Sen. Sergio Osmeña III on Tuesday vowed to block the P353-million budget next year for the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (Apeco), saying Sen. Edgardo Angara’s pet project has “absolutely no chance of succeeding in 50 years” and that the P2 billion spent for it had been wasted.
In a news conference, Osmeña said he would move for a zero budget for Apeco before the Senate ended its deliberations on the P2-trillion budget for 2013 on Wednesday.
Trouble is, there might not be enough senators present when he makes the motion because most of them leave the session hall as the debates go on.
Osmeña said Angara was aware of his efforts to block Apeco’s budget. “He has indicated his displeasure many times but I told him, ‘Between you and the people of Casiguran, I’ll side with the people,’” he later told the Inquirer.
Around 120 farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous peoples supported by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) on Saturday began an 18-day, 350-kilometer march “for justice and for matuwid na daan” to press demands that President Aquino review or modify the proposed ecozone in Aurora province.
The marchers represent 3,000 families affected by the project in Casiguran, a storm-lashed third-class municipality on the edge of the Pacific with a population of 23,000.
“Almost P2 billion has been spent in the last five years on a freeport that has not a single locator. The people’s money was wasted under the pretense of a project that has absolutely no chance of succeeding in 50 years,” Osmeña said.
In an interview with the Inquirer, Angara called Osmeña’s criticism “malicious and vicious.”
Saying that his province has long been neglected, Angara said:
“For the first time, Aurora would provide a gateway to the Pacific. There is already a 1,600-meter runway that would soon extend to 2 kilometers, a seaport to be constructed, the road connection bridge is complete and the administration building is up. At least five locators are doing preparatory work in the area. We are in effect unlocking the potential of almost 1 million hectares of land and sea. I would suggest that Serge go there so he can see the actual developments.”
One of Osmeña’s guests, Fr. Edwin Gariguez of the CBCP’s National Secretariat for Social Action, said Apeco’s forcible acquisition of land from peasants “can be considered large-scale plunder and land grabbing by a powerful political dynasty in Aurora.”
Gariguez said the marchers would also demand an explanation from the President why Angara’s son, Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, was included in the senatorial lineup of the Liberal Party.
The Angaras sponsored in their respective chambers the bills creating Apeco. It was signed in 2007 by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. An amendment to the measure was not signed by President Aquino and lapsed into law in 2010.
Work began in 2008 to develop one of the most impoverished areas in the country into a tourism spa and encourage investments in aquamarine, agro-industrial and business outsourcing enterprises.
Osmeña said Senator Angara has virtual control over nominations to Apeco’s board of directors. He said that at one point, Representative Angara and his aunt, Aurora Gov. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, both sat on the five-member board.
In next year’s elections, Senator Angara is running for the post of Castillo, who in turn is seeking to fill Sonny Angara’s congressional seat.
Osmeña also alleged that Apeco enjoyed additional funds through “insertions” in the budgets of the trade and industry, agriculture, and science and technology departments.
Casiguran sits on the typhoon belt and is “not attractive to shipping,” Osmeña said, adding that the area also is far from factories in Metro Manila and Central Luzon.
The 12,923-hectare special economic zone also is not linked to the national electric grid, according to the chair of the Senate energy committee.
Osmeña noted that because of these factors, Apeco had yet to attract a single locator to do business in the freeport.
Farmers that Osmeña brought to the Senate accused Apeco of forcibly acquiring their land and vowed to deliver zero votes for Sonny Angara in his senatorial bid.
Vic Fabe, president of Pakisama, said affiliates of the national federation of farmers’ groups with 65,000 members in 49 provinces have vowed to make sure that Sonny Angara would get zero votes in next year’s elections.
“This is an example of how a whole town can be oppressed by one political dynasty,” Osmeña told reporters. “By enlisting the support of the whole nation to the farmers’ plight, we might be able to find relief and some form of compensation to the damage done to them.”
Osmeña said local officials in Aurora could have gathered more revenues had they thought of exploiting Casiguran’s natural tourism attractions instead of forcibly converting the area to an industrial site. He said that the Angara family was mainly using Apeco’s runway facilities for their chartered flights.
Forced to sell land
Since Senator Angara made the proposal in 2001 on a 500-ha area, the project has expanded 24 times, according to Osmeña.
Fabe alleged that Apeco grew to this size because farmers were forced to sell their land at P40,000 per ha to a certain Benjamin Miña, reportedly a protégé of Angara, who in turn sold the land to Apeco for P700,000 per hectare.
Farmer Florentina Solis of Barangay Esteves in Casiguran recalled that settlers toiled to make the farmland productive.
“Now that the land is well irrigated and developed, Apeco wants to take it all. But we know our rights under the agrarian law. The land belongs to those who take care of it. And we will demand that we will be finally given our titles,” she said.
Osmeña said Apeco would eventually become redundant especially when an agreement among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations turning the area into a virtual free trade hub takes effect in 2015.
“Besides, we already have Subic and Clark (freeport zones). It would not help locators to do business in Aurora so a freeport there would be no real advantage to the country,” he explained.