By Jonathan De Santos, VERA Files
Residents of Casiguran opposed to the construction and land conversion at the Aurora Pacific Economic and Freeport Zone (APECO) may be barking up the wrong tree, APECO spokesman Kent Avestruz said Tuesday.
In a telephone interview with Vera Files, Avestruz said APECO has been doing road construction in areas covered by the freeport, but that is to improve existing roads, which he explained, do not encroach on agricultural land.
In fact, he said, the road improvements have been welcomed by residents. “Many residents are happy about it because it will bring up land prices.”
APECO, he added, has nothing to do with the parcel of land that Casiguran farmers are expecting to be turned over to them. “That belongs to ASCOT (Aurora State College of Technology) and that's out of our hands,” he said.
In a fact sheet sent by APECO, the freeport authority said ASCOT's land was granted under the land grant system for state schools. It said a portion of the land was apportioned as a school reservation as early as 1934. That land was used for the Aurora National High School of Fisheries in 1984 and was later integrated into ASCOT.
“Under the law, such land grants are exempt from coverage of the CARP and cannot be used for anything other than its original purpose. So the decision on how to utilize the land is entirely up to ASCOT and not APECO,” it said.
At a press conference on Monday, Rene Cerilla, a member of Task Force Anti-APECO, said the ongoing construction went against an agreement to maintain the status quo over lands that farmers are claiming.
Avestruz said while ASCOT is within the bounds of the freeport, it is a separate entity altogether. He added the land dispute between ASCOT and the farmers predates the establishment of APECO.
ASCOT lists Senator Edgardo Angara and Aurora Representative Juan Edgardo Angara as members of its board of trustees by virtue of their committee chairmanships. The president of the college is Eusebio Angara.
Avestruz meanwhile defended the continued construction of relocation housing in Casiguran, which the Task Force Anti-APECO said involved the illegal conversion of agricultural land. He said the relocation site was legally acquired from private land owners.
The development of the relocation site is a program of both the freeport authority and the National Housing Authority and is intended for residents affected by APECO. It is expected to benefit 450 families who will be awarded a total lot area of 150 square meters of each.
“That is within our mandate,” he said.
The constitutionality of that mandate has been challenged at the Supreme Court. “The case has been pending in the Supreme Court, until last month when the High Court instructed both parties to submit their arguments within 30 days,” APECO added in its fact sheet.
Critics of the supposedly dynastic aspect of APECO will have to wait for the SC decision on the law creating the freeport. Under Republic Act 10038, the provincial governor and the Congressional representative get seats on the APECO board. The mayors of Casiguran, Dinalungan, and Dilasag also get seats on the board for a year each.
APECO has also denied that it has displaced fisherfolk living where an airstrip now stands.
“The airstrip is a project of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) and not of APECO. The 28 fisherfolk families affected by the project were thus relocated not by APECO but by CAAP,” it said.
The relocated families received from P55,000 to P154,000 in financial assistance from CAAP and “not a single one of these families is part of the anti-APECO movement,” APECO said.
Marlon Angara, a fisherfolk leader from Casiguran, said on Monday that the money given to households would not last long and that the relocation site is too far from their fishing areas.
APECO also defended itself against criticism that it disregarded the rights of Agta Dumagats and other indigenous peoples groups within the Freeport, saying it “recognizes the existence of ancestral domain and in fact has been supporting the IPs’ bid to gain their Certificates of Ancestral Domain Title.”
It said that once the ancestral domain of the Agta Dumagats has been delineated and they have been issued CADTs, “APECO will definitely engage the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to determine the scope of the necessary FPIC (Free and Prior Informed Consent.)”
The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act defines Free and Prior Informed Consent as the “the consensus of all members of the ICCs/IPs to be determined in accordance with their respective customary laws and practices, free from any external manipulation, interference and coercion, and obtained after fully disclosing the intent and scope of the activity, in a language an process understandable to the community.”
Under the law, IPs cannot be made to relocate and leave their ancestral domain without their free and prior informed consent.
The IP Rights Act also ensures indigenous peoples have “an informed and intelligent participation in the formulation and implementation of any project, government or private, that will affect or impact upon the ancestral domains and to receive just and fair compensation for any damages which they sustain as a result of the project.”
APECO said none of its infrastructure projects have “occupied or in any manner infringed on the ancestral lands of the Dumagats.” Most of the beneficiaries of its trainings and programs are from the Agta Dumagats, APECO also said.
(VERA Files is put out by senior journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for true.)