Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, in a dialogue with peasants on an 18-day march to Malacañang to protest a rising economic zone in Aurora, on Monday called for an “examination of conscience” to determine if Sen. Edgardo Angara’s vision of development would benefit the impoverished region.
Tagle said that in a recent meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), the prelates were shown a video of the project in the coastal town of Casiguran and vowed to help bring the peasants’ concerns to the attention of President Aquino and the nation at large.
The newly installed cardinal met with 120 representatives of 2,983 families of farmers, fishermen and indigenous people opposing the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (Apeco) being pushed by the senator and his son, Aurora Rep. Sonny Angara, a senatorial candidate for the ruling Liberal Party in next year’s elections.
“I hope the voice of the residents of Casiguran paves the way for an examination of conscience. We cling to models of progress which do not suit us and will not give us development,” Tagle said, particularly referring to Apeco.
“The bishops were moved,” he said of the video shown in the CBCP meeting. “We agreed that we will do everything we can to try to help your concerns, to not only make President Aquino but all Filipinos know.”
“On my own, I will try to help. This is an act of love, an act of peace and not of violence. This is an act of love for the family, for the land, for the sea and for nature’s treasures. I hope the whole country will listen,” Tagle said.
But he lamented, “The voice of love is not always heeded.” As the peasants fell silent, he sought to encourage them to continue their struggle. “You are not alone, we are many,” he said.
The cardinal thanked the marchers for their sacrifice that, he said, could trigger soul-searching among Filipinos seeking to ease the lives of the poor that sometimes do more harm than good.
The peasants set out from Casiguran on Nov. 24 to dramatize their opposition to the 12,923-hectare special economic zone being built in their hometown at the edge of the Pacific.
Officials to meet marchers
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters Monday he could not say if Mr. Aquino would be able to see the protesters when they march on the Palace Tuesday but he said some officials would meet with them.
He also said the President had ordered Cabinet officials to craft options addressing their concerns.
“They have studied the matter and they will be discussing some options which take into consideration the farmers’ welfare. So these options will be presented to the President,” Lacierda said.
He said those handling the Apeco issue were Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., Secretary Julia Abad of the Presidential Management Staff, Secretary to the Cabinet Rene Almendras, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio delos Reyes, Strategic Communication Secretary Ricky Carandang and officials of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
The protesters claimed that Apeco was seizing large areas of agricultural lands from farmers, intruded into ancestral lands of the indigenous Agtas, and displaced 28 families in the construction of a 1.5-meter airstrip. They said that hundreds of other families of fishermen would have to been driven away for the construction of a seaport.
Apeco was also accused of violating environmental laws when it cleared 10 ha of mangroves, which have been protected by the fishermen for their livelihood.
Also affected by the developments undertaken by the Apeco were farmers from Sitio (sub-village) Reserva in Barangay (village) Esteves and the San Ildefonso Peninsula.
‘Malicious and vicious’
Apeco was created through Republic Act No. 9490 in 2007 and begun the following year. The law was amended through RA 10083, again sponsored by Senator Angara and his son in the House. It was not vetoed by President Aquino and lapsed into law in 2010.
The protest marchers sought a review and possible repeal of the law creating Apeco, as well as the provision of settlement areas for displaced fisherfolk families. They also called on the agrarian reform department to distribute 105 ha of agricultural land to the farmers of Sitio Reserva in Barangay Esteves and end their 50-year struggle for land ownership.
“The entire law should be repealed because it violates the Local Government Code for not consulting the local government,” Fr. Joefran Talaban, parish priest of Casiguran marching with the protesters, said in a text message.
In a privilege speech on Nov. 28, Senator Angara dismissed the charges against Apeco as “malicious and vicious.”
He said “land acquisition has always followed a regular pattern of negotiation and purchase.”
“Even now, Apeco is valuable as an alternate passageway for Quirino, Nueva Vizcaya and Isabela. And as the only airport and seaport complex in the Pacific Rim in the Philippines, Apeco will be the most strategic site, given its waters are at an average of 24-m deep and is protected from the elements by the San Ildefonso Peninsula. It will become an important shipping hub on the Pacific Side,” he said.