By Jonathan de Santos, VERA Files
Sen. Edgardo Angara took the Senate floor on Wednesday to answer what he called malicious and vicious allegations against the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO), which he helped create.
On Tuesday, Sen. Sergio Osmena III and members of Task Force Anti-APECO held a press conference against the continued existence of the freeport zone. Osmena said the government had spent P 2 billion to develop the area but that it has failed to attract investors.
Angara said the figure of P2 billion had been "maliciously exaggerated."
He said the government only released P915.8 million to APECO from 2008 to 2012. Of that amount, he said, P135.7 million was still in the bank.
Around P78 million was used to pay workers and employees, P145 million for maintenance and operations and P556.8 million for capital outlay, or for infrastructure, he said.
Addressing allegations that there were insertions in the budgets of departments of Trade, Agriculture, and Science and Technology that gave APECO extra funding, he said, "None of the amendments outlined in the Committee Report for the 2013 General Appropriations Bill include insertions for APECO."
He said APECO already has at least five locators, or investors, "doing preparatory work in the area."
Among them, he said, are Asia Pacific Resource Recovery and Tiger Carbon, which deal in bamboo and in renewable energy. He said they have invested P35 million in APECO and the venture will have a manpower requirement of 200.
Aurora Fastbuild Corp., a construction and manufacturing firm, has also invested P10 million, while Marine Colloids of the Philippines has proposed an investment of P4 million for a processing center for food-grade seaweed, the senator said.
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Kent Avestruz, APECO spokesman, said some residents of Casiguran, Aurora are already in livelihood programs, which includes seaweed farming.
"Around 400 people are currently employed because of infrastructure projects inside the Ecozone which include the APECO Administration Building, Site Development, Construction of APECO Gates and Staff Housing, he also said.
Angara said 500 more jobs will be created in the construction of an APECO hotel, a National Housing Authority relocation site, and an ice plant and cold-storage facility.
Task Force Anti-APECO counts farmers and members of the indigenous Agta Dumagats who accused APECO of land grabbing.
Angara said, however, that APECO "has never resorted to the right of eminent domain or expropriation as a mode to acquire lands." He said the freeport zone authority negotiated and paid for land it will use.
He explained said parcels of land sold for a higher price—up to P650,000 per hectare, according to Anti-APECO—because they of houses, basketball courts, and fishponds already built on the property.
Angara also parried criticism that APECO took land from the Dumagats, saying the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples never called APECO's attention to any possible violation of IP rights.
NCIP "has even commended APECO's work with the Dumagats and other IPs," he said.
Although Angara is not a member of the APECO board, his son Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara and his sister Aurora Gov. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo have seats by virtue of their positions.
Both Angaras helped pass the law creating APECO.
Fr. Edwin Gariguez of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines-National Secretariat for Social Action has criticized APECO as "large-scale plunder and landgrabbing by a powerful political dynasty."
Task Force Anti-APECO supports 125 marchers, who claim to represent around 3,000 families who could lose their land to APECO. The group is expected to walk from Casiguran to Malacanang to ask President Benigno Aquino III for an independent review of APECO.
Angara said, however, that this was improbable since there are only 1,336 households in the area covered by APECO. "How can 120 people represent 3,000 families?" he said.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")