Negative Effects of Weakened Property Rights: IPRA Law as a Prime Instance

(Important note: although in this article I advocate dismantling the IPRA law, I do not advocate disobeying the law as it currently exists. As a citizen and resident of the Philippines, I abide by all Philippine laws.)

Our 1987 Philippine Constitution defines land ownership as a “stewardship”, which allows us to be administrators of land that we have title to, but not “own” it in the strict sense of the word.

At first glance, this would seem like a good idea borne of a good intention: to prevent misuse of the land that one owns title to. Theoretically the government can come in and correct the situation if you misuse the land, like selling it to a foreigner, for example. However, I don’t think it has improved land use, and it has very negative effects: it has weakened the enforcement of land property rights. I believe the result has been that, in the Philippines more than any other South-East Asian country, we have more land area (land with title) occupied by people who do not own such land and yet do not pay rent either. There are more “squatters” in the Philippines than in Indonesia or Malaysia or Singapore, for example. First World countries like in Europe, America, and Japan have very few land areas (if any) occupied by squatters. In the Philippines, it seems like it’s a permanent problem. It is definitely pervasive: I do not think there is any region in the Philippines in which the squatter problem does not exist. Please do tell me if your region, or even just your local province, does not have squatters.

This stewardship idea has spawned other laws that further weaken the rights of landowners. In my mind, foremost among these laws is the so-called Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA). The idea is to preserve and protect the culture of indigenous tribes, and to grant them large swaths of land that are their “ancestral domains”.

As a side note, needed specially because my family and I have just been directly affected by this law, I have to state categorically that we have nothing against indigenous cultures and I and my family (most specially both of my deceased parents) do and did respect all unique qualities of indigenous culture.

Benefits and Demands of Competition

I believe in a society where everyone has the chance to prosper, but we cannot remove the fact that life itself is competitive. In fact, survival alone can be competitive. We forget how competitive life is in general, and do not see the benefits of competition to society. In a system where competition thrives, it’s not the winner alone that wins: we all benefit by choosing the winner because our very choice, on a daily basis, is founded on which product or company most benefits us. In fact, this competitive arrangement makes it very easy to survive in a capitalist society. In pre-capitalist societies, competition is for basic things like food: we hunt and the better hunter gets more food. Capitalism allows competition to progress from the very mundane and basic survival skills to the very advanced and challenging.

We forget the benefits of capitalism because most of us do not even ascribe these benefits to capitalism, much less to the competition inherent in capitalism. In the local fast food business, for example, not many people realize the intense competition that existed between Mang Inasal and Jollibee in areas where these two companies operate. The benefit to the consumer is tremendous: lower fast food prices, with better quality; and yet not many people even think about it. We all simply go to eat at the place with the most convenient, lowest-priced, and good quality food. (It would appear that because Jollibee has now bought Mang Inasal that such competition is now moot, but that is another subject worth exploring in another blog.)

As another example, very few of us have the time to look into why wages are low in our country and high in countries like Singapore and the first world countries. We believe the left when it asserts that wages are low because of “oppressive” companies like Nike and Apple who manufacture their products in low wage countries and try to keep it low. We don’t see that wages are low in our country because of our own making: we restrict foreign direct investments with our 60/40 rule of land ownership. Without much foreign capital, we rely on local capital which is slowly growing larger but still not large enough. Without enough capital, there is no demand for labor. Without demand for labor, wages are low. Instead of driving away companies like Nike and Apple, we should welcome them in order to enhance the competition for labor. The situation right now is reversed: it is labor that is competing for too few jobs. It’s a good thing the government at least allows us to go out of the country to get a job, but even in this our laws make it difficult and expensive for the OFW to freely get a job outside.

We all try to improve our competitiveness. It is a natural effect of a competitive society. We all went to elementary school because our parents instinctively knew that we would do better (in a competitive society) by having at least elementary education. In fact, we spend an enormous effort to get done also with high school and college. We do a lot of other things to stay competitive in the labor market. The worst thing we can do to our kids is to shield them from competition, and yet that is exactly what the government is doing to indigenous tribes with at least part of the IPRA law. Hiding from competition breeds dependency and welfare mentality. Many of these tribes now cannot survive without government aid.

Capitalism as the Minimum Common Denominator

I believe that capitalist competition can coexist with diverse cultures. The spirit of competition is not anathema to some cultures. Even Muslims who reside in a capitalist society can thrive in that capitalist system, if they choose to. Islam has its own system of government that, in practice, is basically socialist, and so it appears that Muslim culture is not compatible with capitalism. I suggest that this is negated by the fact that devout Muslims can and do prosper in a capitalist society.

The idea of preserving cultures is very much akin to preserving species: the idea is to preserve species without regard to usefulness or benefit to man. Culture preservation, as stipulated in IPRA, does not distinguish between useful and useless (even harmful) practices, customs, and values in indigenous cultures. For example, if an indigenous tribe does not value education, then this law can encourage (instead of frowning upon) such valuation. This law, by discouraging education among some indigenous tribes, therefore stunts the competitiveness of members of such tribes in the larger society.

Instead of blind preservation, I would advocate preservation of selected practices, customs, and values of indigenous tribes. The criteria for selection should be decided not by the government, or even the tribe itself. That decision (on which aspects of a culture to keep or dispose of) should be left to individual families, or even down to individual members of that tribe. In other words, I would advocate doing away with all of IPRA. But this leaves too little to preserve, anthropologists would cry. No, I don’t think things like language, clothing style, a large number of religious practices are too little to preserve.

In practice, capitalism leaves much of any culture alone. The Sikh tribe in India, for example, practices the wearing of very long hair, and covering such hair with a turban. Such practice is preserved by tribe members who live as far physically and culturally as capitalist America.

Stewardship and Ancestral Domain Claims

The stewardship concept of property fits in very nicely with IPRA. Some anthropologists claim that certain indigenous tribes even hold the philosophical tenet that we cannot own land because our existence is limited while land can exist far longer than we can; therefore, it is land that owns us instead of the other way around. We have progressed so far we have forgotten this tenet. It must be ancient. It lost in the battle of ideas a long time ago. Why did it lose out to cadastral titling of land?

At first glance, this ancient philosophical tenet makes sense; but even if it were true that such tenet existed, in practice it would have called for a very oppressive government. If nobody can own land, then only the government can because government can exist for as long as land exists. Therefore, the government should own all land and control its use. Imagine that. If there is no national government that exists, or if the tribe does not recognize any such national government, then whoever is strongest and able to assert control will control land, a situation that is still “competitive” but will only enhance the survival of the strongest, not necessarily the fittest. Moreover, the strongest chieftain in any area will tend to increase his area of control. Centralization of control is inevitable. As usually happens with centrally controlled systems, they lose out to more locally autonomous systems.

Cadastral titling allows for decentralized administration of land. You, the owner of a parcel of land, is responsible for maintaining it, plus you get all the benefits of owning it. If you plant rice in it, for example, you reap all the rice grains such activity produces. If you don’t do anything with your parcel, you don’t get anything except the benefit of a possibly increased price of that land in the future. You pay land taxes annually even if you do not till the land. Whatever you do with that land requires additional capital and risking that capital. If you fail, you can’t charge the government for capital spent; however, if you succeed, the government takes a small portion of your profits.

Cadastral titling has clearly won over the idea of “land owning us”. So why are we going back to the idea that has lost maybe thousands of years ago? Is the granting of “Ancestral Domain” claims in the form “Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title” (CADT) the best way to recognize our indigenous cultures?

What is Respect for Indigenous Cultures?

We do not have to weaken further our property rights in order to accommodate indigenous cultures. Doing so would be logically and practically infeasible, and yet we may have done just this with the IPRA law.

We preserve indigenous cultures and respect them by celebrating their uniqueness in festivals and other acts of government, not by gutting our system of land ownership. Our property rights are already weak as it is, and has been rendered even weaker by IPRA.

We respect an indigenous tribe not by shielding its members from competition, but by teaching them how to be competitive: get an education, don’t get drunk, etc. We respect them by allowing them to preserve those customs, traditions, values that do not conflict with the semi-capitalist system that we have so far established. For example, killing Christians is a practice that cannot be condoned, no matter how one’s culture or religion justifies it. In a similar vein, land grabbing is also a practice that cannot be condoned, no matter how much “ancestral domain” can justify it.

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About ctapang

I am a Software Design Engineer. I have just abandoned the huge army organized to make .Net programming the one dominant programming system. I now program in Typescript which (surprise) is also from Microsoft. Aside from my day job as a programmer, I am also involved in a movement (http://correctphilippines.org) to correct the Philippine constitution. It's an ambitious undertaking in itself, and there's no guarantee that improving our constitution will improve things. However, one thing is certain: if we don't establish a rational constitution, we will continue on our path of self-destruction. What kind of government is best? For me the best government is that which governs the least. We need the government not because it can provide for us but because it keeps us from running into each other. The proper function of government is that of a traffic light: it prevents us from bumping each other, but it does not tell us where to go.
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2 Responses to Negative Effects of Weakened Property Rights: IPRA Law as a Prime Instance

  1. Mario Antonio G. Lopez says:

    A well written essay and certain worth circulating for discussion. I find a number of assertions not in complete correspondence with reality but nonetheless worth the time discussing.

    • ctapang says:

      Thank you Sir Lopez. I welcome your criticism. Yes, I think this essay can be improved. Would you care to point out which assertions are “not in complete correspondence with reality”?

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