What do you do when 120 people claiming to represent close to 3,000 families march nearly 400 kilometers over two weeks to protest a development project purportedly meant to help them, but of which they assert the contrary?
How do you deal with a project that was brought about by legislation, but is seen to contravene or violate other prior laws of the land, and whose implementation has allegedly been marked with questionable transactions suggestive of graft?
How do you handle the pet initiative of a political family, the members of which are key allies of the administration whose advocacies for “daang matuwid,” participatory governance, and environmental protection are alleged to be undermined by its very pursuit?
And what do you do when the incumbent President orders a definitive review of that development project within one week, when you played little role in whatever prior analysis it underwent before its creation by law—hence need far more than a week to obtain the needed data and information to support a sound evaluation?
These questions must be making Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsi Balisacan and his staff at the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) uncomfortable these days. The development initiative/project is the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (Apeco), which initially declared 500 hectares of land in Casiguran, Aurora, as a special economic zone, which was later expanded 25-fold to 12,923 hectares. The laws that brought it into being and then expanded its area coverage are Republic Acts Nos. 9490 (enacted in 2007) and 10083 (unsigned by President Aquino but lapsed into law in 2010). The political family behind it is the Angaras of Aurora—Sen. Edgardo Angara, Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara, and Gov. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo.
The 120 marchers, according to a Task Force Anti-Apeco leaflet, consist of: (1) lowland farmers from Sitio Reserva in Barangay Esteves who have independently transformed a neglected 105-hectare government reservation into one of Northern Aurora’s primary rice granaries, and have struggled to obtain land titles since 1962; (2) upland farmers from San Ildefonso Peninsula seeking to defend and renew their stewardship contracts for forest lands and upland farms that they have sustainably managed since the 1980s; (3) fisherfolk who have increasingly applied sustainable fishing and mangrove cultivation practices since the 1990s to retain ecological balance and livelihood viability in Casiguran Bay, but are now allegedly being gradually excluded from their fishing and docking grounds by Apeco; and (4) indigenous peoples crowded out of their ancestral lands by migration of lowlanders and entry of logging companies, who had been pressing their ancestral domain claims for decades.
Today is when Neda’s report to President Aquino is due, but I’m certain that they are hard-pressed to make a categorical recommendation to him at this time. Neda as I know it would not take a clear position without the benefit of due diligence—what President Fidel Ramos called “CSW” (completed staff work). CSW entails examining all angles of the issue, hearing all sides to get a full and balanced perspective, and undertaking careful analysis of costs and benefits. Unlike in many government agencies, politics has no place in decision-making in the Neda I know. I am confident that in the end, any recommendation it makes to President Aquino would be guided by the sole criterion of what would yield the greatest good for the greatest number. That, after all, is what development is all about. And true development is sustainable development, where “the greatest number” counts future generations of Filipinos in the equation as well.
Truth to tell, CSW is impossible within a week under the circumstances that Neda finds itself in on Apeco. Casiguran Mayor Reynaldo Bitong has lamented that Apeco came about without the benefit of consultation with him, the municipal council and the concerned communities, hence failed to go through the right process. The right process would have also included prior careful consideration by the Central Luzon Regional Development Council (RDC), for which the Neda regional office provides technical support. And yet the RDC/Neda apparently had to take Apeco as a given after it was passed by law in 2007, meaning, neither RDC nor Neda did any technical analysis nor possessed ample data to support such analysis in the past. It cannot possibly scramble now to undertake a full and sound analysis within a week.
On reading the Central Luzon Regional Development Plan 2011-2016, I actually sensed reluctance on the part of RDC/Neda in having yet another special economic zone: “The Aurora Pacific Economic Zone is a recent addition to (the) network (of numerous special economic zones and industrial estates already existing in the region). Years have passed since the establishment of most of these economic zones and… there remain large tracts of lands within the proclaimed areas that remain unoccupied and undeveloped.” Not surprisingly, President Ramos had vetoed a previous attempt to legislate Apeco into being, 10 years earlier.
Much has been written elsewhere on the issues surrounding Apeco, which I will not repeat here. Its proponents, on the other hand, uphold it as the key to bringing development to the long lagging economy of Aurora, portraying the Casiguran marchers to be defying development in their area. That may well be so, but with the serious issues that have plagued Apeco from the start, it is incumbent on Neda to make the careful determination as to who in this case is defying development in the truest sense of the word.
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