APECO in Aurora: Chaos and paradise
MANILA, Philippines - The province of Aurora has a well-kept secret. Four hours away from the surf-friendly town of Baler is the sleepy coastal town of Casiguran.
At first, Casiguran. It is difficult to love.
There's the 2-to-4-hour land trip from Baler that passes through patches of rough road. There's rain that just didn't want to stop when we came by for a quick visit late February.
But we found out soon enough that sometimes, first impressions don't always last.
Casiguran, like the rest of Aurora, feels like it has been forgotten by time. Taxis are a rare (if not impossible) sight; locals instead travel around the municipality by foot or through their trusty motorcycles and tricycles. Compact sedans don't stand a chance with the patches of road that have yet to be cemented.
A recent typhoon coupled with strong rain caused a part of the highway to break, cutting off the town proper from barangays closer to Baler. When we went there, the city proper could only be reached through a banca or a haphazardly assembled footbridge.
Pollution is practically non-existent. Casiguran Sound, where most residents of Barangays San Ildefonso and Esteves fish, is teeming with marine life. Acres of forest land remain untouched, as most locals have learned to get only what is needed.
Fish-processing facilities are absent in several barangays, particularly in Bianoan, Esteves and San Ildefonso. But locals say they don't need it -- at least for their daily consumption. The catch of the day becomes lunch or dinner a few hours after.
"Dito, hindi tao lumalapit sa isda. Isda ang lumalapit sa mga tao," our guide joked. (Here, people don't go to the fish. The fish go to the people.)
We had the misfortune of visiting right smack at the start of a full moon, which meant fish weren't as abundant as they would normally be.
Our hosts were very apologetic. Had we come at a different time, they said, we would've stuffed our necks in fresh fish and seafood. "Pasensiya na po, ito talaga ang buhay ng mahihirap," one of them told us over a meal of rice and vegetables fresh from their backyards. (Our apologies, this is how poor people live.)
Most locals lived simple lifestyles but in many ways, they differed from most of the Philippines' rural communities. I spoke to Tatay Ely, an upland farmer. He moved to San Ildefonso before Martial Law, settling in an untouched parcel of mountain land. He spoke about how different the coastal barangay was when he first came -- from a community of less than 10 families, he now lives in a bustling fishing and upland farming community.
Some time during Martial Law, he witnessed air strikes from the Philippine military, done to weed out rebels who sought refuge in the mountains of San Ildefonso (they eventually moved away to nearby provinces, he said).
The mountains provide for their family. Simple as his life may be, 3 of his children have college degrees and are eking out a living in Metro Manila, although they come back home to help during the harvest season.
But he's also witness to how things have remained the same in his barangay. Roads are still unpaved, infrastructure virtually non-existent, and their land -- which they've been working hard on for the last 50 years -- is still not theirs. He is one of the many upland farmers in Aurora who want the land they've tilled to finally be their own.
His wish for the government? For them to support and augment their existing livelihood: processing facilities for their products, roads to make the most of their harvests, and a stable stream of electricity in the barangay.
His wishes weren't very lofty. At 70 years old, he said he looks forward to doing the same things he's been doing in the past 50 decades or so. The last thing he wants is idle time.
Another local, Angelina Turno, has lived in Barangay Bianoan since 1964. Originally from Catanduanes, she was nostalgic when asked about the changes in her adopted hometown.
"Paglipat pa lang namin dito, kalabaw lang... paragos ang inaano ng kalabaw. Yun ang sinasakyan namin," she said. (When we first moved here, carabaos were the only means of transportation). Only recently has infrastructure flourished in the municipality, she added.
Calm and peaceful as Casiguran may be, the municipality is caught in the middle of a hot issue. In December last year, nearly 200 locals marched from Casiguran to Aurora to protest the Aurora Pacific Ecozone Project (APECO). Those against it claim the project will take away their land and way of living. Those for it say it will bring forth much-needed progress.
It's being painted as a battle of the local church community against the provincial government. APECO was created in 2007 through Republic Act 9490, a measure sponsored by incumbent Aurora Rep Sonny Angara in the House of Representatives and his father, Sen Edgardo Angara in the Senate.
Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, Sen Angara's sister, is the incumbent governor of Aurora and is gunning for her nephew's current position. Sonny Angara, meanwhile, is a senatorial candidate in the administration coalition.
Those in favor of the ecozone dismiss the anti-APECO group, led by Casiguran parish priest Father Joefran Talaban, as mere noise. "We don't know what his intentions really are, but they don't seem very priestly," said APECO president and CEO Malcolm Sarmiento in an interview with Rappler.
Also in December, another march related to APECO took place. Sarmiento said nearly 1,000 employees, contractors, and other stakeholders marched from Casiguran to Baler in support of the ecozone.
As of posting, the ecozone is being reviewed by NEDA; APECO is confident NEDA will see through noise and realize the project's potential. The group against it, meanwhile, hopes the review will unveil what they say is a bad plan for Casiguran.
Pro- and anti-APECO groups coexist, albeit rather awkwardly, in Casiguran. Another resident of San Ildefonso, Jun, is against APECO. He lives less than a hundred meters away from Noli Estales, a beneficiary of an APECO subproject.
"Hindi naman kami nag-aaway," Jun told us. (We don't fight). But during a one-hour visit to their part of the barangay, we were witness to the tension between the two groups. Anti-APECO members say one of the ecozone's projects, a seaweed cultivation system, is a waste of government money.
"Sabi nga namin, pangangalagaan namin ang [seaweeds project] para mapatunayan namin sa mga kalaban namin na hindi totoo yung mga sinasabi nila," Estales told Rappler. (We told ourselves that we would take good care of the seaweeds project so we can prove to our enemies they are wrong.)
Beauty in chaos
Casiguran in all its beauty is an example of what can happen when policy, politics, and contrasting concepts of progress collide.
Much has been said about the issue. World-renowned urban planner Felino Palafox, who initially mapped out APECO, is one of the more prominent dissenters to the project. Lawyer Christian Monsod, Sen Serge Osmeña, and an Ateneo de Manila University-based movement are other prominent opposers of the plan.
Sarmiento urged those against the project to "leave them alone and to keep an open mind while NEDA reviews the project. "We'll do our thing and offer them economic benefits after a certain time," he said.
"[Our goals are] jobs, livelihood, increase income. To me, if there are no obstacles, if there are no asungot (pests) there... it's a simple enough job," he added.
A lot of change is set to take place in Aurora, even as opposing groups continue to view progress in different ways. Lifestyles and livelihoods will change, for better or worse.
But with the 2013 mid-term elections and the NEDA review of APECO coming up, things are at a standstill in Casiguran. Those for and against the ecozone continue to co-exist, just like they've always been doing. - Rappler.com
HOW TO GET THERE (from Metro Manila)
- From Cubao, take a bus to Baler, Aurora. You can opt for the regular airconditioned bus (P450/head) or the "executive" bus (P700/head). The regular bus takes longer because of the pitstops. Although more expensive, the "executive" bus takes to you Aurora in 5 hours.
- Upon arriving in Baler, take a van (P200/head) or bus to Casiguran (P150). Now it gets a little tricky--if you want to get to the town proper, land travel may be an issue during the rainy season. When we went there, the town proper was cut off from other barangays because of damage to the highway. But don't worry, you can also take a bangka from Baler to Aurora proper.
Here's an extra tip: if you'll be in Baler before lunch, it's best to take the bus. Taking the van may be the more comfortable option, but you have to wait until it gets filled up. If you're in a rush, this simply won't do. The last bus to Casiguran from Baler leaves around lunchtime.
Prone to motion sickness? Pop a tablet or two before your trip. The road to Casiguran (as of writing) can be a rough and winding.