One hundred twenty residents of Casiguran—representing at least 2,983 families coming from different sectors such as the farmers, indigenous peoples and fisherfolk—are marching 370 kilometers from Casiguran, Aurora, to Malacañang Palace, in order to highlight their opposition, long voiced by the local communities of Casiguran, to the Aurora ecozone. They will arrive in Manila today, Dec. 10, 2012, and will be welcomed by students from UP, Ateneo and Miriam. Fr. Jett Villarin, SJ, president of Ateneo, will celebrate Mass for them at 7 p.m. at the Church of the Gesu, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City.
After their arrival ceremonies, they hope to bring their cause to the champion of Daang Matuwid in the Advent hope that he will hear their cry. They are coming to Manila during the season when the liturgical readings of Advent recall the cries of the Israelites for their liberation from their Babylonian exile.
What has precipitated the march of the Casiguran poor to trek through kilometers of rough roads from Aurora to Manila? They are coming to protest Apeco, or the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority. Apeco is the 12,923-hectare special economic zone now being built in the town of Casiguran, Aurora, by authority of Republic Act 9490 as amended by RA 10083 in 2010 (which lapsed into law because President Aquino neither approved nor vetoed it). Needless to say, these laws were sponsored by Sen. Edgardo Angara and his son Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara, with the endorsement of the senator’s sister Gov. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo.
For the authors of the law, Apeco means economic development and progress not just for themselves but also for the entire population of Casiguran, including the marchers. But how do the poor folk of Casiguran see it? They see a grim future for themselves. Their grim outlook is dark enough to drive them to a pilgrimage on foot to Malacañang.
As the poor folks see it, Apeco is now seizing large tracts of prime agricultural lands, irrigated and very productive, from them. They see it as a clear violation of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (RA 6657 as amended by RA 9700). They see Apeco as further dispossessing them of 110 hectares of irrigated rice lands in Casiguran, Aurora, for a planned extension of the campus of the Aurora State College of Science and Technology (Ascot). The main campus of Ascot is in Barangay Zabali in the town of Baler, which comprises a total of 196.06 hectares. Not all the areas in the Baler campus have been fully developed yet. Aside from the Baler and Casiguran campuses, Ascot also has another extension campus in Barangay Bazal in Maria Aurora town, which covers an area of 110.8 hectares. Just like the Casiguran campus, most of the area is still undeveloped by Ascot. To sum it up, Ascot already possesses a total of 416.86 hectares of land, mostly agricultural lands, allegedly for its school purposes.
The marchers also see Apeco as intruding into ancestral lands, around 11,900 hectares of the Agta-Dumagat, allegedly without their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) as required by RA 8371 (the IP Rights Act). Apeco is accused of having falsely claimed in 2010 that most of the occupants of these lands were merely “informal settlers.” Twenty-eight fisherfolk families have been displaced due to the construction of Apeco’s soon-to-be 1.5-km airstrip; hundreds more will eventually be crowded out of their fishing grounds in the Casiguran Bay should Apeco’s international seaport be constructed. And Apeco has allegedly been cutting 10 hectares of centuries-old mangroves to give way to its port, thereby violating RA 8550 (Fisheries Code).
It is claimed that the Apeco law was passed without any consultation whatsoever with the people of Casiguran and without the approval of the local government units as required by the Local Government Code (RA 7160). Apeco’s subprojects—such as its airstrip and corporate campus—have all failed to secure the necessary feasibility studies, environmental impact assessments, environmental compliance certificates and engineering and geological surveys, building permit and LGU permits prior to their construction.
It is also said that Apeco paid more than P650,000 per hectare for the coconut land of a former provincial and environmental natural resource officer, while paying only P45,000 per hectare for the rice lands of those who have already lost their homes, thus violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act (RA 3019).
There are other accusations of violation of RA 3019 as well as of human rights abuses against anti-Apeco campaigners—involving drop-in interrogations, harassment and black propaganda. Mention is also made of Fr. Jose Francisco Talaban, one of the foremost local leaders in the struggle against the ecozone. On June 26, 2010, he narrowly survived a midnight assassination attempt that involved the use of explosives (M203 grenade launchers) and assault guns (M14 rifles). Allegedly this was perpetrated by an anti-communist group supportive of Apeco.
All these seem to add up to a threatening disaster of such magnitude that it should command the personal attention of President Aquino. We will await developments during and after this week.