But first, a peek at the Regalian principle and the power of the executive to reclassify lands of the public domain.
The 1935 Constitution classified lands of the public domain into agricultural, forest or timber. Meanwhile, the 1973 Constitution provided the following divisions: agricultural, industrial or commercial, residential, resettlement, mineral, timber or forest and grazing lands, and such other classes as may be provided by law, giving the government great leeway for classification. Then the 1987 Constitution reverted to the 1935 Constitution classification with one addition: national parks. Of these, only agricultural lands may be alienated. Prior to Proclamation No. 1064 of May 22, 2006, Boracay Island had never been expressly and administratively classified under any of these grand divisions. Boracay was an unclassified land of the public domain.
The Regalian Doctrine dictates that all lands of the public domain belong to the State, that the State is the source of any asserted right to ownership of land and charged with the conservation of such patrimony. The doctrine has been consistently adopted under the 1935, 1973, and 1987 Constitutions.
All lands not otherwise appearing to be clearly within private ownership are presumed to belong to the State. Thus, all lands that have not been acquired from the government, either by purchase or by grant, belong to the State as part of the inalienable public domain. Necessarily, it is up to the State to determine if lands of the public domain will be disposed of for private ownership. The government, as the agent of the state, is possessed of the plenary power as the persona in law to determine who shall be the favored recipients of public lands, as well as under what terms they may be granted such privilege, not excluding the placing of obstacles in the way of their exercise of what otherwise would be ordinary acts of ownership.
Our present land law traces its roots to the Regalian Doctrine. Upon the Spanish conquest of the Philippines, ownership of all lands, territories and possessions in the Philippines passed to the Spanish Crown. The Regalian doctrine was first introduced in the Philippines through the Laws of the Indies and the Royal Cedulas, which laid the foundation that “all lands that were not acquired from the Government, either by purchase or by grant, belong to the public domain.”
The Laws of the Indies was followed by the Ley Hipotecaria or the Mortgage Law of 1893. The Spanish Mortgage Law provided for the systematic registration of titles and deeds as well as possessory claims.
The Royal Decree of 1894 or the Maura Law partly amended the Spanish Mortgage Law and the Laws of the Indies. It established possessory information as the method of legalizing possession of vacant Crown land, under certain conditions which were set forth in said decree. Under Section 393 of the Maura Law, an informacion posesoria or possessory information title, when duly inscribed in the Registry of Property, is converted into a title of ownership only after the lapse of twenty (20) years of uninterrupted possession which must be actual, public, and adverse, from the date of its inscription. However, possessory information title had to be perfected one year after the promulgation of the Maura Law, or until April 17, 1895. Otherwise, the lands would revert to the State.
In sum, private ownership of land under the Spanish regime could only be founded on royal concessions which took various forms, namely: (1) titulo real or royal grant; (2) concesion especial or special grant; (3) composicion con el estado or adjustment title; (4) titulo de compra or title by purchase; and (5) informacion posesoria or possessory information title.
The first law governing the disposition of public lands in the Philippines under American rule was embodied in the Philippine Bill of 1902. By this law, lands of the public domain in the Philippine Islands were classified into three (3) grand divisions, to wit: agricultural, mineral, and timber or forest lands. The act provided for, among others, the disposal of mineral lands by means of absolute grant (freehold system) and by lease (leasehold system). It also provided the definition by exclusion of “agricultural public lands.” Interpreting the meaning of “agricultural lands” under the Philippine Bill of 1902, the Court declared in Mapa v. Insular Government:
x x x In other words, that the phrase “agricultural land” as used in Act No. 926 means those public lands acquired from Spain which are not timber or mineral lands. x x x (Emphasis Ours)
On February 1, 1903, the Philippine Legislature passed Act No. 496, otherwise known as the Land Registration Act. The act established a system of registration by which recorded title becomes absolute, indefeasible, and imprescriptible. This is known as the Torrens system.
Concurrently, on October 7, 1903, the Philippine Commission passed Act No. 926, which was the first Public Land Act. The Act introduced the homestead system and made provisions for judicial and administrative confirmation of imperfect titles and for the sale or lease of public lands. It permitted corporations regardless of the nationality of persons owning the controlling stock to lease or purchase lands of the public domain. Under the Act, open, continuous, exclusive, and notorious possession and occupation of agricultural lands for the next ten (10) years preceding July 26, 1904 was sufficient for judicial confirmation of imperfect title.
On November 29, 1919, Act No. 926 was superseded by Act No. 2874, otherwise known as the second Public Land Act. This new, more comprehensive law limited the exploitation of agricultural lands to Filipinos and Americans and citizens of other countries which gave Filipinos the same privileges. For judicial confirmation of title, possession and occupation en concepto dueño since time immemorial, or since July 26, 1894, was required.
After the passage of the 1935 Constitution, CA No. 141 amended Act No. 2874 on December 1, 1936. To this day, CA No. 141, as amended, remains as the existing general law governing the classification and disposition of lands of the public domain other than timber and mineral lands, and privately owned lands which reverted to the State.
Section 48(b) of CA No. 141 retained the requirement under Act No. 2874 of possession and occupation of lands of the public domain since time immemorial or since July 26, 1894. However, this provision was superseded by Republic Act (RA) No. 1942, which provided for a simple thirty-year prescriptive period for judicial confirmation of imperfect title. The provision was last amended by PD No. 1073, which now provides for possession and occupation of the land applied for since June 12, 1945, or earlier.
The issuance of PD No. 892 on February 16, 1976 discontinued the use of Spanish titles as evidence in land registration proceedings. Under the decree, all holders of Spanish titles or grants should apply for registration of their lands under Act No. 496 within six (6) months from the effectivity of the decree on February 16, 1976. Thereafter, the recording of all unregistered lands shall be governed by Section 194 of the Revised Administrative Code, as amended by Act No. 3344.
On June 11, 1978, Act No. 496 was amended and updated by PD No. 1529, known as the Property Registration Decree. It was enacted to codify the various laws relative to registration of property. It governs registration of lands under the Torrens system as well as unregistered lands, including chattel mortgages.
A positive act declaring land as alienable and disposable is required. In keeping with the presumption of State ownership, the Court has time and again emphasized that there must be a positive act of the government, such as an official proclamation, declassifying inalienable public land into disposable land for agricultural or other purposes. In fact, Section 8 of CA No. 141 limits alienable or disposable lands only to those lands which have been “officially delimited and classified.”
The burden of proof in overcoming the presumption of State ownership of the lands of the public domain is on the person applying for registration (or claiming ownership), who must prove that the land subject of the application is alienable or disposable. To overcome this presumption, incontrovertible evidence must be established that the land subject of the application (or claim) is alienable or disposable. There must still be a positive act declaring land of the public domain as alienable and disposable. To prove that the land subject of an application for registration is alienable, the applicant must establish the existence of a positive act of the government such as a presidential proclamation or an executive order; an administrative action; investigation reports of Bureau of Lands investigators; and a legislative act or a statute. The applicant may also secure a certification from the government that the land claimed to have been possessed for the required number of years is alienable and disposable.