Casiguran locals ask Senate to give APECO ‘zero budget’

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CASIGURAN LOCALS opposing the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (APECO) staged a demonstration at the Senate last Monday, October 24, as the Senate Finance Committee held its budget deliberations on the controversial project. They demanded that APECO’s Php 59 billion budget proposal be junked altogether.

"Lupaing inagaw: Ibalik! Ibalik! Lupaing sakahan: Ibalik! Ibalik! Pangisdaan: Ibalik! Ibalik! (Stolen lands: Give it back! Give it back! Farmlands: Give it back! Give it back! Fishing grounds: Give it back! Give it back!)," they chanted.

This was reminiscent of their 2012 march from Casiguran to Manila, which culminated in a dialogue with then-president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III at the San Jose Seminary covered courts.

APECO is a 12,923-hectare development of a commercial, residential, and industrial complex in Casiguran, Aurora formed under Republic Acts (RA) 9490 and 10083, which expanded APECO’s original 490 hectares under RA 9490 to 12,923 hectares.

Because of its location as the only economic zone (ecozone) facing the Pacific Ocean, it has been touted as an important economic gateway for investors. Yet farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous peoples have been displaced because of this project.

In a statement, Task Force Anti-APECO (TFAA) said that RA 9490 “was passed without proper consultation [with] concerned stakeholeders including the local government of Casiguran, the locals who will be directly affected.” TFAA added that APECO’s land includes “vast agricultural land and ancestral domains.”

They also said that the formation of APECO is “unconstitutional” since “it violates several laws including the RA 8371 Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA), the Local Government Code, RA 8550 Philippine Fisheries Code, Agrarian Reform, among others.”

While the project has received billions of pesos in projects, TFAA said that “APECO has yet to generate revenue from its projects since its construction,” citing a Commission on Audit report.

In the 2016 budget, APECO received Php 40 million, less than the Php 48 M proposed. Anti-APECO locals also held a demonstration last year at the Senate during budget deliberations.

In July 2016, the Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano recommended criminal charges against APECO administrators because of their failure to comply with the cease-and-desist order on the Nayon Kalikasan Housing project. According to DAR, this joint project by APECO and the National Housing Authority illegally converted “some 2.5 hectares of agricultural land” in Sitio Landing, Barangay Esteves in Casiguran.

The Casiguran locals also demanded the formation of an oversight committee to review and investigate APECO operations, track record, and law, and supporting farmers by pushing and strengthening agrarian reform.

Return to the Ateneo

After their Senate demonstration, the contingent went to the Ateneo to take part in the launch of the first ADMU Indigenous Peoples’ (IP) Week at the Rizal Library.

They later held a dialogue with Atenean students in an event organized by Ateneo Task Force Anti-APECO (ATFAA) to talk about the developments from the hearing.

Atty. Irene Aguila, a volunteer and a member of the legal team, said that in the hearing they have continued to emphasize how the money given to APECO comes from the nation’s coffers, and that the allocation of a budget for APECO is unconstitutional.

“Walang mabuting mabibigay ang proyektong ito...Hindi dapat ginagamit ang pera ng bayan para sa mga proyekto na klaro naman na labag sa Constitution. Ang pera na ito [APECO budget] ay ginagamit lamang para sa illegal [land] conversion, at yung mga pananakot sa mga taga-Casiguran (This project has no benefit...Money from the nation’s coffers should not be used for projects that are clearly unconstitutional. The budget is being used for illegal land conversion, and for scaring off the locals of Casiguran),” said Aguila.

According to Aguila, the APECO side had a difficult time defending why a budget should be allocated for the project, especially when pressed by former Senator Sergio Osmeña III, a known anti-APECO advocate who was present in the hearing. Aguila said that Osmeña criticized APECO for their plans to relocate the locals to stilt houses, which they argued was best for the locals of Casiguran.

Aguila also said that during the hearing, the plan to make a casino in the ecozone, which has not been discussed with the locals of Casiguran, was exposed.

Fr. Jose Francisco “Joefran” Talaban, one of the conveners of TFAA, said during the dialogue that their fight against the funding of APECO was distinct because it was rooted in the genuine hardships of the Casiguran locals.

Iba ‘yung dating ng presentation natin, may puso, kasi nakaugat sa konkretong karanasan. Hindi tayo nagsisinunugaling, dahil dala-dala natin yung karanasan na talagang nararanasan ninyo: ang hirap, ang pagod, na harapin ninyo ang kapangyarihan. (The way we present our case is distinct, because we have sincerity, because it is rooted in concrete experiences. We are not lying, we bring with us your actual experiences, the hardships, and exhaustion that you are feeling as we continue to fight the mighty powers),” said Talaban.

Hindi na pwede na manahimik tayo eh, kasi kung manahimik lang tayo, patuloy tayong nasagasaan (We cannot stay silent, because if we do, they will continue to run over us”),” he added.

In his closing remarks, Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat added that if they are successful in putting a halt to APECO, this would have implications for other free zones in the country.

“Maraming mga free zones sa buong Pilipinas na itinayo, dahil hindi iginalang ang mga karapatan ng mga katutubo at mga magsasaka. At hanggang ngayon, wala pa rin tayong mga batas, at mga ahensiya ng pamahalaan, na nagre-regulate ng tulad ng APECO (There are a lot of free zones in the Philippines that are established without respecting the rights of the indigenous people and farmers. Until now, there is no law, no government agency that is in charge of regulating free zones like APECO,” he said.

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