Updated 19:22 PM PHT Mon, January 9, 2017
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It has been almost 10 years since Republic Act 9490 or the Aurora Special Economic Zone Act of 2007 was passed, establishing the controversial Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO), and creating the Aurora Pacific Economic and Freeport Zone.
The ecozone, among others, was supposed to accelerate “sound and balanced industrial, economic, and social development,” provide jobs, increase productivity, and improve living conditions in the area, by way of attracting foreign investments through special economic zones. The law was amended in 2010 as RA 10083, expanding the original 496-hectare span of the ecozone to 12,923.
Nine years on, the project has yet to realize any of its projected benefits, and has been plagued with repeated, if yet unheeded calls against its establishment, with anti-APECO advocates citing instances of land grabbing and human rights violations committed in the project’s name.
From November 24 to December 13, 2012, people of Casiguran, Aurora marched to Malacañang demanding that the ecozone not be allowed to further encroach their land. Before Christmas day in 2012, on the road for nearly 20 days, fisherfolk, farmers, and indigenous people (IPs) sang, “Api kami sa APECO sa Casiguran kaya kami’y naglalakad tungong Malacañang.”
Reaching the capital, they met then-President Noynoy Aquino, who promised them that the law would be reviewed.
The project had since received a massive budget cut — from over ₱300 million in 2008 to just ₱40 million in 2015. Protesters continue to demand for zero budget, while APECO claims that the cuts have been preventing it from generating output.
More than four years later, the people of Casiguran still sing. But in the meantime, they sing love songs.
The yearly Christmas party at the Nuestra Señora de la Salvación Parish Church in Barangay Bianoan has the karaoke set as a staple. ‘Pag binigyan mo sila ng microphone, hindi na ‘yan titigil (Once you give them the microphone, they will sing to no end), says Fr. Joefran Talaban, the Bianoan parish priest.
The party last 2016, held on December 20, began with a roll call of attendees from various barangays in Casiguran. Most of the attendees are familiar with each other — many of them go to church in Bianoan, while some of them walked nearly 370 kilometers to Manila in 2012. They are no strangers to the call against APECO.
Aside from being the priest there for 16 years now, Fr. Joefran is also a convenor of Task Force Anti-APECO (TFAA), whose national office is the Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SLB), the sociopolitical apostolate of the Philippine Jesuits. He shares that he has stayed in Casiguran for the advocacy. “What’s great about [it] here is that there is no big national organization that directs the thrust of the movement. It really comes from the people [here],” he shares.
The Anti-APECO movement consists of three different communities: fisherfolk, farmers, and indigenous people. They claim that APECO, which was spearheaded by the Angaras of Aurora, was done without consultation with the locals. Too, it had a different view of progress.
The way APECO sees it, progress is an eco-tourist resort, an airport, the “Ayon Kalikasan” Housing Project, even an ice plant in the yet untapped town of Casiguran. For the locals, progress means remaining in their land, taking from it just enough to sustain them from day to day; they will tell you that they never take anything in excess, only what is needed.
This is what Tatay Aurelio Pasco believes. At 83, he still tends a garden of okra, kamote, and pechay, among others, outside his home. These, coupled with some local produce, would be enough to feed his family before.
But now, most of his 11 kids work outside Aurora and he lives alone. Without a family to feed, he jokingly says he just trades his few crops for cigarettes.
He shares that his sight and hearing are beginning to fail him, but while he still has his senses, he reads and tells stories. He did not march with the other Casiguranins in 2012 — he would have been too slow to keep up. But he did get to Manila, in a van with student volunteers who took him to Ateneo, where the protesters slept and made rounds from classroom to classroom to speak about their cause.
“Tatlong hagdan ang inakyat at binaba ko para i-kuwento ang nalalaman ko tungkol sa APECO (I went up and down three flights of stairs to speak of what I knew about APECO),” Tatay Aurelio recalls. This is what he knows: that farmers like him do not need APECO, as it will abuse the land that feeds Casiguranins.
Anti-APECO groups say that the economic zone violates the following laws: the Local Government Code, Fisheries Code, Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA), and the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (CARPER).
Citizens and advocates have also accused APECO of land grabbing. Community organizers Liza Vargas and Rosy Torres share that a strip of Barangay Tibo’s coast was recently purchased from its residents. They say the owners are now just tenants there. “Para kang naging dayuhan sa sarili mong lupa,” they lament.
Youth volunteers affiliated with Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SLB) visit regularly and often to do social work. Mark Legaspi is among these youth volunteers. A graduate of Ateneo de Manila, he has done ethnographic work for SLB, consulting community members regarding their status and needs in order to guide SLB’s programs. This Christmas marks his sixth, maybe seventh time in Casiguran.
By now, Legaspi knows very well why many locals oppose APECO. Walking through Barangay Esteves, APECO’s pilot area, he surveys the expanding housing project, which has taken over fields that used to be green. Rows of yellow concrete stilt houses constitute the first phase of the project.
The project is now on its second phase and more houses are still being added; for now, they remain to be roofless grey skeletons. There is no one in the area save for a security guard at the outpost, with a “No trespassing, APECO property” sign overhead.
Despite this, the farmers of Esteves carry on cultivating the land they can still consider theirs, as they did even before the development project came.
Meanwhile, the APECO management maintains that the project will invite immense economic growth from foreign and local investments. Previously set to be a freeport zone — it called itself the “Gateway of the Pacific” due to its strategic location — APECO now mainly aims to be an agro-aqua and ecotourism spot. This pivot came after a National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) review in early 2013, which identified the development site’s agro-aqua and ecotourism potential given the town’s natural resources.
NEDA recommended, though, that this proposal not be implemented immediately so that the APECO management could further refine their master plan. “Partnership with local government units and other national agencies through dialogues and consultations would truly make the effort supportive of inclusive growth,” it also said.
What constitutes “growth,” however, may mean differently for some people of Casiguran.
“Hindi ko kailangan ang pera nila. Kami, masaya na sa sapat lang na makakain. Silang maraming pera, hindi nila naiintindihan (I do not need their money. We here are happy with just enough to eat. The rich do not understand this),” Tatay Aurelio says.
He does not claim to speak on behalf of other Casiguranins who oppose APECO. He says the fisherfolk and Dumagat people have their own views on the sprawling land development. But in the end, the song of protest binds them.
Toward ‘bottom-up’ development
This year, the fisherfolk of Casiguran welcomed Christmas with songs of praise.
Fisherfolk of the recently formed group Pinagbuklod ang Nagkakaisang Diwa Alang-alang sa mga Mangingisda (PANDAMA) received boats from SLB as part of the non-government organization’s livelihood programs. “Nakita nating hindi puwedeng matapos na lamang sa adbokasiya. Kailangan mayroon din tayong mga alternatibo (We saw that we cannot be content with just advocacy. We also need alternatives),” Fr. Joefran says before blessing the boats.
SLB has been an official community partner since 2013, after the Casiguranins marched to Malacañang hence. It was SLB, in partnership with Ateneo de Manila, that organized the dialogue with then-President Noynoy Aquino.
The boats are the result of continuous consultations with the community. “Kailangan talagang tanungin muna ang komunidad: Ano ba ang kailangan niyo (It is necessary to first ask the community: What do you need)?” This is much more sustainable than APECO’s top-down design of development, believes Fr. Joefran. Bishop Bernardino Cortez, there to officiate the blessing, shares this view. He urges the community to remember the history of the boats in their continued efforts to bottom-up development.
After Christmas and coming into the new year, there is much work to do for fisherfolk, farmers, IPs, and partner organizations. Advocates are looking forward to a dialogue with Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) Secretary Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano early this 2017 regarding APECO’s alleged illegal conversion of agricultural land for its housing project.
As holy water reaches the bows of the boats, the fisherfolk sing “Pananagutan” (which loosely translates into “responsibility”): Walang sinuman ang nabubuhay para sa sarili lamang, wala sinuman ang namamatay para sa sarili lamang. Tayong lahat ay may pananagutan sa isa’t isa.
Nobody lives nor dies alone in Casiguran, where the people share what they get from the land and the sea that feed them.