Sunday, July 31, 2011

When Culture Attacks


Good intentions mark the passage of the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, but legal fester points abound.

With not much fanfare, Republic Act 10066, also known as the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, was signed into law on 26 March 2010. The law has, since then, taken effect. But even before it’s full implementation, certain sectors are already pointing out, at least two areas that need discussion and clarification.

For a long time, cultural conservationists have decried the seeming lack of a legal mechanism to save tangible expressions of heritage from being unduly modified or demolished. The Jai Alai building, for example, was torn down on orders of a local government chief despite a loud and strong clamor for its conservation as an architectural jewel and a visible reminder of the rich history of the city. The building was demolished to supposedly give way to a public school. Many years after its destruction, the lot on Taft Avenue where it stood remains vacant.

Buildings, churches, bridges, natural formations, even street names serve as visible historical and cultural markers for a people. The destruction of these structures literally erases our collective consciousness of the past which they symbolically represent. The disappearance or unconsidered modification of these heritage signifiers is—in the era of globalization and cultural homogeniety—equivalent to cultural amnesia.

The NCHA was seen as a way of fighting back at wanton destruction of dwindling cultural resources. The underlying spirit of the law is to arm the cultural agencies and advocates of cultural preservation with a system of legal remedies to help preserve, restore, and maintain cultural heritage in its many forms.

But some sectors are pointing out that some of the provisions are vague or unimplementable. Moreover, that the protective measures provided by the law are restrictive and may even encroach on the Constitutional right to hold property. Consider, for example, the restriction under the new law pertaining to the sale of cultural property.

Article III section 5 which identifies what the law considers important cultural property by presumption. This includes, among others, the works of a Manlilikha ng Bayan or a National Artist.

The subsequent section 11 of the same chapter states that all such cultural property cannot “be sold, resold, or taken out of the country without first securing a clearance from the cultural agency concerned. In case the property shall be taken out of the country, it shall solely be for the purpose of scientific scrutiny or exhibit.”

This provision needs careful clarification since a direct implementation may give rise to absurd situations. When it talks about monitoring the sale or exportation of works of a Manlilikha or the National Artists, does the provision apply to all kinds of work? Clearly, it does apply to works of art, such as painting or sculpture. And it can also apply to the original manuscript of a book authored by a National Artist. But does it apply to each subsequent print of the book? What about if the cultural property is in the form of a movement, dance or a chant? Will performance royalty payments be considered a “sale” so that performance of a dance or a chant original to a Manlilikha require a clearance? What if the work protected is a house or building by a National Artist for Architecture, will its subsequent sale or modification also require the same kind of clearance from the cultural agency?

Will the transfer of the work by any legal means other than sale, such as lease, donation or inheritance, exempt the parties from this clearance requirement? Does this option defeat the purpose of protecting the cultural property?

Another protective principle found in the law involves structures “dating at least 50 years old”, which Article III, section 5 states, can only be modifed or demolished upon the clearance of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. A pressing concern is the manner in which this principle will be implemented if the structure is privately-owned?

There are ancestral houses still standing in Quiapo or Sta. Ana that can fall under this rule. By neglect or lack of resources, a lot of these grand houses have fallen into disrepair or sold to new owners not interested in maintaining the old structure. Can the cultural agency impose upon the owners the obligation to maintain the structure’s historical authenticity?

The law, in Article VII, section 26, can obligate the owner to repair the house by serving “on the owner or occupant of such property, an order to repair or maintain such site. If the owner fails to comply with the said order within thirty (30) to forty-five (45) days, repairs may be undertaken by the appropriate cultural agency for the account of the owner. What is the practical consequence of this provision if the owner, like the house, has fallen into hard times?

A clear and more complicated fester point arises in the case where the owner is interested in demolishing the structure to give way to a more profitable enterprise where the heritage house stands. Extended to the profit mandate of real estate developers, this matter can escalate into an interesting development in the jurisprudence on art, culture and private property.

Everyone agrees that a major part of nation-building is to accord protection to cultural resources by way of restrictions and controls. Under the new law, the cultural agency is given substantial control over the disposition of art objects and buildings. And as one can see, the clash becomes more apparent and complex in cases where the object or building sought to be protected is privately owned.

Hence, the question on everyone’s mind is: Can government interfere in the disposition of private property? And if so, to what extent?

Even in conservation instances where the spirit of cooperation between government and private owner is strong, there are other provisions in the law that need to be carefuly operationalized. A clear institutional framework needs to be laid out to determine the following key issues: What should be required to ensure that the process for de-listing of protected property adhere to democratic processes without being unduly litiguous? What basic standards shall be used for ordering conservation measures? How will disputes on conservation measures, such as adaptive-reuse, be resolved? What is the prioritization process for state support for conservation?

It is understandable how the affected sectors are breathlessly waiting for the law’s implementing rules and regulations. Can this law be implemented effectively without fostering dischord among the various members of the cultural sector? Will there be a way of respecting property rights without diluting the authority of the cultural agencies over our cultural heritage?

For sure, the cultural agencies cannot disregard the concerns of art owners, gallery operatros and real estate developers. At the outset, a balance must be achieved in the light of the Constitutional provision stated in Article III, section 9, which states that “Private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation.”

Therein lies the big challenge.

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