Heritage structures and the law

Whether they’ve been to Paris or not, many people around the world mourned upon seeing the Notre Dame Cathedral in flames last month. What is it about this grand structure that caused our collective grief? Is it the fact that it houses important artworks and artifacts including Jesus’ Crown of Thorns? Is it our familiarity with and affinity to the cathedral’s fictional hunchback bell-ringer from that Victor Hugo classic? Is it because this monument is one of the most beautiful landmarks of Europe?

I’d say the most basic reason for the tears and nostalgia is that the building from the 12th century. It stands for a time we can no longer reclaim, a part of history we can no longer recover.

The Philippines is also home to various structures that are of similar significance. In our lands are several properties that showcase our own culture, creativity and ingenuity. Our country is home to six United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites — three cultural sites and three natural sites. The three UNESCO cultural sites are the Baroque Churches of the Philippines, the Historic Town of Vigan and Banaue Rice Terraces. The three natural sites are the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary and Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

Since 2003, the month of May is observed as the National Heritage Month following Proclamation No. 439. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) called on the public to celebrate the occasion to enhance appreciation of Filipino heritage with the theme “Leaders for Heritage.”

Article XIV of the 1987 Constitution provides that the State shall foster the preservation, enrichment and dynamic evolution of a Filipino culture based on the principle of unity in diversity in a climate of free and artistic and intellectual expression. The Constitution likewise mandates the State to conserve, develop, promote and popularize the nation’s historical and cultural heritage and resources, as well as artistic creations.

We have seen, however, in recent years the rapid changes and development of property all over the country at the expense of existing heritage structures. Centuries-old homes, buildings and landscapes representing our rich culture and heritage have been demolished in the name of “development.” But development need not come at such a price. In fact, genuine development should take into account conservation and promotion of culture and heritage.

Republic Act No. 10066 or the “National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009” defines cultural heritage as the totality of cultural property preserved and developed through time and passed on to posterity. A “built heritage” includes architectural and engineering structures, such as but not limited to, bridges, government buildings, houses of ancestry, traditional dwellings, quarters, train stations, light houses, small ports, educational, technological and industrial complexes, and their settings, and landscapes with notable historical and cultural significance.

Every Filipino has the duty to conserve these properties and ensure that all processes and measures of maintaining their cultural significance, including preservation, restoration, reconstruction, protection, adaptation or combinations of these are undertaken.

The historic city of Vigan is a UNESCO Heritage Site.

The law further defines what “cultural property” is and provides for rules and remedies for conserving, developing, and promoting them. Under the law, “cultural property” refers to all products of human creativity by which a people and a nation reveal their identity, including churches, mosques, and other places of religious worship, schools and natural history specimens and sites, whether public or privately-owned, movable or immovable, and tangible or intangible.

All cultural properties declared as national cultural treasures and national historical landmarks, sites or monuments shall be entitled to the following privileges:

1. Priority government funding for protection, conservation and restoration;

2. Incentive for private support of conservation and restoration through the Commission’s Conservation Incentive Program for national cultural treasures;

3. An official heritage marker placed by the cultural agency concerned indicating that the immovable cultural property has been identified as national cultural treasures and/or national historical landmarks, sites or monuments; and

4. In times of armed conflict, natural disasters and other exceptional events that endanger the cultural heritage of the country, all natural cultural treasures or national historical landmarks, sites or monuments shall be given priority protection by the government.

These properties may also enjoy government funding for their protection, conservation and restoration.

The government, through the National Historical Institute (NHI), National Museum and in consultation with the NCCA and Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB) or other concerned agencies shall designate heritage zones to protect the historical and cultural integrity of a geographical area. The local government units concerned shall maintain the said zones.

In a recent trip to Bohol, I observed several abandoned houses that may qualify as heritage homes. LGUs who have the privilege of having these properties should be pro-active in initiating their conservation, protection and development.

Even the renaming of historical streets, buildings designated as cultural treasures or important cultural property is restricted and may not be done, by a local or national legislation, unless approved by the NHI, and only after due hearing on the matter. In fact, the NHI may direct the LGU to restore their original names, also after due hearing, should the latter rename them.

The appropriate cultural agency may issue a cease and desist order when the physical integrity of the national cultural treasures or important cultural properties are found to be in danger of destruction or significant alteration from its original state to suspend all activities that will affect the property. A hearing follows after notice to the owner or occupant of the property.

Privately-owned heritage sites that cannot be maintained by the owner or those that have fallen into disrepair through neglect to such an extent that they would lose their potential for conservation may be ordered by the government to be repaired or maintained by the owner or occupant. Failure to comply may result in the government undertaking the repair for the account of the owner.

The law also penalizes any offender to a fine of not less than P200,000 or imprisonment for a term of not less than 10 years, or both, for  certain acts like destroying, demolishing, mutilating or damaging any world heritage site, national cultural treasures, important cultural property and archaeological and anthropological sites.

It further prohibits one from modifying, altering or destroying the original features of or the undertaking of construction or real estate development in any national shrine, monument, landmark and other historic edifices and structures, declared, classified, and marked by the NHI, without prior permission.

The challenge for us is to find the right balance between development and conserving and promoting culture and heritage because these properties represent our identity as a nation. We owe it to our children and future generations.

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Raymund may be reached by email at [email protected]. Visit www.mblawofficesph.com for more details.