A ‘small-time’ Angara faces the skeletons of APECO

Farmers have been displaced to accommodate the bigger promises of progress of the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (APECO). None has been realized so far

GATEWAY. The entrance to the Aurora Pacific Economic and Freeport Zone is monitored by security guards. All photos by Pia Ranada/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Seven years after the passage of the law that created it, the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (APECO) in the remote town of Casiguran, Aurora, still only looks like a discontinued subdivision project. 

A brown-roofed guardhouse flanked on both sides by two waiting sheds makes the entrance of the ecozone look like the gates to a swanky neighborhood – save for the fact that there are no imposing houses to be found inside.

The only structure – a clubhouse-like building complete with an imposing rotunda drive-way – remains damaged and unusable because of Typhoon Labuyo, which struck the province in August 2013. 

The tiles of its brown roof look as if they were scraped off by a giant, revealing the green metal base underneath. Windows devoid of glass panes reveal the emptiness inside.

The 1.2-kilometer airstrip in the ecozone was meant to accommodate up to 15 planes. None has landed on it.

The APECO of today is a far cry from its promises of yesterday. 

Still committing in its website to be a “globally competitive, technologically advanced economic zone” making use of “green revolution and world-class innovation,” it is more like a concrete anomaly in the middle of Casiguran’s rice fields. 

With a severely-cut budget, however, this is not surprising. The government gave APECO only P48.5 million ($1.1 million) out of its P2.264-trillion budget for 2014. This is down from the P76 million ($1.7 million) originally proposed for the ecozone. 

According to the National Development Authority (NEDA), APECO has received a total of P905 million ($20.4 million) from the government since 2008.

Promises, potential

APECO is a 12,923-hectare development envisioned to create economic growth in the yet-untapped town of Casiguran in northern Aurora and nearby San Ildefonso Peninsula.

Making use of the area’s marine and terrestrial wealth, the ecozone hopes to be a hub for agro-aqua industries.

It will use the latest technology to develop raw aquatic and agricultural (fish, seaweed, crops) resources abundant in the area into higher-value products.

TAPPING NATURAL RESOURCES. APECO projects aim to help develop marine-sourced commodities like seaweed. Photo by Tata Yap

White sand beaches, coral reefs, bird sanctuaries, and mountains promise to make the zone a popular eco-tourism destination. 

It is touted to be “strategically located” facing the Pacific Ocean, making it ideal as a freeport. Once developed, it will facilitate entry of goods into the ready markets of northeastern Luzon, which, aside from Aurora, includes Isabela, Quirino, and Nueva Ecija.

However, the NEDA report released a year ago recommended that APECO veer away from its plans of becoming a  freeport and focus instead on its agro-aqua and ecotourism potential. 

With the budget cuts and Labuyo damage, the only thing making progress in the ecozone are the rice fields.

The housing project

Farmer leader and fisherman Tony Angara surveys his 3-hectare fields of palay stretching from his house’s doorstep to a distant line of trees.

The stems of the rice plants are bent heavy with rice hull containing the precious grains. In a few weeks’ time, they’ll be ready for harvesting. 

“Ako ang maliit na Angara, hindi ako yung ‘capital,'” the 61-year-old Casiguranen  described himself. (I’m the small-time Angara, not the prominent one.)

He compares himself to the powerful Angara clan, with whom he shares his surname. The Angara family has long held the reins of power in Aurora province.

Former Senator Edgardo Angara and his son, Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara wrote the bills that led to the creation of APECO. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, the sister of the elder Angara, represents the province in the House of Representatives and was formerly Aurora governor and vice-chairperson of the APECO board.

Creeping up to Tony Angara’s lustrously green fields is another halted APECO project: a housing development meant to serve as homes for Casiguranens displaced by the ecozone. 

UNFINISHED. An unfinished APECO housing project is supposedly meant for locals displaced by APECO developments

Angara found out about the housing project only after returning home from the second Casiguran farmers’ march to Manila last May. (READ: Casiguran locals march for their land)

He saw that a boundary mark had been put on his land. The palay near the edge of his land was buried in sand and stones.  

“Pinuntahan ko ‘yung foreman. Siyempre masakit, kasi sabi ko, tinambakan ‘nyo. Sayang ‘yung palay. Aanihin na lang. Kumuha sila ng pulis para mamagitan sa amin. Bakit pa kailangan ng pulis?” he recalled.

(I went to the foreman. Of course it was painful because, I said, you buried it. The palay is wasted. It was about to be harvested. They got a policeman to talk to us. Why did they need to call the police?)

The colony of houses, made of cement blocks covered by a red roof, now looks like a ghost town. Construction workers live in a few units. 

The National Housing Authority told Angara and other locals that the units were reserved for them. But to own one of the houses, locals would have to pay P600 a month for 30 years.

Angara scoffed at the idea of living in the units.

“Ang liit ng bahay. Ang kasya lang dito, dalawang anak, mag-asawa. ‘Yung mga appliances hindi puwedeng iakyat kasi talagang maliit. Parang niloloko lang kami. Ang akala nila, kung mayroon kaming bahay, okay na kami sa proyekto,” he said.

(The house is so small. Only two kids and a couple can fit inside. You can’t bring up appliances because it is too small. It’s like they are fooling with us. They think, once we have a house, we will be okay with the project.)

Surrounding Angara’s home are newly-built huts of locals displaced by the construction of the airstrip several meters away. 

The locals were paid P30,000 to P50,000 to build new houses outside the airstrip. Until now, the P200,000 promised for the construction of a new chapel for the village remains merely that – a promise.

Untapped potential or threat?

Angara is one of the locals who oppose the continuation of the ecozone, fearing it would lead to displacement and prevent locals from accessing the natural resources they depend on for their livelihood.

Opponents, including farmer alliance Pamalakaya, say the ecozone violates several laws, including the Local Government Code, Fisheries Code, Indigenous People Rights Act, and Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms. 

But there are also locals who support the project.

The NEDA report noted that some locals and local government leaders believe the ecozone can create “value-adding activities that will generate employment and spur markets” in their area which, until the project, has merited only limited attention from the government.

The ecozone has already led to the improvement of roads going to Casiguran, cutting travel time to 3 to 4 hours from 6 to 7 hours.

The proposed agro-aqua technopark may help diversify the livelihood of locals by providing technologies to make their crops and fish catch more valuable.

Locals can also become tour guides or provide services and products for tourists wishing to explore the area’s newly-accessible natural wonders.

At a stand-still

 APECO needs more funding, not less, say supporters. NEDA has also said the government should invest more in the ecozone “to realize the benefits.”

“Without adequate infrastructure, the economic prospects for investment and trade, and consequently employment in northern Aurora are limited. This is truly unfortunate given the potential, which remains to be unlocked for the area,” said Senator Sonny Angara, who is also an APECO board member, in a Philippine Daily Inquirer article

The Supreme Court has yet to decide on a petition by Pamalakaya and other groups to declare the laws that created APECO as unconstitutional.

Whatever threats or benefits posed by APECO remain at a stand-still. The situation also puts locals in a state of nerve-wracking limbo.

“Ako’y nangangamba na baka sa mga darating na araw, bigla na lang kunin sa akin ang lupa ko,” said Tony Angara. (I fear that in the upcoming days, my land will suddenly be taken from me.)

“‘Yung kabila, nabili na ng APECO. Itong kabila, tinayuan na ng housing. Ito na lang ‘yung akin. Napagitnaanan ako. Baka magising na lang ako na hindi na pala sa akin,” the farmer said.

(One side has been bought by APECO. The other already has the housing project. This is all that remains of my land. I am in the middle. I might wake up and find it is no longer mine.) –

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