Historic Preservation in the Philippines

Jose Rizal

Jose Rizal once said, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroonan.”
[my translation: “He who does not know how to look back at his origin will never arrive at his destination.”]

This post examines the evolution of the historic preservation movement of the Republic of the Philippines, from its colonial beginnings to the enactment of a comprehensive preservation law in 2010. As a former territory of Spain, Japan, and the United States, with both Asian and Polynesian influences, the history and culture of the Philippines is rich and storied. As a result, the exploration of Filipino efforts to preserve their heritage makes for a fascinating case study.

American Colonial (1898-1946)

After the Spanish-American War, the Philippines was ceded by Spain to the United States for $20 million. Photo: Manila, circa 1898.

After the Spanish-American War, the Philippines was ceded by Spain to the United States for $20 million. Photo: Manila, circa 1898.

Unlike the United States, the historic preservation movement in the Philippines appears to have always been a government-led effort. Ironically, the Philippine preservation movement originated with a law passed by the United States. Act No. 243 was passed in 1901 by the Philippine Commission—the colonial governmental body created by the United States—and declared “that a monument shall be erected to Jose Rizal, the Philippine patriot, writer, and poet, upon the Luneta, in the city of Manila.” Much like the beginnings of the American preservation movement, the erection of this monument to Jose Rizal was clearly intended to inspire patriotism—Mr. Rizal is the embodiment of Filipino patriotism and the father of Filipino nationalism.

The Philippine government did not begin to establish a systematic approach to historic preservation until the 1930s. Even then, the approach to preservation was limited in scope with no regulatory authority. In 1933, American Governor-General Frank Murphy issued an executive order that created a committee to identify, designate, and mark historic antiquities. This executive body, called the Philippine Historical Research and Markers Committee (PHRMC), had no actual control over the preservation of antiquities, as it was only empowered to find and mark properties that, in its estimation, should be preserved.

However, this seemingly slow approach to practical preservation may have been deliberate. Within only a few years after its creation, the PHRMC was indeed authorized to preserve historic sites and antiquities through “the acquisition, by purchase or otherwise, of the antiquities owned by private persons.” After all, it would have been sensible to first identify and catalog the nation’s antiquities before any actual preservation measures were taken. In 1937, the PHRMC was succeeded by the Philippines Historical Committee (PHC) and lasted for over twenty-eight years. In that relatively short time, the PHC identified 444 historical sites and structures and acquired five major historical sites honoring Filipino national heroes.

Republic (1946-1972)

Republic Act No. 841

After gaining complete independence from the United States after World War II, the first preservation-related legislation from the Republic of the Philippines solicited local involvement in the historic sites program. In the main provision of Republic Act No. 841 (RA 841), enacted in 1953, district or city engineers were “designated to take charge of reconstructing, maintaining, protecting and cleaning monuments and historical markers located within their respective jurisdictions.” Unfortunately for local governments, this was an unfunded mandate, as the act placed financial responsibility on the “respective provincial or municipal board, or city council.” Despite the delegation of financial responsibility for historic sites, the national government retained control by requiring local governments to “submit the necessary plans, sketches, or inscriptions to the Philippine Historical Committee…for comment and approval” before the local authorities could erect or allow to be erected a historical monument or plaque.

Perhaps the most important power delegated to local governments through RA 841 was the ability to initiate the preservation of historic sites at the local level. Prior to this act, all nationally significant historic preservation was initiated in a top-down fashion by the Philippines Historical Committee. Under RA 841, local governments were charged with the identification and construction of future monuments, with oversight from the PHC. Although RA 841 seems to intimate a complete delegation of initiation responsibility to local authorities, it is clear from later legislation that the PHC did, in fact, continue to designate historic sites on its own accord. The ultimate purpose of RA 841 may have been to excite grassroots preservation efforts, through local governments, by delegating a small amount of control over the national preservation program.

Republic Act No. 4368

Passed in 1965, Republic Act No. 4368 changed the name of the national monument committee from the Philippines Historical Committee to the National Historical Commission (NHC) and required the Commission “[t]o take charge of all historical activities or projects, not otherwise undertaken by any entity of the government.” Despite the broadening of the NHC’s scope of authority, the Philippine preservation program still remained focused on the management of historic sites.

Cultural Properties Preservation and Protection Act

The historic preservation movement in the Philippines received much support in 1966 when the Cultural Properties Preservation and Protection Act (CPPPA) officially declared preservation to be a state policy:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the state to preserve and protect the cultural properties of the nation and to safeguard their intrinsic value.

While the CPPPA regulated an extraordinarily wide range of “cultural properties,” its greatest innovation was the creation of a new category of preservation-worthy property, called “cultural treasure,” that would receive special protection.


Lawyer, war hero, and career politician, Ferdinand Marcos was elected president in 1965. Photo: Marcos and wife, Imelda, at 1965 inauguration.

Cultural treasures were defined, in a circular fashion, as those cultural properties of such rare or unique “cultural, historical, anthropological or scientific value and significance to the nation” that they should be “segregated and designated as cultural treasures.” In accordance with the procedures of the CPPPA, a cultural treasure would be designated by a “panel of experts” which “shall, after careful study and deliberation, decide which among the cultural properties in their field of specialization shall be designated as cultural treasure.” In sum, designation of a “cultural treasure” was a subjective, yet methodical, determination that was made by a panel of experts on a case-by-case basis.

Although cultural treasure designation provided greater protections to personal property, real property (i.e. buildings, monuments, shrines, and landmarks) cultural treasures were provided limited protection. Before any non-inheritance change in ownership of a privately owned real property cultural treasure could take place, the National Museum must have been notified and given an opportunity to comment on the transfer. Other than this, real property designated as a cultural treasure received no special protection from the CPPPA. Of course, as a cultural property, it would receive various protections, such as income tax deductions for its certified purchase or “[t]hat the government shall be given the first option to buy these cultural properties when placed on sale.”

The main provision within the CPPPA that specifically related to the preservation of the built environment was Section 12, which increased regulatory control and oversight of historic monuments and sites. Inexplicably, the legislature gave this new regulatory authority to the National Museum, rather than the National Historical Commission, which had managed historic sites for over thirty years.

Unlike the more inclusive use of the phrase “historical sites” in other CPPPA clauses, the language used in Section 12 only includes those historic sites that have been officially designated under the national preservation program. However, mere designation as a historic site is insufficient to trigger the special protections offered by Section 12—the site also has to be designated as a “cultural treasure.” Once designated as such, “[a]ll restorations, reconstructions, and preservation of government historical buildings, shrines, landmarks, monuments, and sites…shall be undertaken with the advice and supervision of the [National] Museum.” For privately owned sites, “the Director is likewise authorized to establish a working arrangement…with the view of preserving the original design and artistic value of the same.” While the regulation of privately owned sites is almost entirely limited to a mysterious “working arrangement,” the renaming of any such sites, whether publicly or privately owned, “shall be undertaken only with the advice of the Museum, and the concurrence of the Director of the National Library.”

In addition to identifying historic preservation as a public policy, the Cultural Properties Preservation and Protection Act added several new tools to the Philippine historic preservation program. Some of these tools include:

  • Income tax deductions for preservation investments
  • Right of first refusal for the government when a cultural property is to be sold
  • Reporting requirements (and authority to suspend excavation) when cultural property is unearthed on a historic site, and
  • Criminal penalties for violation of the Act

Notwithstanding these improvements, the program remained lax on the regulation of privately owned historic sites. For example, it still did not authorize the use of eminent domain to promote historic preservation. In fact, the national government could do little more than ask nicely when a private owner of a historic site sought to develop her land in a way that would damage or destroy the historic character of the cultural property.

The passage of the Cultural Properties Preservation and Protection Act, signed into law by President Ferdinand Marcos, marks the beginning of a host of progressive historic preservation laws in the Philippines. An argument could be made that President Marcos is the father of the historic preservation movement in the Philippines, since all major preservation-related legislation was enacted during his tenure, both pre- and post-martial law.

Martial Law (1972-1986)

Presidential Decree No. 260

Near the end of his second (and constitutionally final) term in 1972, Marcos declared martial law, justified by purported threats from communist and Islamic insurgents.

Near the end of his second (and constitutionally final) term in 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, justified by purported threats from communist and Islamic insurgents.

After martial law was declared in the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos created the National Historical Institute (NHI), which replaced the NHC as the lead agency on historic preservation. Besides setting forth incredibly harsh penalties for the desecration of national shrines (10 years in prison and/or a 10,000 peso fine), President Marcos reiterated his commitment to historic preservation by designating several new national cultural treasures and historic sites. He also ensured that funding would be available for the administration of current preservation programs. Presidential Decree No. 260 (1973). More importantly, President Marcos emphasized the importance of historic and cultural preservation by setting forth four reasons for preservation:

  1. To preserve national culture
  2. To better understand the nation’s history
  3. To preserve world culture
  4. To promote tourism

In 1974, Marcos amended the CPPPA “to control the deplorable situation regarding our national cultural properties.” This decree defined the term, “historical site” (“[A]ny place, province, city, town and/or any location and structure which has played a significant and important role in the history of our country and nation”), and also mandated that the sale of all national cultural treasures must be approved—not just commented upon—by the National Museum. To provide the CPPPA with even more punitive power, Marcos established a “division of cultural properties” within the National Museum for the sole purpose of prosecuting violators of this Act.

Presidential Decree No. 705

agenciesPresidential Decree No. 705 (PD 705), which provided for controlled deforestation throughout the Philippines, prohibited “areas needed for…national historic sites” from being “classified as alienable and disposable land.” As perhaps the Philippines’ first authorization of eminent domain for historic preservation purposes, PD 705 provided that if an area which was previously designated as a historic site “shall have been titled in favor of any person, steps shall be taken, if public interest so requires, to have said title cancelled or amended, or the titled area expropriated.” However, this language is stronger than the typical invocation of eminent domain and seems to indicate that the owner’s property rights would simply be “cancelled” or “expropriated” without compensation.

Presidential Decree No. 1505

In spite of Marcos’s early emphasis on the importance of historic preservation, he remained unsatisfied with the efficacy of the nation’s preservation program. Six years into his dictatorship, he was perturbed that “some private individuals and entities [had] undertaken the repair and alteration of historic edifices without the prior written permission of the National Historical Institute resulting in the change of the original features of such edifices.” In all fairness to the property owners, the law at the time did not prohibit the alteration of historic properties without the permission of the NHI; it only prohibited unpermitted archaeological excavations. Nevertheless, Marcos decreed that “[i]t shall be unlawful for any person to modify, alter, repair or destroy the original features of any national shrine, monument, landmark and other important historic edifices declared and classified by the National Historical Institute as such without the prior written permission from the Chairman of said Institute.” Presidential Decree No. 1505 (1978). Although numerous subsequent preservation-related laws were enacted, Presidential Decrees Nos. 260 and 1505 were, together, considered the de facto national historic act of the Philippines for over thirty years.

Republic Revival (1986-present)

Most of the Republic Revival era, thus far, has been marked by a continuation of status quo historic preservation programs with limited enactment of new preservation-related laws. However, in 1994, the Subcommission for Cultural Heritage began to interface with the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA) for the purpose of drafting a new, comprehensive cultural heritage law. Over the next fifteen years, the bill was deliberated by NCCA National Committees (representing the public and private sectors), government cultural agencies (such as the National Museum, the National Historical Institute, the National Library, and the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino), as well as numerous committees from both the Senate and the House of Representatives. On March 26, 2010, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed into law the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009 (NCHA).

National Cultural Heritage Act

In large part, the NCHA was an exercise of pulling together and reconciling all of the disparate preservation-related laws that had been enacted over the past hundred years. However, the NCHA does list some new policy goals and several new practicable tools for preserving the built environment. (While the NCHA covers all areas of cultural heritage including art and intangible cultural property, this examination focuses on the NCHA’s effects on built heritage preservation.) As an example of a new, idealistic policy goal, the NCHA states that the government shall “endeavor to create a balanced atmosphere where the historic past coexists in harmony with modern society. It shall approach the problem of conservation in an integrated and holistic manner, cutting across all relevant disciplines and technologies.”

After over 20 years of rule, the People Power Revolution, commemorated by this monument, overthrew the Marcos regime in 1986.

After over 20 years of rule, the People Power Revolution (aka EDSA Revolution), commemorated by this monument, overthrew the Marcos regime in 1986.

Representing a first in Philippine preservation law, the NCHA uses and defines the term “built heritage” as “architectural and engineering structures…and their settings, and landscapes with notable historical and cultural significance.” The NCHA also provides a non-exhaustive list of examples of built heritage: “bridges, government buildings, houses of ancestry, traditional dwellings, quartels, train stations, lighthouses, small ports, educational, technological and industrial complexes.” The NCHA also clarifies the distinction in nomenclature between historical landmarks, monuments, and shrines. One especially important preservation tool created by the NCHA is the availability of “priority government funding for protection, conservation and restoration” of national historic landmarks, sites, and monuments. These historic sites will also be given “priority protection” during times of armed conflict or natural disaster.

Another new preservation tool created by the NCHA is the ability to designate geographical areas as protected “heritage zones.” These heritage zones are similar in effect to local historic districts in the United States—they focus on maintaining the historic appearance of an area. Although both types of geographical designation are maintained by local governments, the Philippine heritage zones are designated by the national government, whereas the regulated districts in America are locally designated. A national Registry of Cultural Property was also established by the NCHA. Once an immovable cultural property is added to the registry, a corresponding annotation is made on the property’s land title within the Registry of Deeds so that the benefit of historic designation will run with the land.

Under the NCHA, government cultural agencies are empowered with much more control over privately owned cultural property. For example, agencies now have the power to issue a mandatory and legally binding cease and desist order “[w]hen 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.” Cultural agencies also have the power to issue compulsory repair orders for neglected cultural properties. Furthermore, cultural agencies have been granted oversight for the rehabilitation of cultural properties, including approval of “only those methods and materials that strictly adhere to the accepted international standards of conservation.” Private owners of historic monuments and sites must also coordinate with cultural agencies to arrange a schedule for public access.


The Philippine historic preservation movement began as a sporadic, ad hoc monument construction and historic site designation program with little or no regulatory authority. Now, the Philippines boasts a progressive, robust preservation system with strong regulatory powers. Even though the current program is radically more powerful than it was just thirty years earlier, the Philippine built heritage preservation system has maintained its foundational core—national historic sites. In fact, almost all regulatory authority under the National Cultural Heritage Act stems from the designation of a cultural property as a national shrine, landmark, monument or site.

Other governments seeking to emulate the Philippine preservation model should take note of the island nation’s careful and collaborative legislative process, which spanned over fifteen years and involved open communication amongst all affected stakeholders. Despite their success, leaders of the Philippine preservation program should strive to enlist more grassroots support by decentralizing preservation regulatory power and by encouraging local government units to create and experiment with their own preservation programs. Notwithstanding its shortcomings, the Philippine historic preservation movement has grown into an enviable regulatory system that has the potential to effect successful long-term preservation of its historically and culturally significant built environment.

Clint Tankersley is a Georgia attorney specializing in cultural heritage law. Read my bio here.