NEDA: APECO to become agro-aqua zone

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) recommended that the controversial Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO) be turned into an agro-aqua and ecotourism zone rather than a freeport. 

In a statement on Monday, May 6, NEDA said its study team said the area "has intrinsic economic potential as an agro-aqua and ecotourism zone" given the resources available in the area. 

NEDA Agriculture Staff Director Mercedita Sombilla explained in an email to Rappler that an agro-aqua zone is different from a freeport zone in the sense that only the raw materials in the area will be used by locators. 

"This is (an) agro-aqua ecozone, not a freeport zone. The projects that are going to be set up are intrinsic to the raw materials/natural resources available in the place. Unlike other export zones where processing plants are footloose activities that locate in the area," Sombilla said.

The Dumagat tribe members are protesting the APECO development, claiming that the property sits on their ancestral lands. They had marched from Aurora to Manila in December 2012 to lobby the national government to withdraw financial support to APECO. In a dialogue, President Aquino said he had ordered for the review of the issue.

Show your master plan

The NEDA stressed that no amount of investment will be given to APECO until and unless it is able to produce its development master plan and land use plan, which they have not submitted. 

"Further investment support for the installation of all these additional facilities will be contingent on APECO’s completion of its master plan, and other essential corporate business plans and policies in place, including its land use plan," NEDA said. 

"Partnership with local government units and other national agencies through dialogues and consultations would truly make the effort supportive of inclusive growth," it added. 

Given the the amount of public funds already spent, NEDA is of the view that giving up on developing the area will be more wasteful. The area has to have the minimum facilities to attract locators and undertake operation. 

The critical facilities required are: 

The vision

Sombilla said the plan for APECO as an agro-aqua and ecotourism zone will involve the use of the rich natural resources of Casiguran and adjacent municipalities. This means focusing development on raw materials such as coconut, banana, bamboo, rootcrops, and marine commodities, among others. 

The master plan, she said, must include stratgey on harnessing these resources to ensure sustaiable use and development of resources.

"Eco tourism is planned to also harness not only the development of the pristine beaches but also to come up with activities that involve appreciating the rich flora and fauna/biodiversitiy. (The) development strategy should include preservation/conservation plans of these resources," Sombilla said. 

NEDA said local stakeholders note that "for so long, government had neglected the municipality (i.e Casiguran)." They believe the employment generation effect of the ecozone will also serve to preserve the forests that are being exploited due to the lack of livelihood opportunities in the lowland. 

Access to the zone is via the almost completed Baler-Casiguran national road, which is part of the government’s national road network development initiative. 

"A well-defined market for outputs within and outside of the ecozone as well as the abundant agri-aqua raw materials and human resources in the area serve as a strong draw for locators," NEDA said. 

"This new plan would generate employment and spur development not just in the catchment area of Dilasag-Casiguran-Dinalungan in Aurora, but also in the nearby provinces," it added.

Master plan

NEDA Director General Arsenio Balisacan told Rappler in an interview on Monday, May 6, that the master plan that APECO will submit to the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) must ensure that:

Balisacan is optimistic that APECO will be able to submit the master plan and land use plans soon. He said these are expected given the assessments being done by various government agencies.

What's next?

Balisacan said the NEDA has not submitted its full report on APECO to the President. However, they've sent an executive summary to Malacañang that contained the salient points of NEDA's assessment.

Balisacan stressed that these are only recommendations that may or may not be accepted by President Aquino. He added that other agencies are also doing an assessment of various concerns in APECO, including the Department of Justice, which is in charge of the legal points in the issue.

He explained that NEDA's part in the assessment is only on the economic concerns. Balisacan said the NEDA was only asked to find out if it makes sense for government to continue investing in APECO.

"We'll get instructions [likely] later but we've rendered our opinions, our assessment because what we're asked to make is an assessment if it makes economic sense to pour public funds into the project. The next step is given those results in the assessment of NEDA, the other technical working groups, the executive branch will make (it's) decision," Balisacan explained. - Rappler.com