MANILA, Philippines – December is usually a time of celebration, family reunions, and for the financially fortunate, shopping sprees.
But for residents of Casiguran, Aurora, the month of December will be spent fighting for the land they call home.
120 farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, and other residents from Casiguran are marching to Manila in hopes of convincing government to put a stop to APECO, or the Aurora Pacific Ecozone and Freeport Authority.
The project hopes to pave the way for social and economic development in Aurora and nearby provinces.
The residents of Casiguran don’t see the same bright future for the province. The 120 residents, representing close to 3,000 families from the town, will be traveling more than 300 kilometers to call attention to alleged “legalized land grabbing” and human rights violations in the name of the ecozone.
They started marching on November 24 and are set to arrive in Manila on December 10, in time for Human Rights Day. They will also seek a dialogue with the President on December 13.
Casiguran’s location is key in making the ecozone work. Nestled between the provinces of Isabela, Quirino, and Nueva Ecija, APECO positions itself as a “transshipment hub of the Pacific.”
APECO investors are also entitled to a slew of incentives which include an income tax holiday, accelerated depreciation, capital equipment incentives, deferred imposition of minimum corporate income taxes, among others.
The project also claims to be sustainable, pushing forward the creation of “industrialized green communities.”
But a 2012 report published by the Roman Catholic Prelature of Infanta, Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund and the Mensen Met Een Missie urged the Philippine government to abolish APECO altogether, citing the following reasons:
- Violation of the rights of Casiguran’s marginalized sectors
- Food security risks for the region caused by the displacement of the farmers, fisherfolk, and indigenous peoples of Casiguran
- “Massive adverse ecological effects” to the area
- Non-compliance with “basic project standards”
APECO deputy administrator and spokesperson Ken Avestruz denied accusations of landgrabbing — they’ve been negotiating with private landowners to buy land, he said. In fact, they’ve bought land at almost double the original zonal value.
Since its implementation, Avestruz said APECO has always kept the locals in mind — the farmers, fisherfolk, and the indigenous Dumagats. He especially takes offense at accusations that APECO was violating the rights of indigenous peoples.
‘For the people’
“The provincial [National Commission on Indigenous Peoples] commended APECO in its efforts to help the Dumagats. We prioritize them in our projects,” he said.
Avestruz said the “legitimate” leaders of the Dumagats are supportive of the ecozone. Those who did join the march, he said, are only a minority.
Talaban said some Dumagats have been won over by APECO through “government resources.”
“May mga sweldo yung ibang Dumagat as bantay-gubat para maakit nila,” he said. (They’re given salaries as forest guards so they side with APECO.)
It isn’t true that only a “minority” of the Dumagats are against APECO, he said. “Hindi naman sa marami sila or hindi, pero kung sino ba ang tama.” (It’s not a matter of how many are against APECO, but of who’s telling the truth.)
APECO and the Anagaras have also questioned reports that the 120 or so farmers were representing 3,000 families in Casiguran.
Sen Angara, in a privilege speech delivered before the Senate on November 28, pointed out that based on the last census, only 1,336 households were present in the areas under APECO.
Casiguran parish priest Father Joefran Talaban said the exact number of families doesn’t matter. “3,000 or not, there are people who will be affected. Let us not be technical about it,” he told Rappler.
“Kahit isa lang yan, kapag may nasagasaan ang karapatan, kailangan ipaglaban.” (Even if only one family is affected, if someone’s rights are being violated, you have to fight for them.)
The special ecozone has also been accused of harassing and coercing locals into giving up their land. The alleged harassment, anti-APECO groups say, peaked in 2010.
Talaban said he was a victim of harassment and intimidation. In June 2010, a blast occurred in his residence, punching bullet holes and shrapnel fragments in his bedroom. He said initial investigations suggested his advocacy was the motive for the alleged attack.
Despite results of the initial investigation, Avestruz said APECO had nothing to do with the incident. “That happened a long time ago and that didn’t come from us. This project is for the people,” he said.
From ASEZA to APECO
Controversy is nothing new to APECO.
Aurora Rep Sonny Angara told the Inquirer on Tuesday, November 27, the issues raised by the marchers are “rehashed every time the budget of APECO is discussed in Congress.”
Avestruz said it’s a case of misunderstanding.
“If it’s really true that there are some people who are against APECO, [it’s because] they don’t understand the project,” he told Rappler.
The special ecozone was created in 2007 by Republic Act (RA) 9490, sponsored by Sen Edgardo Angara and his son, Aurora Rep Sonny Angara, who is running for the Senate in 2013. Back then it was called the Aurora Special Economic Zone, run by the Aurora Special Economic Zone Authority.
From a 500-hectare project, the special economic zone was expanded to more than 12,000 hectares 3 years later. Through RA 10083, the project then adapted the name it is known by now.
Rep Sonny Angara is a member of the APECO board. His aunt, Aurora Governor Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, is vice-chairperson of the board. The two Angaras’ positions in APECO are such because it is mandated by RA 9490 — the incumbent governor and congressional representative of Aurora must be among the members of the board.
Political dynasty ‘oppression’
It comes as no surprise that the Angaras have been accused of abusing their political power in Aurora.
On November 27, Sen Sergio Osmeña III joined the call of the Casiguran protesters and called the ecozone “an example of how a whole town can be oppressed by one political dynasty.” The 3 Angaras are poised to do a “rigodon” of positions come 2013.
The youngest, Sonny Angara, is seeking a spot in the Senate. His father Edgardo Angara, is running for governor, while his aunt, who is the incumbent governor, will be seeking to take over Sonny’s seat in Congress.
In the past, Sonny Angara said that while he was part of a political dynasty, it is their legacy in the province that makes them different.
“Nakaupo po kami ng siyam na taon, at siyam na taon iniimbitahan namin na inyong tingnan kung ano ang nagawa namin,” he told Rappler in an earlier interview. (We’ve been in power for 9 years and in those 9 years, we invite you all to see what we’ve done.)
In a text message, Angara said, APECO, is about finding a way to solve the problem of poverty and joblessness in the area.
“I wish [those against APECO] could come up with alternative solutions rather than destroy institutions that have been built up and will outlast all of our terms in office,” he added.
Journey to Malacañang
Nearly a week into the march, Talaban said spirits remain high.
This, despite news that the Senate on November 28 shot down Osmeña’s proposal to slash APECO’s budget from over P350 million to P3.5 million.
“Hindi nagtatapos ang laban, may Malacañang pa. Pursigido sila,” said Talaban of the marchers. (The fight isn’t over, Malacañang is still an option. The marchers are determined.)
Local parishes, BECCs, and local IP communities have been supporting them along the way. During their stop in Baler on November 28, the marchers received over P9,000 in donations from locals.
Florentina Solis, a farmer from Casiguran, said they can’t afford to give up. “Eh kung ibigay namin [yung lupa namin], saan kami hahanap ng pagkain?” (If we give up our land, where will we find food?)
“Di bale na kami ng asawa ko. Kung sana kami lang, siguro susuko na kami. Pero paano yung mga apo ko? Hindi kami papayag na ganon.” (If this were only about me and my husband, I would have given up. But what about my grandchildren? We won’t allow it.) – Rappler.com