In my column last week I reported how the poor folks of Casiguran who marched to Manila to seek the help of President Aquino saw the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (Apeco) project in their area. The following day I received a call from Reli German who wanted me to listen to the side of Apeco. I asked him to write down how Apeco saw things and to send me their thoughts.
Now let me summarize the position of Apeco as contained in the letter of lawyer Malcom I. Sarmiento, president and CEO of Apeco, as forwarded to me by German.
• The 120 marchers do not represent the 3,000 households affected by the Apeco development.
• Those in the group who claim that their land was forcibly taken by Apeco are in fact informal settlers in a school reservation owned by Aurora State College of Technology (Ascot).
• The 105-hectare property in contention was originally designated as a school reservation by virtue of Proclamation No. 723 issued by American Governor-General Frank Murphy on Aug. 21, 1934. The Aurora National Fisheries School was created for this purpose. Republic Act No. 7664, which created Ascot, later mandated the integration of this fisheries school and all its resources, including the school reservation, into Ascot. This cannot be used for anything other than the original purpose.
• Despite this, Apeco has included these informal settlers among its housing beneficiaries under a program undertaken in partnership with the National Housing Authority (NHA).
• True, there were 28 families displaced by the construction of the airstrip, but this is a project of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), which has extended to them financial assistance, and they have been included among the Apeco-NHA housing beneficiaries.
• On the issue of ancestral domain, Apeco has never conducted infrastructure development activities in any of the Dumagat settlements within its area of coverage. We have already sought the help of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to facilitate Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC).
• Apeco recognizes the existence of ancestral domain, and supports the indigenous peoples in acquiring their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT).
• Apeco carries with it the mandate to acquire lands on the condition that it provides just compensation in accordance with law. Apeco has been acquiring and paying for lands almost twice the assessed value.
• Apeco has never resorted to the right of eminent domain or expropriation to acquire lands. Neither has Apeco bought land nor coerced any one to sell their land at an unreasonably low price.
• Apeco has no intention to buy lands in the San Ildefonso Peninsula. We give due respect to the rights of existing ISF (integrated social forestry) beneficiaries in the area.
• That Apeco has cut 10 hectares of centuries-old mangroves to give way to its port is false and misleading. The port referred to is a Ro-Ro (roll-on-roll-off) port that is not within the boundaries of Apeco.
• This port was built decades ago, and rehabilitated by the Philippine Ports Authority as part of the previous administration’s nautical highway program. Apeco has absolutely nothing to do with this port.
• Regarding the supposed lack of consultation on the creation of Apeco, we continue to conduct consultations to raise awareness about our development programs among the residents of Casiguran, as well as to seek their proposals on how Apeco can more effectively help them. These consultations were followed by several barangay assemblies.
• Finally, accusations of human rights violations against Apeco are mere fabrications.
• Apeco is for development—for the people of Aurora, supported by the people of Aurora. We appeal to those with vested interests to stop spreading lies that only serve to jeopardize the future of Aurora’s people.
Obviously these are issues of fact about which, from the quiet of my room in the Ateneo Jesuit Residence, I am in no position to offer judgment.
Meanwhile, last week the Casiguran marchers had a long dialogue with the President. The outcome of that dialogue, I am told, disappointed the marchers. But as one consequence of that dialogue, the President ordered an investigation to be made by government officials. I am sure that the investigators will also listen to the Apeco people, if they have not done so yet. We await the outcome of that investigation hopefully within the week.
My sense—correct me if I am wrong—is that the result of the investigation will not satisfy the marchers and their supporters. The cultural roots of the problem are too deep. Hence, whatever the President’s decision might be, that will not be the end of the matter. There still is the judicial process which can take care of both legal and factual issues. We should be hearing more about this.
My stand on the RH bill
I know that in its unamended form, the reproductive health bill was not perfect and I myself, mainly on constitutional and moral grounds, have offered criticism and suggestions. While the bill has undergone extensive amendment, it remains a work in progress—even as the Constitution is a work in progress. But there are many valuable points in the bill that can serve the welfare of the nation and, especially, poor women who cannot afford the cost of medical service. Let us not burn the house to save a pig. The surviving pig can be the subject of judicial challenge.