Going up against a dynasty

VERA Files
Tinig Ng Botante

By Jonathan De Santos, VERA Files

Christian Losano, an 18-year-old Agta Dumagat, can cite several reasons why he is opposed to the freeport zone project in Aurora province, but he gets really emotional when he talks about how the venture is tearing their community apart.

The Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (APECO), the pet project of the Angaras, is robbing his people of their ancestral domain, he told reporters at a news conference at the Department of Agrarian Reform office in Quezon City on Monday.

“We are fighting for our fishing grounds, and for our forest, and for nature,” he said. “We hope APECO gets shut down because it is tearing us apart.”

Losano told Vera Files that the multi-billion-peso project has come between him and his grandfather. Many of the Agta Dumagats, he said, have decided to be pragmatic and accept jobs at the freeport project.

His grandfather is one of them.

“In the beginning, we opposed APECO as a people, but many of them have been blinded by money,” Losano explained. He has argued with his grandfather repeatedly over his support for APECO, to whom which it is just a job. For Losano, however, the continued existence of the freeport zone threatens his people's way of life.

“Where will we go? Where will we stay?”

In an interview in November, APECO spokesman Kent Avestruz told Vera Files that 2,800 families in Casiguran, including 800 Agta Dumagats, support the existence of the freezone.

The venture, Losano laments, has cost his people. “Kami-kami nag-aaway. Pami-pamilya nagkakahinanakitan (We are fighting among ourselves. Families have been split by hard feelings),” he said.

APECO is envisioned as a commercial-industrial-tourism hub in Casiguran, Aurora, in the eastern seaboard of Luzon. Its creation as a special economic zone was initiated by Senator Edgardo Angara and later supported by Aurora Representative Juan Edgardo Angara. It was endorsed by another member of the clan, Aurora Governor Bellaflor Angara-Castillo.

Aurora Representative Juan Edgardo Angara, who is running for the Senate under Team PNoy, supported the creation of the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (APECO), a pet project of the Angaras. Photo from his Facebook page.[/caption]

Losano is not against the development of Casiguran, and of Aurora province, but he says the freeport zone project will disrupt the sea and forest that have been supporting the indigenous community and local farmers and fisherfolk for decades.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines National Secretariat for Social Action, said the case of APECO is a clear example of how difficult it is to go up against political dynasties.

With the Angaras in power, he said, there is little that Casiguran's farmers, fisherfolk, and indigenous people can do to demand accountability from the project’s proponents.

The Angaras have denied allegations by groups opposed to APECO, claiming that developments in the area have led to improved infrastructure and more jobs for the communities around it.

Father Nilvon Villanueva, parish priest of San Luis Obispo in Baler, said with political power in the clan's hands, those aspiring to hold local positions will naturally want to side with them. “All of them will follow what the Angaras want,” he said in Pilipino.

Baler Mayor Arthur Angara is running for governor, while Governor Angara-Castillo, a sister of the senator, is running for a congressional seat. Rep. Angara is running for the Senate.

What's worse, Pabillo said, “they hold the money and machinery and they won't investigate the previous governor.”

Among the violations that the Casiguran farmers say should be investigated, and among the violations that prompted them to troop back to Manila, is the alleged illegal conversion of agricultural land.

In a prepared statement, Father Joefran Talaban of Task Force Anti-APECO said APECO began constructing relocation homes on 2.5 hectares of “prime, irrigated agricultural land” in Barangay Esteves in Casiguran.

“However, when we investigated this conversion with the Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer of DAR-Aurora, we confirmed that no certification of conversion and no reclassification of land had ever been issued for this area beforehand,” he said.

This, despite land conversions requiring approval by the Agrarian Reform department and despite an assurance from DAR Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes that 477 hectares of agricultural land in Barangays Estevez and Dibet would not be subject to conversion.

Rene Cerilla, also with Task Force Anti-APECO said DAR has assured farmers that it will work towards giving out Certificates of Land Ownership Award.

Task force members who had a dialogue with DAR undersecretary Anthony Parungao on Monday said they are convinced that will happen soon.

Until then, Cerilla said, farmers can keep tilling their land but no construction should be allowed. He said, though, that construction has been going on.

“'Yan ay bagay na labag sa usapan,” he said.

Vera Files tried to reach APECO spokesman Kent Avestruz for comment but he did not respond.

The fisherfolk who have already been relocated to make way for the construction of an airport in APECO now have limited access to the sea.

Marlon Angara, a fisherfolk leader, said residents were given from P50,000 to P70,000 per household and moved away from the sea. The money will not last long, he said, and it will be more difficult for them to make more.

Sa isang mangingisda, napakahalaga na di ka malayo sa iyong paisdaan (For a fisher, it is very important that you're close to where you fish),” he said.

He said the fish cages and seaweed farms that APECO has offered as alternative sources of livelihood have largely been failures. He said the seaweeds die because water along Casiguran gets murky from river silt.

Bishop Pabillo has also expressed alarm over delays in a National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) report on APECO. “The President himself promised the report would be out in two months. It has been four months,” he said in Filipino.

President Benigno Aquino in December ordered the NEDA to review the freeport project in response to demands by anti-APECO groups who marched to Manila to call attention to their plight. They asked the president to block any more budget allocations for the project.

Pabillo said the delay in the report is likely a result of political considerations. Representative Angara is on the administration Liberal Party-led senatorial coalition.

(VERA Files is put out by senior journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for true.)