Filipinos Reject Mega Project in Pristine Area
by Madonna T. Virola
February 25, 2012
The remote province of Aurora is a promising tourism destination in the Philippines – blessed with natural attractions and historical sights.
But activists and locals are worried about its future given the government’s plans to build the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone or APECO, in the area.
Expected to be a major hub in the Pacific region, it’s also home to thousands of farmers, fisher folks and indigenous people.
Several protests demanding the project be halted have been staged.
And recent investigations by the anti-APECO international mission have revealed early signs of human rights violations in the project area, located in the isolated municipality of Casiguran.
Madonna Virola joins the investigation team to take a look.
I’ve joined an anti-APECO mission travelling to the remote province of Aurora.
The team consists of local Filipinos along with Dutch and Swiss religious leaders that support the cause.
We left the capital Manila 8 hours ago and have driven through the beautiful scenery around Sierra Madre Mountain.
As we get closer to the coastal town of Casiguran, we are greeted by vast agricultural lands, fishing grounds and the Pacific Ocean’s pristine beaches.
This is also the designated site for the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone, or APECO.
Mark Cebreros from the Human Rights Commission says the project has already raised concern over alleged human rights abuses.
“We saw apparent signs of displacement of communities affected by the APECO project. We saw infrastructure projects, buildings, an airstrip, fences being constructed as well as bank houses, on land that are alleged to have been taken from residents without just compensation or allegations of forcible eviction and harassment. We also saw indigenous peoples communities of Dumagats of Ildelfonso complaining of harassment, of attempts to grab their lands and dispose them of their traditional areas; we’re able to meet with informal settler families, who, while they do not possess title to the land had been there 50 to 60 years and whose right of possession are being taken from them without meaningful consultations, without the opportunity for them to put up viable alternatives to ensure their livelihood.”
Thousands of indigenous people, farmers and fishermen have railed against the APECO project.
This 12-thousand-hectare economic zone will be a manufacturing and industrial complex located in front of the Pacific Ocean – a real threat to the livelihood of Aurora’s current residents.
Villagers will have limited access to their rich fishing and farming grounds.
The local church has organized international and local support against the project.
Father Jose Francisco Talaban is from the local church.
“We’re doing an International Solidarity Mission because we believe that through the solidarity of the many people who are very sympathetic to rights of the farmers, the fisher folks, the indigenous people, we can make this advocacy really brought into the different countries and will help us to tell that there are people here in Casiguran, Aurora asking for help. By your help, the people will be encouraged especially the victims of the Aurora Pacific economic zone, to stand for their rights.”
During the mission visit, people affected by the project stand up and raise their voices on the stage.
Victor Abahon is a member of the indigenous group Agta.
“They say they offer development. But they don’t consult us. It’s only for those who support them. We also like development but when they put up buildings in our island, how can we work there? They are taking our fishing grounds, our source of livelihood.”
The campaign’s tagline is: “It’s more fun in Aurora without APECO” – a twist on the Philippines’ new tourism slogan.
But it’s far from fun for Father Jose Fransisco Talaban, whose convent room wall was bombed by alleged supporters of the APECO project.
“It was 2 o’clock in the morning, I was sleeping when the bombing incident happened, on the wall of my room, I heard a heavy, big explosion, followed by three gunshots. We searched but the culprits had escaped. We thought that it’s just an ordinary thing that I heard, but at 5 o‘clock when I woke up, in the pathway near my room, I saw 5 laminated materials, in that, they accused me as communist, the son of the demon. There were petitions and they asked the bishop that I have to be replaced here, it was orchestrated by barangay officials here.”
In Manila, APECO president Robbie Mathay defends the project saying it is for a greater good.
“There are so many beaches, and the natural beauty of that place, it’s hard to imagine nobody put up hotels, would need staff. Investments in community has sort of multiplier effect. Maybe eco-trekking, here’s a lot of mountain trail, waterfalls. Initially, we’re seeing domestic tourism. I expect in 3 years time period, we’ll be attracting the mainstream international tourists from the region like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea. Maybe within the next year, backpackers, we’ll be welcoming them.”
The government has allocated 7 million US dollars from this year’s budget and the first phase – a 3-star hotel and administration building – is already underway.
The bill that created the Aurora Special Economic Zone or ASEZA was signed into law by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on June 2007 and began operation a year later.
Two years later, the law was amended and renamed the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone, or APECO, and was granted a much larger area.
Despite ongoing protests, Aurora Governor Bella Angara-Castillo says the majority of the population support the project.
“We will submit recommendations for Congress to at least review or if possible repeal law the creating APCEO.”
Mark Cebreros from the Human Rights Commission is speaking to the media about human rights violations in connection to APECO.
“We’re also going to conduct further ground investigation, we’re recommending that the Commission send several investigators to the field to take depositions from the affected residents, and finally, we’re recommending for the conduct of a public inquiry for all stakeholders, even the proponents, so there will be an opportunity for all of them to meaningfully dialogue and attempt to come out with a just and equitable solution.”
APECO’s president Robbie Mathay says he is ready to start a dialogue with the residents.
“Maybe their perception of what APECO can do is probably ill-advised by certain parties. We’re being accused that we’re land grabbing, that we’re violating human rights. We’re very business- like in the way we conduct our business, we’re open and transparent, and we try to involve all stakeholders in the community. It’s a really big area, so maybe when we conduct our dialogue, (which) we have to do per barangay (village); not all of them area there at once, and not all questions are addressed in general assembly, in think there’s still some confusion of what APECO is going to be.”
Groups opposed to the project have filed a case to repeal the law.
Bishop Rolando Tria Tirona, a member of the anti-APECO movement, tells locals not to lose hope.
“At the end, the truth will come out.”