Human Face

Bottomline: Were they consulted?

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When the 120 farmers and members of the indigenous groups Dumagat and Agta marched 340 kilometers for three weeks from Casiguran, Aurora, to Manila to amplify their opposition to the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (Apeco), they were not wearing headbands and carrying placards that said: “We are open to negotiations” or “We have open minds.” When you oppose, you do not say, “Let’s meet halfway,” and hope for crumbs. You give it your mighty all until the other side and the leaders-that-be sit down to talk and settle—reasonably and justly.

When the marchers reached Metro Manila and met the press, supporters and, later, President Aquino and some members of his Cabinet, all they wanted was to air their fears of displacement from their ancestral domain, loss of livelihood, as well as their disappointment at the lack, if not absence, of consultation. And their total opposition to Apeco. That is from their point of view, because of where they are coming from.

Apeco is a 12,923-hectare “megaproject” touted to usher in a new era of economic progress in the province of Aurora. Apeco came into being through an Angara-father-and-son-sponsored law. Sen. Edgardo Angara, his son Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara (a senatorial wannabe), and the senator’s sister Gov. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo were behind Apeco’s creation.

But the advocacy group Task Force Anti-Apeco says Apeco has been accused of “transgressing a series of asset reform laws, such as the Indigenous People’s Rights Act, the Carper law and the Fisheries Code.”

I watched portions of the dialogue between the anti-Apeco marchers (many of them wearing indigenous garb) and the President that was aired live on TV, and it seemed to me that it was Mr. Aquino who needed to open his mind. When he told the marchers and their supporters that they should open their minds, that they should not only think of the good for themselves—short of saying they were self-absorbed?—my heart made a double beat. I had my fist on my mouth. Why tell these sweaty, sunburned mga anak ng lupa that to their faces? What a letdown.

It was when lawyer Christian Monsod (former Commission on Elections chair and civil society veteran) rose that I thought the balance of forces was back in the Ateneo gym. Those who would be adversely affected by Apeco were not consulted, Monsod said emphatically. And if they were, perhaps not properly or transparently, I thought. Else why would a group march under the scorching sun and a threatening storm for three weeks?

Thank goodness I did not see ideological elements with questionable motives giving marching orders. Supporting the marchers are church groups, Catholic clergy/religious, and civil society groups. San Jose Seminary at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University campus is hosting them.

The marchers’ opposition to Apeco and the Angara law that created it must have a basis. People are airing their fears, making us see their situation. We should at least see and understand before telling them off to open their minds. Mustn’t we first open ours?

Well, the President did say in the end that he would ask the National Economic and Development Authority to study the case and give him the results, pronto, but not before saying that he had in fact helped pass the Apeco law when he was a senator and that, now that he is President, he has to see to it that laws are followed. No mea culpa on his part. But laws—if harmful and unjust—can also be repealed.

The anti-Apeco protesters are appealing to thinking people, not so much to bleeding-heart types. Their concerns are there to be examined, not romanticized. Sacrificing their communities to the so-called “altar of development” may sound like a cliché, but that scenario is looming in the landscape.

Senator Angara said in a TV interview that there are not many that will be affected. His statements suggested that Aurora’s population is so much bigger than those protesting, that those displaced by the air strip are only 28 families, that many had sold their land. Did I hear someone say “informal settlers,” euphemism for squatters?

Are the protestors an insignificant minority? The “minorities” label that used to refer to indigenous communities is now deemed incorrect. Indigenous groups in the United States (“American Indians”) now call themselves “Nations” with a capital N. They have been there since the beginning of time, before the conquistadores came to rule.

Carved out of Quezon province and named after President Manuel L. Quezon’s wife Aurora Aragon-Quezon, Aurora province might add an “a” to Calabarzon (the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon that have economic zones). Calabarzona, if the Angaras will have their way.

The marchers did not wake up yesterday, like Rumpelstiltskin did, to learn of Apeco; they have been opposing Apeco for five years. Adarlina Constantino, a farmer from Casiguran’s Sitio Reserva, was quoted as saying, “In 2007 Apeco began persuading us to let go of the land that we have been tilling since 1960.”

Will the indigenous groups and farmers that will be displaced have a part in Apeco? Do they have the skills and would they want to work in an industrial/economic zone? Many of these hardy folk know best how to protect the forests and make the earth yield flower and fruit—for us. They are the guardians of the dagat at bundok and the lupa ng araw written into our national anthem.

They are not alone and they are not going home tomorrow.

(Send feedback to cerespd@gmail.com or www.ceresdoyo.com)

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