[ G.R. No. L-7042, May 28, 1954 ]
CLOTILDE MEJIA VDA. DE ALFAFARA, PETITIONER AND APPELLANT, VS. PLACIDO MAPA, IN HIS CAPACITY AS SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE AND NATURAL RESOURCES, BENITA COMPANA, ET AL., RESPONDENTS AND APPELLEES.
D E C I S I O N
BAUTISTA ANGELO, J.:
It appears that petitioner and respondents filed separately with the Bureau of Lands an application claiming as homestead lot No. 741 of the Carcar cadastre. After an investigation conducted in accordance with the rules and regulations of said bureau, a decision was rendered in favor of petitioner thereby giving course to her application and overruling the application and protests of respondents. In due course, respondents appealed to the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who reversed the decision of the Director of Lands. And her motion for reconsideration having been denied, petitioner interposed the present petition for certiorari.
Respondents in their answer allege that, under section 3 of the Public Land Law, the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources is the executive officer charged with the duty to carry out the provisions of said law relative to the administration and disposition of the lands of the public domain in the Philippines; that the decision which is now disputed by petitioner was rendered after a formal investigation conducted in accordance with the rules and regulations of the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources and on the basis of the evidence adduced therein and, therefore, said Secretary has not abused his discretion in rendering it; and that the decision of the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources on the matter is conclusive and not subject to review by the courts, in the absence of a showing that it was rendered in consequence of fraud, imposition, or mistake other than an error of judgment in estimating the value or effect of the evidence presented, citing in support of this contention the case of Ortua vs. Singson Encarnacion, 59 Phil., 440.
The lower court, after the reception of the evidence, upheld the contention of respondents, and dismissed the petition, whereupon petitioner took the case on appeal to the Court of Appeals. The case, however, was certified to this court on the ground that the appeal involves purely questions of law.
The facts of this case as found by the Director of Lands are: By virtue of an application filed by Maximo Alfafara, the Bureau of Forestry granted him a permit on February 1, 1923, by virtue of which he was authorized to construct and maintain a fishpond within lot No. 741 of the Carcar cadastre. Said permittee constructed fishpond dikes along the side of the land facing General Luna street and running parallel to the river. Said dikes were destroyed by the flood which occurred in the same year. In 1926, the permittee abandoned the idea of converting the land into a fishpond and, instead, he decided to convert it into a ricefield. To this effect, the permittee entered into an agreement with respondents whereby the latter would convert the land into a ricefield on condition that they would take for themselves the harvests for the first three years and thereafter the crop would be divided share and share alike between the permittee and the respondents. In 1930, the permittee ceded his rights and interests in the land to his son, Catalino Alfafara, who continued improving the same by constructing more rice paddies and planting nipa palms along its border. Having converted the land into a ricefield, Catalino Alfafara filed a homestead application therefor in his name while at the same time continuing the same arrangement with respondents as share croppers. Upon the death of Catalino Alfafara in 1945, the respondents, after the harvest in 1946, began asserting their own right over the land and refused to give the share corresponding to Catalino Alfafara to his widow, the herein petitioner.
The claim of respondents that they improved the land in their own right and not with permission of petitioner's predecessors-in-interest, was not given credence by the Bureau of Lands, for its agents found, not only from the evidence presented, but also from their ocular inspection, that the land has been under the rightful possession of Maximo Alfafara since 1923, and that respondents were only able to work thereon upon his permission on a share basis. By virtue of these findings of the Director of Lands, the homestead application of petitioner was given due course.
On appeal however to the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, this official reversed the decision of the Director of Lands invoking the ruling long observed by his department in connection with disposition of public lands which are formerly within the forest zone or under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Forestry. He held that neither petitioner nor any of her predecessors-in-interest had acquired any right under the homestead application filed by each inasmuch as the land covered by them was still within the forest zone when applied for and that, for that reason, the Director of Lands had no jurisdiction to dispose of said land under the provisions of the Public Land Law. He likewise held that, inasmuch as the Alfafaras have not established any right to the land at the time they entered into the contract with respondents to work on the land on a share basis, the relation of landlord and cropper between them did not legally exist and as such did not produce any legal effect. Consequently, he held the Alfafaras cannot be considered as landlords of respondents, and between an actual occupant of an agricultural land which is released from the forest zone and certified as disposable under the Public Land Law, and an applicant whose application expired prior to its certification, the actual occupant is given preferential right thereto over the appellant.
The ruling above adverted to read as follows:
"It is the rule in this jurisdiction which has been followed consistently in the disposition of forest land which have been declared agricultural lands that occupation of a forest land prior to the certification of the Director of Forestry that the same is released from the forest zone and is disposable under the provisions of the Public Land Law does not confer upon the occupant thereof the right of reference thereto under the said law. In the same manner, this office does not give and does not recognize any right of preference in favor of homestead applicants whose applications were filed prior to the certification that the land covered thereby has already been released from the forest zone and is disposable under the provisions of the Public Land Law. In other words, prior to the certification by the Bureau of Forestry that a parcel of forest land is already released from the forest zone and is disposable under the provisions of the Public Land Law, this Department does not recognize any right of preference in favor of either the actual occupant thereof or any homestead applicant therefor. The reason for this is that any permit or license issued by the Bureau of Forestry for a parcel of forest land can not bind the Bureau of Lands to recognize any right in favor of the permittee under the provisions of the Public Land Law; and any homestead application filed prior to the certification by the Director of Forestry is ineffective and subject to rejection. From the time, however, that a parcel of forest land is released from the forest zone and certified as disposable under the provisions of the Public Land Law, the occupation of the actual occupant becomes effective and is recognized by the Public Land Law under section 95 thereof. Also the homestead application filed prior to the certification by the Director of Forestry will become effective from the date of the certification, if the same had not been rejected prior to such certification. But, between the actual occupant of a parcel of agricultural land and an applicant therefor whose application was filed prior to its certification as such by the Director of Forestry, this office always recognizes the preferential right thereto of the actual occupant thereof. In a long line of decisions in appealed cases, this office always maintains that agricultural lands already and actually occupied and cultivated cannot be applied for under the homestead law except by the actual occupant thereof." (Vicente Ruiz et al., vs. H. A. (New), Mariano Ba. Mancao, Isabela, City of Zamboanga, decision dated April 13, 1949 and order dated July 22, 1949.)
The question now to be determined is: Has the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources abused his discretion in reversing the decision of the Director of Lands?
At the outset, it should be stated that the findings of fact made by the Director of Lands had been substantially upheld by the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources. They only differ on the conclusions derived therefrom and on the effect upon them of the law regarding the disposition of public lands which formerly were within the forest zone or under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Forestry.
Thus, the first question decided by the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources is: Has petitioner or any of her predecessors-in-interest acquired any right to the land under the provisions of the Public Land Law? And the Secretary, following the ruling above stated, answered in the negative. His reasoning follows: "Neither Clotilde Mejia Vda. de Alfafara nor any of her predecessors-in-interest could acquire any right under the homestead application filed by each of them inasmuch as the land covered thereby was still within the forest zone and that for that reason, the Director of Lands had no jurisdiction to dispose of said land under the provisions of the Public Land Law." To this we agree, for it appears that the land was released from the forest zone only on August 10, 1949, and the permit granted to Maximo Alfafara to possess the land for purposes of homestead was in 1923. And with regard to Cataiino Alfafara, his son, his application was filed only in 1930.
The second question decided by the Secretary is: What is the legal effect of the contractual relation of landlord and tenant existing between the Alfafaras and the respondents? The answer of the Secretary is: "Considering that none of the Alfafaras has established any right whatsoever to the land in question at the time the contractual relation began, this office is of the opinion and so holds that the relation of landlord and cropper could not and did not produce any legal effect because the supposed landlords, the Alfafaras, have no title or right to the land in question under the provisions of the Public Land Law. In other words, this office cannot see how any of the Alfafaras could be considered landlord of the claimants on the land in question when none of them has any right over said land under the Public Land Law."
With this conclusion we disagree. Even in the supposition that the permit granted to Maximo Alfafara by the Bureau of Forestry to possess the land and work it out for his benefit be against the law- and as such can have no legal effect, the fact however is that Maximo Alfafara has acted thereon in good faith honestly believing that his possession of the land was legal and was given to him under and by virtue of the authority of the law. Likewise, it cannot be reasonably disputed that when Maximo Alfafara entered into a contract with the respondents for the conversion of the land into a ricefield with the understanding that the respondents, as a reward for their service, would get for themselves all the harvest for the first three years, and thereafter the harvests would be divided between them and Maximo Alfafara share and share alike both Alfafara and respondents have acted in good faith in the honest belief that what they were doing was legal and in pursuance of the permit granted to Alfafara under the authority of the law. Having entered into that contractual relation in good faith no other conclusion can be drawn than that such contract has produced as a necessary consequence the relation of landlord and tenant so much so that the respondents worked the land only on the basis of such understanding. And this relation continued not only when Maximo Alfafara assigned his right under the permit to his son Catalino, but also when the latter died and his widow, the herein petitioner, took over and continued possessing the land as successor-in-interest of her husband. And it was only in 1946, after the death of Catalino Alfafara, that respondents got wise and taking advantage of the helplessness of his widow, coveted the land and decided to assert their own right over it by filing their own application for homestead with the Bureau of Lands. Such a conduct cannot be regarded as one done in good faith and, in our opinion, cannot serve as basis for a grant of public land under the ruling invoked by the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
The possession therefore of the land by respondents should be considered as that of a tenant and in this sense that possession cannot benefit them but their landlord, the widow, in contemplation of the rule. As such, the widow should be given the preference to apply for the land for homestead purposes.
We are not unmindful of the doctrine laid down in the case of Ortua vs. Singson Encarnacion, 59 Phil., 440, to the effect that "a decision rendered by the Director of Lands and approved by the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, upon a question of fact is conclusive and not subject to be reviewed by the courts, in the absence of a showing that such decision was rendered in consequence of fraud, imposition or mistake, other than error of judgment in estimating the value or effect of evidence." But we hold that this doctrine does not apply here because we are not concerned with a decision of the Director of Lands which was approved by the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, but one which has been revoked. The philosophy behind this ruling is that if the decision of the Director of Lands on a question of fact is concurred in by the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, it becomes conclusive upon the courts upon the theory that the subject has been thoroughly weighed and discussed and it must be given faith and credit, but not so when there is a disagreement. And even if there is unanimity in the decision, still we believe that the doctrine would not apply if the conclusions drawn by the Secretary from the facts found are erroneous or not warranted by law. These conclusions can still be the subject of judicial review. These are questions of law that are reserved to the courts to determine, as can be inferred from the following ruling laid down in the same case of Ortua:
There is, however, another side to the case. It certainly was not intended by the legislative body to remove from the jurisdiction of courts all right to review decisions of the Bureau of Lands, for to do so would be to attempt something which could not be done legally. Giving force to all possible intendments regarding the facts as found by the Director of Lands, yet so much of the decision of the Director of Lands as relates to a question of law is in no sense conclusive upon the courts, but is subject to review. In other words, any action of the Director of Lands which is based upon a misconstruction of the law can be corrected by the courts." (Shirley vs. Cowan , 91 U. S., 330; Moore vs. Robins , 96 U. S., 530; Marquez vs. Frisbie , 101 U. S., 473; Black vs. Jackson , 177 U. S., 349; Johnson vs. Riddle, supra.)
Wherefore, the decision appealed from is reversed. The court sets aside the decision of the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources dated September 15, 1949 as well as his order dated January 3, 1950, reaffirming said decision. The court revives the decision of the
Director of Lands dated March 18, 1948 and orders that it be given due course. No pronouncement as to costs.
Bengzon, Montemayor, Jugo, Labrador and Concepcion, JJ., concur.
 This doctrine is based on section 4 of the Public Land Law. It provides that the decisions of the Director of Lands "as to questions of fact shall be conclusive when approved by the Secretary of Agriculture and (Natural Resources)."
PARAS, C. J.:
It is true that Maximo Alfafara was granted on February 1, 1923, a permit to construct and maintain a fishpond within lot No. 741 of the Carcar cadastre, but it never- theless appears that said permit was cancelled in 1926 after said fishpond was destroyed by a typhoon. In said year, Maximo Alfafara induced the respondents Benita Compana et al., to convert the former fishpond into a riceland, the agreement being that the crops for the first three years would be for said respondents and that thereafter the crops would be divided equally between the former and the latter. According to the findings of the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, not contradicted in any way by those of the Director of Lands, Maximo Alfafara and his successors-in-interest never worked on the land or spent anything for the improvements thereon. The question that arises is, after the land was declared available for homestead purposes by certification of the Director of Forestry in 1949, or long after the permit of Alfafara had been cancelled, whether the Alfafaras should be preferred to those who actually worked on the land. After the cancellation of his permit, Maximo Alfafara ceased to have any right or authority to continue holding the land. Yet, he was given for several years one half of the crops harvested by the respondents who took over the land in good faith and could already occupy it in their own right. It may fairly be considered that the original holder had impliedly parted with his rights, if any, for valuable consideration. It is plainly unjust, under the circumstances, to deprive the respondents of their priority to the portions of the land actually held by them as homesteads. It appears, however, that there were occupants of the portions of the lot who did not apply for homesteads with the result that said portions may be awarded to the Alfafaras if they are still entitled under the law.
I vote for the affirmance of the appealed decision.
Pablo, J., concurs.