A conflicted custodian of our environment

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga’s duty as DENR secretary clashes with her family’s vast landholdings. Yulo King Ranch (YKR) stands accused of land grabbing 40,000 hectares of forests and ancestral domains in Palawan’s Coron and Busuanga towns.

It all began in 1975 with president Marcos Sr.’s Proclamation 1387 of a Busuanga Pasture Reserve. The 1992 National Integrated Protected Areas System Act includes all such lands as NIPAS components. The 2018 Expanded NIPAS Act reiterates this. Both cover Proclamation 1387.

Proclamation 1387 withdrew the 40,000 hectares from sale, settlement or any another exploitation. Busuanga Pasture Reserve became a public domain asset. Forty thousand hectares is ten times the size of Manila.

The Yulo family allegedly came to own the land in 1976. That contradicted Proclamation 1387. Government sequestrations and ill-gotten wealth cases ensued starting 1986. YKR’s cattle ranch was branded “the largest agrarian anomaly.”

The court has appointed Yulo-Loyzaga as family estate executor. That role puts her in opposition to Proclamation 1387, NIPAS and E-NIPAS. Her ability to make unbiased decisions on similar environmental and land-use issues is compromised. How can she fight for ownership of a protected area when the law forbids its private titling and exploitation?

Long-drawn legal battles surrounding YKR illustrate Yulo-Loyzaga’s untenable position. Presenting titles to 888 hectares, the Philippine Agri-Business Center contests the Yulo family’s use of the land and YKR’s occupation.

Verdicts have been complex and inconsistent. A 2009 summary judgment in favor of PABC was reversed in 2014. Still, the court separated PABC’s case from the ill-gotten wealth issue against YKR. Given YKR’s contentious legal status, Yulo-Loyzaga walks the tightrope.

DENR headship requires Yulo-Loyzaga to enforce environment laws and protect natural resources. That includes regulating protected areas like Busuanga Pasture Reserve, where YKR operates.

Her family’s decades-long disputes about YKR’s legitimacy directly conflicts with her duty to impartially monitor protected areas. Personal interest in defending YKR contradicts her public responsibility to protect these lands from unauthorized use and exploitation.

Photo of Yulo King Ranch, for 2018 report on DAR consultation with land distribution beneficiaries.
PNA file photo

This conflict of interest has outraged farmers and environmentalists. Twice in 2016 congressmen demanded probes of Yulo-Loyzaga’s predicament. An ombudsman complaint was filed in 2023 for ethical breaches.

If Yulo-Loyzaga were to enforce Proclamation 1387 and protected area laws, she would have to take legal action against her family’s ranch. In doing so, she could incriminate herself.

On the other hand, for family interests, she could overlook YKR’s contradiction to Proclamation 1387 and NIPAS laws. But she would then neglect her duties as DENR chief.

Yulo-Loyzaga’s handling of the recent Chocolate Hills picnic-resort controversy highlights her quandary. She defended the resort owners’ “prior rights” in the protected area, despite lack of DENR clearances. That shows disturbing prioritizing of private interests over environment protection. The stance mirrors her own in YKR, where her family’s land claim trumps the area’s protected status.

When confronted with issues involving protected areas, Yulo-Loyzaga seems to err on the side of private rights – not environmental protection – even if these rights may be false, unverified or fraudulent. Automatic defense of private interests, at the expense of duty to champion conservation, manifests conflict of interest.

By failing to enforce environmental laws consistently, Yulo-Loyzaga sets a dangerous precedent for others with questionable presence in protected areas. That would open the door for widespread abuse and exploitation of these critical ecosystems. Public interest and biodiversity would be damaged.

Yulo-Loyzaga’s conflict of interest renders her unfit to lead DENR. Her agenda makes impossible her official mandate. Her vested interest casts a pall over DENR actions. Public confidence in DENR’s commitment to uphold nature would erode.

The only remaining course of action is for Yulo-Loyzaga to resign.

Filipinos deserve a DENR secretary who fearlessly champions the environment and repels any subversion of law for private gain. Let her fight for her family interests if she must. But give Mother Earth a fighting chance too.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., dwIZ (882-AM).

Follow me on Facebook: https://tinyurl.com/Jarius-Bondoc

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