Aquino orders review of APECO
MANILA, Philippines - Eighteen days since they started their protest march from Aurora province to Manila, the 120 residents of Casiguran town got their first wish. President Benigno Aquino III granted them a meeting on Tuesday, December 11, at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City.
The farmers got the chance to personally ask the President to put a stop to the Aurora Pacific Ecozone and Freeport Authority (APECO). They also want him to cut government funding allocated to the project.
Also present during the meeting were key Cabinet members, APECO officials, and members of the anti-APECO movement.
But the President eventually broke their heart. After a two-hour meeting, Aquino could not make a commitment.
"Sabi nila tigilan ko yung budget, bigay mo to. Hindi ako diktador eh. Bilang Pangulo, Chief Executive, ano ba ang i-eexecute ko? Batas. Pero habang batas [ang APECO], obligado akong ipatupad," Aquino said.
(They asked me to cut the budget of APECO. But I am not a dictator. A law created APECO. I am obliged to enforce it.)
What Aquino promised was a review of the situation. "We need to be fair. Kailangan masiguro muna bago natin i-cancel [ang project]. At the end of the day, I don't want to face the people of Aurora and realize na pwede pala yung APECO," Aquino added.
Aquino said the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) will spearhead an independent review of the project. Representatives from the marchers will be part of the review committee, as well as representatives from APECO.
Unhappy with the President's response, the marchers got emotional. "Hindi kami magtitiis ng lakad mula Aurora hanggang dito para lang ibale-wala ang aming paghihirap," said one of the marchers, emotional towards the end of the dialogue.
(We didn't brave the walk from Aurora to Manila only for our difficulties to be ignored)
Land grabbers? Informal settlers?
Aquino said he expects initial findings from NEDA in a week. But lawyer Christian Monsod, who has been vocal in opposing APECO, doubts the President's timeframe. He expects it in a month's time, he told Rappler.
A separate study will be done by the justice department and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) to determine the use of land reserved for the Aurora State College of Technology. Anti-APECO proponents say the company is only using the school to justify "land grabbing."
APECO, meanwhile, said the alleged victims of land grabbing are informal settlers.
"Bakit hindi na lang muna pagamitin sa magsasaka?" said Aquino, adding that so far, CHED has yet to finalize plans for the land.
(Why don't be let the farmers use the land?)
During the dialogue, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje reassured locals that their Integrated Social Forestry Program will be renewed after it expires in 2014. "Kahit andiyan ang APECO, di kayo pwedeng paalisin (Even if APECO is there, you cannot be forced out)," he said. -Rappler.com