It was discouraging to see the dialogue between the Casiguran marchers and President Aquino turn sour at the end. A prominent lawyer advising the protesters suggested that the acrimonious end may have been caused by their unrealistically high expectations; many commentators faulted the President for being too process-oriented. All this is unfortunate, because there is a real need to review the very basis of the ambitious Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority, or Apeco—and for the review to have actual impact, the protesters and the President need to work with each other.
The marchers, a group of some 120 farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous peoples from Casiguran, Aurora, who walked over 300 miles in the last three weeks to dramatize their opposition to Apeco, had intended to march all the way to Malacañang. But in a preemptive gesture, Mr. Aquino and some of his Cabinet officials met the marchers at San Jose Seminary inside the Loyola Heights campus of Ateneo de Manila University.
In a dialogue characterized in the Inquirer report as “intense” and “tense, emotional,” the marchers emphatically made their case against Apeco, the controversial 12,923-hectare project created by a law authored principally by Sen. Edgardo Angara and his son, Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara. They told the President that the project threatened their livelihood, and that it was created without their consent or the approval of the local government of Casiguran. They urged him to defund the project of its P350-million annual budget allocation.
In response, the President defended the Apeco idea, noting that he had voted for the measure when he was still in the Senate. But he also agreed to a review of the project by the National Economic and Development Authority.
“If it comes out that the economic assumptions are vague, then we go back to the House of Representatives and the Senate, and tell them: Let’s amend this law, or recall it,” Mr. Aquino said. “But then again, what if it’s right? Here, there is a chance. You remove this project, there is no chance … We really need to determine if this project is worthless before we cancel it.”
Lawyer Christian Monsod, an advocate of the marchers, rose to argue with the President. “Their question is whether the economic zone is a valid and a good project. The solutions that we are hearing, while they sound good, do not address that basic premise. That’s why they’re asking for a thorough review of the concept itself of Apeco in that area,” he said.
In the end, that is what President Aquino seems to have agreed to, although the definition of thoroughness is in question. The President said he expected the Neda to complete its study in a week’s time.
The marchers did not think much of the President’s response. On his way out, one of them even shouted at him, “Bingi!”—that is, the President was deaf.
It is possible to explain the disheartening conclusion of the dialogue in the following terms: At bottom, the Casiguran marchers defined the policy problem as a matter of political will. If the President wanted it, he could stop the entire project, or at the very least refuse to fund Apeco. Why did they think so? Because the marchers have experienced the entire Apeco project as an exercise in political will—by the Angaras who control the province. They expected the President to display the same flexing of political muscle.
But the President defined the problem as a matter of process—and indeed Monsod said he understood Mr. Aquino’s emphasis on doing things by the book. But Monsod also said that the marchers wanted the President to know that they “are suffering from Apeco. [That’s] personal testimony … so you cannot accuse them of being close-minded. They are just expressing their feelings.”
But if the objective is to force the executive and the legislative branches of government to take a tough look at Apeco and ask the fundamental questions—Is it legal? Does it even make economic sense?—both parties must go beyond the limits of personal experience. Whether they like it or not, the marchers (who represent over 2,000 families in Casiguran) need President Aquino to put pressure on Neda and related government agencies to treat the issue objectively, without deference to the Angaras. And Mr. Aquino needs the marchers to put pressure on civil society, on the media and ultimately on Congress; their unfinished march is a standing rebuke to the public conscience.