-jr-et-al/
Full text of the Concurring Opinion of Senior Associate Justice Marvic M.V.F. Leonen at: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/252834-concurring-opinion-justice-marvic-m-v-f-leonen/