MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – It’s a “caretaker budget” again for the controversial Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO).
A Senate finance subcommittee, chaired by Senator Sergio Osmeña III, recommended the approval of only P40 million ($884,775.89) for the economic zone – far less than the original proposed budget of over P251 million ($5.55 million).
Osmeña, during his budget sponsorship speech last November 18, said, “The subcommittee believes that the economic zone in the Aurora province should only get ‘maintenance budget’ for FY (fiscal year) 2015 for its failure to bring its promised economic growth in the area.”
If the budget is approved, this will be the second time that the Aurora development project will have to make do with a small budget as it also received roughly the same amount for 2014. (READ: A ‘small-time’ Angara faces the skeletons of APECO)
APECO, which was established by a 2007 bill, is envisioned to become a freeport, hub for agro-aqua industries and an eco-tourism zone. The 12,923-hectare development is meant to bring economic development to the remote town of Casiguran in northern Aurora.
More investments needed?
The National Economic and Development Authority has asked government to pour more investments into APECO to realize its benefits. There are still not enough utilities, such as stable power, water supply and roads, for it to become economically viable for locators, NEDA said.
APECO president Gerardo Erquiza Jr has insisted that the development “has potential” if only the government would give it a chance.
But Osmeña, who has opposed the project since the start, said any government investment in APECO would be a “waste of funds” because the project is inherently unviable.
“There is no chance for a freeport to develop so far away. Maski ang malalapit na freeport mismo, nahihirapan (Even nearer freeports are having a hard time),” he said in a previous interview.
Even relatively nearer ports, like those in Subic and Batangas, are only “10 to 20% utilized,” he added.
APECO is around 6 hours away from Metro Manila by private car.
Aside from budget woes, APECO has come under fire for allegedly misused funds and for lacking a masterplan when it was approved and first allocated a budget.
Casiguran farmers, fishermen and the Dumagat tribe also want the project stopped out of fear of being displaced from their homes and source of livelihood.
A case questioning the constitutionality of the APECO law (Republic Act 9490) is pending with the Supreme Court. The law, created in 2007, was authored by former Senator Edgardo Angara, patriarch of a clan highly influential in Aurora.
The case points out that the APECO law was passed without a proper feasibility study, despite the large size of the development and its impact on the environment.
There was also allegedly no consultation with local government units and indigenous peoples, a claim denied by APECO officials.
But Erquiza said a master plan has already been submitted to NEDA and that feasibility studies have already been submitted to the Department of Budgetment and Management.
He also denied that farmers and IPs have been displaced.
It’s because APECO management “sufficiently addressed the issues which have no factual basis” that DBM recommended a much higher 2015 budget than the 2014 budget, he told Rappler on November 20.
APECO’s 2014 recommended budget from DBM was only P76 million. For 2015, it grew to P252 million. The House of Representatives approved the 2015 recommended budget. – With reports from Pia Ranada/Rappler.com