Philippines - Context and Land Governance | Land Portal
Farm Worker Luzon. Photo by Wayne S. Grazio, 2015. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

By Anne Hennings, peer-reviewed by Karl Carumba, land rights expert, Philippines

The Philippines is a resource-rich Southeast Asian archipelago composed of more than 7,000 islands. As of 2020, agriculture, forestry, and fishing contributed 8.8 % to the GDP and provided livelihoods for one quarter of the population [1]. The agricultural sector is divided fourfold into crops, livestock, poultry, and fishing. 

Rooted in colonial plantation setups, land is highly unequally distributed until today. Land reform began with the American occupation with the passage of Tenancy Act of 1933. Subsequent government administrations enacted their respective land reform programs with the latest being the passage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (amended by RA 9700) of President Cory Aquino. Asset reform measures were also enacted, such as the Urban Development and Housing Act (UDHA, RA 7279), the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (RA 8371), and the Fisheries Code (amended by RA 10654), to combat poverty and empower landless farmers and indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, these asset reforms are poorly implemented and 70 % of rural people remain landless. While considerable swaths of land have been redistributed, the most productive and fertile private agricultural lands remain with wealthy private landowners. Lack of access to land and natural resources is a key driver of conflict, poverty, and an obstacle to national development. This is also mirrored in the sprawling informal settlements in the cities.

The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries with yearly typhoons, earthquakes, and floods which particularly affect farming and fishing households. Additionally, the country has to contend with two protracted armed conflict, the Maoist insurgency -the longest running in Asia - and the secessionist rebellion in the southern Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao that was triggered and fueled by unequal access to land compounds people’s food and tenure insecurity [2]. Furthermore, the country faces severe soil and water degradation, deforestation, weak land management especially at the level of Local Government Units, as well as overlapping and conflicting legal frameworks.


Land legislation and regulations 

Since the 1930s there have been various attempts to implement agrarian reform as a social justice measure to change the prevailing situation of unjust and inequitable ownership of land and resources by few individuals [3]. the highly unequal Philippine land sector. Until the late 1980s, however, more than 70 % of the agricultural land remained in the hands of a few farm owners [4]. The holdings of the “hacienderos” go back to Spanish (and later US) colonial rule. The most recent push to land redistribution followed the overthrow of the Marcos’ regime with the new Constitution of 1987 specifically calling for a new agrarian reform program to the benefit of land poor and landless people [5]. 

The government adopted a number of progressive laws to curb poverty; notably the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) in 1988 last amended in 2009 [6]. Based on the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, CARP seeks to provide Social Justice for landless farmers and farm workers through the redistribution of agricultural lands. By 2015, the government had distributed 4.8 million hectares to almost three million beneficiaries [7]. However, these numbers have not been validated independently. Nonetheless, some of the most fertile lands remained in the hands of wealthy landowners [8]. Other studies question the positive socio-economic impact of the reform and criticize CARP’s strong emphasis on landlord compensation and their say in selecting potential beneficiaries [9]. The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) is the lead agency responsible for the implementation of the agrarian reform and the issuance of certificates of ownership, and is supported by several other CARP implementing agencies like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture [10]. According to a directive by President Duterte, land distribution under the agrarian reform shall be finalized by June 2022.

As part of the Philippine’s long-term vision “AmBisyon Natin 2040”, the Land Sector Development Framework puts emphasis on mining, forestry, conservation, and settlement questions [11]. The framework aims to improve tenure security, build public confidence in the land administration, and modernize the land market. For many years, the adoption of a comprehensive land use law has been pending due to lack of political will. Only in 2020 did the proposed National Land Use Law make the priority endorsement list of President Duterte. The bill seeks to streamline existing policies and land administration agencies, and to improve land use planning as well as the sustainable use of natural resources [12].   


Mahagony forest. Photo by Daniel Go, 2016. CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Mahagony forest. Photo by Daniel Go, 2016. CC BY-NC 2.0 license


Land tenure classifications 

In the Philippines, land tenure is divided threefold into public, private, and customary land. According to the Constitution, all public domain lands and natural resources are state-owned [13]. State ownership is based on the Regalian Doctrine originally introduced by the Spanish Crown after 1521. Under the Public Land Act of 1936, public land includes agricultural land, forests, land for public infrastructure, and national parks. Public lands may be classified either as non-disposable or alienable/disposable subject to usufruct rights [14]. The governance of public lands faces various challenges such as overlapping and partly conflicting regulations and an uncompleted demarcation process. Customary rights over ancestral lands are recognized both by the Constitution and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) [15]. Private lands are regulated under the Constitution, Civil Code, and other special laws. The DENR issues community-based forest management agreements and foreshore leases that involve forest lands for (renewable) 25 years to qualified beneficiaries. 

The responsibility of land registration for Emancipation Patents, Land Ownership Certificates, and Free Patents lies mainly with the Land Registration Authority which functions as a central repository of all registered and titled land [16]. In general, tenure security is perceived comparatively low in rural and urban areas. 48 % of the adult population feels insecure about their land and property while as many tenants fear eviction by the landowner [17]. Country-wide, only half of all smallholder parcels have been registered in the Torrens Title System due to lengthy and costly procedures [18]. To provide more tenure security to agrarian reform beneficiaries, the World Bank has approved a new land titling project (SPLIT) in 2020 [19]. 

Despite all reform efforts landlessness remains a major challenge for many Filipinos. The institutional set-up suffers from bureaucratic inefficiency – which results in duplicate titles, for example - and the inability to protect property rights [20]. This has led to rising numbers of informal settlements in urban but also rural areas. Legally, informal tenure is decriminalized under the Anti-Squatting Law Repeal Act [21]. In practice, forced eviction and demolitions are still very common. 


Land use trends 

About 53 % of the population live in rural areas with 28 % of the male and 12 % of the female working population employed in the agricultural sector [26]. Sugarcane, rice, cassava, mangoes, pineapple, corn, and coconut are the main agricultural products [27]. Approximately 18.7 % of the total land area are arable, almost all of which are under permanent crops. Soil erosion is a massive problem, and more than one quarter of the country’s territory is prone to droughts, flooding, landslides, and typhoons. Farm-sizes vary greatly from large-scale plantations to less than 3 hectares farms which constitute 89 % of all holdings. Despite various redistribution efforts, about two thirds of the 10.2 million marginal farmers are still considered landless [28]. In addition, the unsustainable use of land poses a problem. For example, large tracts of irrigated lands planted with rice and food crops are converted for commercial, industrial, tourism and residential purposes [29].

The Philippines – particularly its highlands - is the fifth most mineralized country worldwide. The island state globally ranks third in gold, fourth in copper, and fifth in nickel reserves. Furthermore, the Philippines are rich in limestone, marble, oil, and gas. Mining operations often contribute to deforestation, the destruction of ecological systems, displacement especially of indigenous communities, loss of livelihoods, and flooding. 

There is an abundance of (fresh) water resources. However, severe (ground) water degradation and pollution from industrial waste, trash, agricultural chemicals, mining but also logging has led to more than 50 biologically dead or dying river systems. Over-extraction of groundwater has caused water levels to decline, wells and springs to dry up, as well as saltwater intrusion in coastal areas.

Forest cover - including plantations - constitutes 23 % of the land area of which one quarter are protected. As of 2016, only 1.9 % of Philippine’s forests was intact [30]. Widespread logging is responsible for much of the forest loss and degradation. Mining operations, clearing of forests for agriculture and settlements, collection of firewood, and poor management by the government and tenured stakeholders pose additional threats. 


Fishing village, Zamboanga del Norte, Philippines. Worldfish, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license
Fishing village, Zamboanga del Norte, Philippines. Worldfish, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license



Land investments

The government promotes international large-scale agricultural investments and mining as a key driver for economic growth. President Duterte lifted the moratorium on new mining agreements issued by his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, to usher ‘significant economic benefits to the country [39]. Likewise, landowners are encouraged to reinvest the proceeds of the agrarian reform in business operations and create (rural) employment opportunities [40]. CARL directly supports the idea of Agribusiness Venture Arrangements, a Filipino version of contract farming. 

According to the Land Matrix, 5 million hectares have been granted to mostly agricultural investors since 2006. Concluded deals are equivalent to 2 % of the total arable land whereas deals which are still under negotiation would take up 58 %. The majority of investors originates from Asia and Europe following the trend of renewable energy production, like sugar cane and Jatropha [41].

Land-related inequality – which is closely related to (colonial) large-scale plantations - has been a key driver for armed conflict, social unrest, and community mobilizations especially in the rural parts of the country [42]. Causes of conflict range from contested plantation and mining operations to infrastructure investments and their socio-economic and environmental consequences. Land investments are often associated with unjust compensation and a lack of independent environmental and social impact assessments, lack of transparency and consultation, and have caused displacement and loss of livelihoods [43].


Transloading Sugar Cane in Negros Occidental, Philippines. Photo by Stevan Baird, 2015. CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Transloading Sugar Cane in Negros Occidental, Philippines. Photo by Stevan Baird, 2015. CC BY-NC 2.0 license





Figure 1 Timothy Salomon and Nathaniel Don Marquez, ANGOC, 2020


Land acquisitions

The Constitution stipulates that private property and ancestral lands can only be appropriated for public purposes and are subject to just compensation which is defined as the full and fair equivalent of the property [31]. Under the agrarian reform and the Urban Development and Housing Act the state is also allowed to expropriate land for redistribution purposes [32]. The authority to expropriate lies with the Congress but is mostly delegated to government agencies and local government units. During the implementation of the agrarian reform, some local governments used the opportunity to acquire agricultural land for private purposes, however [33]. 

The State can grant public land in the form of land patents, royal grants or decrees that were issued during colonial times, agrarian reform titles, urban land reform titles, or Certificates of Ancestral Domain Claim. Exploration and mining rights are subject to State licenses. Privately owned land as well as alienable and disposable public lands may be purchased or leased. Private corporations that are at least 60 % Filipino-owned may lease up to 1,000 hectares of public land for 25 years (renewable for another 25 years) whereas citizens may lease up to 500 hectares or purchase up to 12 hectares [34]. In addition, there are various tenure instruments that include shared tenancy (kasama system) and leasehold tenancy (buwisan system) [35].

Generally, the existing legal standards are applied inconsistently with higher compliance in projects with international attention [36]. Free, prior and informed consent is only obligatory for acquisitions of ancestral lands. Reform beneficiaries are not allowed to sell or transfer the acquired land which gave rise to an informal land market further undermining the unreliable and incomplete land record system [37]. Inconsistent legislation and inefficient land administration have facilitated unsustainable land use, conflicts over overlapping, fraudulent, or duplicate titles, as well as land grabbing [38]. Legal conflict resolution is time-consuming and not affordable for poor communities.


Community land rights issues

Philippine legislation concerning indigenous matters is among the most progressive in Asia [22]. Not only do indigenous communities have the right to self-governance but also to social justice and human rights. Ancestral domain lands include ancestral lands, residential and agricultural lands, hunting areas, pastures, forests, and cultural places [23]. Titles are issued by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples. Whenever the government grants a concession, license or lease, or entering into any production-sharing agreement, it requires free and prior informed and written consent of the respective indigenous communities. This process is rarely free of interference or coercion, however. 

In practice, indigenous peoples are marginalized and severely affected by eviction for plantation or mining operations and infrastructure projects [24]. The application of the Act is also thwarted by overlapping authority mandates, conflicting boundaries, failure by Congress to provide funding allocation for its implementation,  the incomplete mapping of indigenous lands, and the recognition of property rights within the ancestral domains already existing and/or vested upon the effectivity of the law. This recognition of prior vested rights is critical for ancestral domain claims of IP communities as many of their claims are in areas with approved mining applications, titles of private persons and corporations, and other property or vested claims. Often, ancestral domains overlap with conservation areas, state concessions, or land that was distributed under the agrarian reform [25].


Women’s land rights

In general, the Philippine legislation provides for equal land access. Women may mortgage, manage, encumber, alienate, or dispose their exclusive property without the consent of their spouse. The administration and enjoyment of community property  [44]and conjugal partnership [45] shall belong to both spouses, but in case of disagreement the husband’s decision prevails subject to recourse by the wife for proper remedy. Widows are compulsory heirs and are entitled to make their own will [46]. Likewise, customary law in the northern and central parts of the country provides equal access to land. However, customary tenure tends to privilege male ownership to land in practice [47]. A different picture unfolds in Muslim communities in the south where women have little to no independent access to land ownership or use. Wives need the consent of their husbands to acquire or use land and they only inherit half the share [48].

Having said that, some statutory laws indirectly discriminate against women’s access to land. While the latest amendment to the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law puts special emphasis on women’s empowerment, seasonal farmers – most of which are women – rank only third in priority under the law [49]. In cases of resettling indigenous people, the government grants land titles to the head of the family, which is usually male. 

The Philippine society is characterized by deep-rooted patriarchal norms and gender images. Despite the Philippine Plan for Gender-responsive Development (1995-2025), women have remained largely excluded from land-related decision-making processes or farmers’ cooperatives. Moreover, women’s access to loans is limited or may require a male co-signature [50].


Urban tenure issues

Nearly one quarter of the Philippine population lives in Metro Manila with rapid urbanization rates all over the country. The lack of access to land and livelihoods has spurred rural to urban migration resulting in growing informal “squatter” colonies on public and private lands in (semi-) urban areas. Families live on railroads, cemeteries, garbage dumps, or ecologically fragile riverbanks. Urban squatters face constant threats of eviction or direct consequences of storms and floods. Evictions usually result in violent confrontations [51].

In 1992, the government adopted the Urban Development and Housing Act. The major framework for urban land reform shall regulate urban growth and ensure the basic right of shelter [52]. It prohibits evictions without due process and resettlement plans. However, secure urban tenure is still largely undermined by overlapping mandates in land administration that led to the issuance of multiple titles as well as contrary and inefficient planning measures [53].


Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Tenure (VGGT)

In response to the challenges of tenure insecurity, conflicting laws, rapid urbanization, as well as disaster and climate change risks, the government decided to mainstream the VGGT in the land and fisheries sector. In this vein, FAO provided capacity building and awareness raising on various government levels with regard to policy development and (alternative) dispute resolution in 2017. Moreover, the Land Sector Development Framework has been updated in line with the principles [54]. However, the government has not yet furthered its endeavors to convert the VGGT into binding law.


Timeline - milestones in land governance

1521 – Introduction of the Regalian Doctrine

Introduced by the Spanish Crown, it establishes the concept of state ownership. 

1930 – Agrarian reform efforts

These were the first but mostly unsuccessful attempts to reform the unequal land sector.

1988 – Adoption of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL)

CARL seeks to achieve welfare for landless farmers and farm workers through the redistribution of agricultural lands. It was last amended in 2009 and shall be finalized by June 2022.

1992 – Adoption of the Urban Development and Housing Act

This milestone Act shall regulate urban growth and ensure the basic right of shelter.

1997 – Adoption of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA)

The Act recognizes customary rights over ancestral lands.

2017 – Mainstreaming the VGGT

In light of high levels of tenure insecurity, conflicting laws, rapid urbanization, disaster and climate change risks, the government seeks to mainstream the VGGT in the land and fisheries sector. 

2020 – New land titling project (STILT)

With this project the World Bank aims to provide more tenure security to reform beneficiaries.


Where to go next?

The author’s suggestion for further reading

The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) provides an excellent overview about the history of agrarian reform in the Philippines.

The Guardian illustrates the impact of land deals and the establishment of an “eco-zone” in Luzon in this video.

Together with GTLN, XFS and UN-Habitat, ANGOC published a resourceful brief on land and resource conflicts in the Philippines. 


*** References

[1] World Bank. 2020. World Development Indicators.

[2] FAO. 2015. Philippines at a Glance. URL:http://

[3] Olano. J.N.D. 2002. Land conflict resolution: case studies in the Philippines. URL:

[4] FAO. 2001. Participation of stakeholders in developing agrarian reform communities in the Philippines. In: Land Reform: land settlement and cooperatives. Rome. 

[5] Government of the Philippines. 1987. Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, Art. 13(4).

[6] Government of the Philippines. 1987 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. Proclamation No. 131. 
Government of the Philippines. 1988. Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law. Republic Act No. 6657, amended by Republic Act No. 9700 in 2009.

[7] World Bank. 2020. PHILIPPINES: New Project to Help Provide Individual Land Titles to 750,000 Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries. Press release, 26 June.URL: 

[8] Government of the Philippines. 2015. “Special Report-Highlights of the 2012 Census of Agriculture.” Philippine Statistics Authority. URL:

[9] Gordoncillo, P. 2012. The economic effects of the comprehensive agrarian reform program in the Philippines. ISSAAS 18:1, 76-86. URL: ; Tadem, Eduardo. 2016. Can Duterte fix agrarian reform? The Inquirer. URL:

[10] Eleazar et al. 2013. Improving Land Sector Governance in the Philippines. Implementation of the Land Governance Assessment Framework. World Bank. URL: 

[11] For more info see: 

[12] Quizon and Pagsanghan 2014. Review of Selected Land Laws and the Governance of Tenure in the Philippines. URL:

[13] GOP. 1987. Constitution. Article 12, Section 2.

[14] Government of the Philippines. 1936. Public Land Act. Art. 12(3).

[15] Government of the Philippines. 1997. Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act. and GOP. 1987. Constitution. 12(5)

[16] Land Registration Act of 1903, Cadastral Law Act of 1913 and the  Property Registration Decree of 1978.

[17] Prindex. 2020. Philippines. URL: 

[18] USAID. 2014. Urban Tenure Assessment for USAID. Manila.

[19] See more info: http:// 

[20] Eleazar et al. 2013. Improving Land Sector Governance in the Philippines. 

[21] GOP. 1997. Anti-Squatting Law Repeal Act. URL: http://

[22] Gollin, Karin L.; Kho, James L. 2008. After the Romance: Communities and Environmental Governance in the Philippines. AUP.

[23] Government of the Philippines. 1997. RA 8371, Section 3(a).

[24] Montefrio, Marvin. 2017. Land Control Dynamics and Social-Ecological Transformations in Upland Philippines. Journal of Peasant Studies 44 (4): 796–816., Huesca, Eliseo F. 2016. Plantation Economy, Indigenous People and Precariousness in the Philippine Uplands: The Mindanao Experience. In: Human Insecurities in South East Asia, ed. by Carnegie et al., 173–192. Singapore: Springer and Wetzlmaier, M. 2012. Cultural Impacts of Mining in Indigenous Peoples’ Ancestral Domains in the Philippines. ASEAS 5(2): 335-344.

[25] Quizon; Pagsanghan 2014. Review of Selected Land Laws and the Governance of Tenure in the Philippines, 26.

[26]  World Bank. 2020. World Development Indicators. URL: 

[27]  FAO. 2015. Philippines at a Glance. URL: http:// 

[28] Elauria, Marilyn M. 2015. Farm Land Policy and Financing Program for Young Generation in the Philippines. URL:

[29] Eleazar et al. 2013. Improving Land Sector Governance in the Philippines.

[30] Global Forest Watch. 2020. Philippines. URL:

[31] GOP. 1987. Constitution. Art. 3(9), GOP. 1997. IPRA.

[32] See also GOP. 1987. Constitution. Art. 13(1).

[33] Tadem, Eduardo. 2016. Can Duterte fix agrarian reform? The Inquirer. URL:

[34] GOP. 1987. Constitution. Art 12(2).

[35] GOP. 1974. Labour Code, Art. 8.

[36] Quizon & Pagsanghan 2014. Review of Selected Land Laws and the Governance of Tenure in the Philippines and Eleazar et al. 2013. Improving Land Sector Governance in the Philippines.

[37] GOP, CARL, Section 2 and 27.

[38] Quizon & Pagsanghan 2014. Review of Selected Land Laws and the Governance of Tenure in the Philippines and Eleazar et al. 2013. Improving Land Sector Governance in the Philippines.

[39] Chavez, Leilani. 2021 ‘Complete turnaround’: Philippines’ Duterte lifts ban on new mining permits. Mongabay, 21 April. URL: 

[40] GOP. 1987. Constitution. Art. 13(8)

[41] Land Matrix. 2019. Large Scale Land Acquisitions Profile Philippines. URL: 

[42] Borras Jr., Saturnino M.; Franco, Jennifer C. 2007. Struggles Over Land Resources in the Philippine. A Journal of Social Justice 19:1, 67-75. Salomon, Timothy; Marquez, Nathaniel Don. 2020. Land and Resource Conflicts in the Philippines. ANGOC, GTLN, XFS, UN-Habitat. URL:, OCASIONES, L. 2018. “You Can’t Have Our Land”: Land Grabbing and the Feminization of Resistance in Aloguinsan, Cebu. Philippine Sociological Review 66: 35-60.

[43] Quizon & Pagsanghan 2014. Review of Selected Land Laws and the Governance of Tenure in the Philippines, 27.

[44] Government of the Philippines. 1986. Family Code, Art. 96.

[45] Government of the Philippines. 1986. Family Code. Art. 124.

[46] Civil Code, 1987, Art. 996, 802 and 803.

[47] FAO. 2002. Gender and law: Women’s rights in agriculture. Rome. 

[48] Code of Muslim Personal Laws, 1977. Article 1.
OECD 2014. Social Institutions and Gender Index 2014-Synthesis Report. URL:

[49] Government of the Philippines. Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (Republic Act No. 6657) 1988, last amended by the Republic Act No. 9700 in 2009, Section 37-A.

[50] Corral 2015. Women’s Land Rights, Gender-Responsive Policies and the World Bank. URL: and Agrarian Reform Law 1988, Section 22.

[51] Eleazar et al. 2013. Improving Land Sector Governance in the Philippines. 

[52] Government of the Philippines. 1992. Urban Development and Housing Act (Republic Act No. 7279).

[53] Delos Reyes, Mario R. et al. 2020. The Philippines’ National Urban Policy for Achieving Sustainable, Resilient, Greener and Smarter Cities. In: Developing National Urban Policies, ed. By Kundu et al., 169-203.

[54] FAO. 2019. Mainstreaming Governance Of Tenure In The Philippines. URL: http://


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