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Casiguran natives’ 370-kilometer march against APECO

Ibalik, ibalik! 12,923 ektaryang APECO, ibalik, ibalik!” cried 125 native Casiguran fisherfolk and farmers, who marched from Aurora to Manila, demanding back their ancestral lands and indigenous rights.

Overcoming heat and exhaustion, marchers against the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO) took a 20-day, 370-kilometer journey flagged as “Lakad Katarungan, Lakad Matuwid na Daan (Walk for Justice, Walk the Straight Path)”.

Representatives from Task Force Anti-APECO (TFAA) accompanied 125 indigenous Agta from Casiguran City to protest against several years of struggle for equitable resource access, sustainable development, and sovereignty rights.


In the last couple of years, opposition to APECO has mounted in the form of the TFAA, an umbrella of organizations including the Roman Catholic Church’s National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace (NASSA), the Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance, PAMALAKAYA national federation of small fisherfolk and PAKISAMA peasant federation.


President Benigno Aquino III met with the marchers at Ateneo De Manila University last Tuesday, where he listened to the locals’ allegations of APECO’s “land-grabbing” and TFAA’s demands for the government to cut APECO funding. Moreover, the group wants compensation for several displaced families.


Gateway to the Pacific?


APECO, as described by Republic Act 9490, is a “self-sustaining industrial, commercial/trading, agro-industrial, tourist, banking, financial and investment [center] with suitable residential areas.


The project covers 12,923 hectares of Casiguran, Aurora, and has been a project of the Angaras, namely Senator Edgardo Angara, Congressman Juan Edgardo Angara and Aurora Governor Bellaflor Angara-Castillo.


Since the amendment of Republic Act 9490, 500 hectares of Casiguran, Aurora was designated as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 2007.


Three years later, Republic Act 10083 expanded the zone’s reach to 12,427 hectares, covering a sizeable chunk of the municipality, including Barangays Dibet, Esteves and Dibacong.


With its Php353.5 million approved annual budget, APECO promises future investment, eco-friendly industrialization and infrastructure to the impoverished region. In addition the government will providefiscal incentives in the form ofincome tax-free holidays, discounts on land acquisition, duty-free trade imports, and more.


The government also argues that APECO will generate jobs for locals, and according to Sen. Angara, the project will help create 500 jobs by January 2013. The project also includes the development of a Php 220-million solar power facility, which is already in the works and future plans for a hydroelectric power plant.


A track record of violations


Last September 2011, urban and environmental planner Felino Palafox publicly spoke against the Angaras for continuing APECO despite serious hazards in the area.


According to Palafox, independent engineering surveys suggest that some of APECO’s land claims are flood-prone and susceptible to soil liquefaction. Its corporate campus is projected to be completely underwater in 25 years.


To date, no comprehensive investigations have focused on APECO’s claims to alleviate poverty in the area. In addition, allegations have been made that the project did not undergo proper environmental impact assessments, processing for environmental compliance certificates, geological surveys, or even the acquisition of building and LGU permits secured for many of its subprojects prior to construction.


It was only in 2011 that the government made a proper feasibility study with funding from the South Korean government.


In addition, the marchers claim that even the APECO law (R.A. 10083) itself was passed without prior consultation, and continues to operate with neither their direct consent nor approval of the local government unit of Casiguran, defying the Local Government Code (R.A. 7160) andAPECO’s own legal provisions.


TFAA spokesperson Rev. Fr. Jose FransiscoTalaba testifies that APECO has been seizing agricultural lands and risks intruding upon 11,900 hectares of the Agta’s ancestral domainwithout the locals’ prior consent.


In addition to purchasing land from natives at an unfair price, APECO allegedly paid indigenous farmers Php 45,000 per hectare for their farmlands,as opposed to paying P650,000 per hectare for “developed lands,” chiefly consisting of industrial lots and real estate.


These actions disregard provisions in the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (R.A. 3019), Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (CARPer or R.A. 9700), as well as the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA or R.A. 8371), especially the stipulation that no indigenous peoples will be relocated “without their free and prior informed consent (FPIC)“.


Reports attest that APECO is building a 1.5-kilometer airstrip, which will displace 28 fisher families without relocation or livelihood alternatives, contrary to the Fisheries Code (RA 8550). Moreover, operations have also cleared at least 10 hectares of mangrove swamps, breaching environmental protection policies within Presidential Decree 705 and DENR DMC 2008-03.


Claims and counterclaims


According to a report from GMA News last December 4, barangay officials and tribal leaders in a press conference denied that APECO forcibly acquired land from locals. The Casiguran chieftains furthered that lands were bought at a fair price, and no incidences of oppression have been reported.


Official statements from APECO, via Angara’s privilege speech last November 27, also argue that ‘only’ 1.3 thousand households are registered within APECO, and that protesters were informal settlers.


TFAA, however, has remarked to the contrary, alleging that APECO’s report ignores the possibility of one or more families living per household and that tenant farmers and fisherfolk who live beyond the bounds of Casiguran may still depend on lands claimed by APECO for their livelihoods.


The group further explains that the people APECO called as “informal settlers” include indigenous groups who have lived on these lands for generations prior to the existence of the Philippine State, technically granting them property rights to the region by default, notwithstanding the absence of formal papers. In addition, the APECO report allegedly failed to mention the thousands of families and indigenous communities that would be displaced if the project goes on to completion.


Resistance to APECO has been met with impunity and intimidation. CBCP-Nassa in February alleged that June 2010 rifle attacks against TFAA Representative Rev. Fr. Jose Francisco Talaban were linked to ‘’his open criticism [of] the project.’’


In an interview with The LaSallian, a marcher explained that the government has used some of their people against them. He explains that the government had offered many of their people financial rewards to encourage the Anti-APECO group to stop the protests. He furthers that APECO has caused the death of many tribe members in the past years.


Aquino: “Be more open-minded”


Economic development in this form, according to the anti-APECO coalition, is questionable and contrary to the precepts of sustainable, self-reliant and community-driven development.


For these reasons, thousands of Casiguran residents, farmers and fisherfolk have voiced complaints, insisting that APECO, despite promising to bring a future of prosperity to Aurora, is merely a “legalized land grab” and a path to poverty.


TFAA and Casiguran natives recently called for an independent evaluation of APECO towards the repeal and/or modification of the APECO laws, as well as a 2013 zero budget allocation of APECO while deliberation is underway.


Furthermore, TFAA  also wants the government to distribute 105 hectares of prime agricultural land back to 56 landless farmers.


According to reports from Rappler and Manila Bulletin last Tuesday, President Aquino stated that he was “not a dictator” and was required to uphold APECO as a law until it is modified.


As of press time, 28 displaced fisherfolk from the airstrip construction will be compensated Php50,000 – Php60,000. The displaced families would also receive housing from the project.


President Aquino called on the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA)’s feasibility study of APECO and urged Casiguran natives to be more “open-minded” about the future benefits of APECO. Unsatisfied with President Aquino’s response, the protest marchers spoke about their predicament in a mass held at DLSU’s Yuchengco Lobby last December 13.


Representatives of the TFAA, along with Casiguran natives, began trekking a 370-kilometer journey back to Casiguran City, after deciding to not push through with the visit to Malacañang.

Christopher Chanco

By Christopher Chanco

Michelle Sta Romana

By Michelle Sta Romana

5 replies on “Casiguran natives’ 370-kilometer march against APECO”

“Furthermore, TFAA had asked to provide settlement areas for small fisher families displaced by the law. The group also wants the government to distribute105 hectares of prime agricultural land back to 56 landless farmers.”

Great editing there!

No Oxford comma? Yuck.

Moreover, operations have also cleared at least 10 hectares of mangrove swamps, breaching environmental protection policies within Presidential Decree 705 and DENR DMC 2008-03.

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