Farmers, fisherfolk and Dumagat and Agta indigenous groups in Casiguran, Aurora province, trooped to the Supreme Court (SC) Monday to ask it to declare unconstitutional the two laws that created the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport (Apeco).
They called on the high court to review and eventually prohibit the implementation of Republic Act No. 9490, which created Apeco, and RA No. 10083, which amended it to increase the free port area to 12,923 hectares. The laws, they claimed, created a “super body that has powers of the executive and legislative branches of government.”
At a news conference later, Bishop Broderick Pabilio said the petitioners hoped that the court would be fair, considering that nothing happened at the dialogue between President Aquino and Aurora residents in December last year when they launched an 18-day, 350-kilometer march to Manila to dramatize their opposition to the Apeco project.
At that time, the President ordered a review of Apeco, which aims to create the country’s first economic hub at the edge of the Pacific, but rejected calls that he cut funding and scrap the project altogether. He sided with then Sen. Edgardo Angara, expressing his belief that the project covering over 12,000 ha would benefit Central Luzon.
The Dumagat and Agta youth leaders left their villages in Casiguran on Saturday and proceeded to Manila to file the petition. Some of the petitioners joined the march to Manila, according to Fr. Joefran Talaban, Casiguran parish priest.
RA No. 9490 and RA No. 10083 were enacted without securing the consent or considering the needs of Casiguran folk, said Pedro Calivara, chair of the municipal fishery and aquatic resources management council and one of the petitioners.
“That project just sprang up. We had no idea about it and we were not consulted about it,” said Calivara, who served as an official of Barangay Esteves at the time.
According to a fact sheet about the lawsuit, the Apeco laws also violated the constitutional provisions on social justice, local autonomy, agrarian reform, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk and economic viability, he said.
Former Senator Angara and his son, Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, authored the laws to introduce economic development to the province, which is surrounded by the Sierra Madre mountain range and the Pacific Ocean in eastern Central Luzon.
Following the dialogue with Apeco critics, the President directed the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) to review the project. Neda submitted its report to Malacañang in May, but the port’s mandate remains unchanged, said Kent Avestrus, Apeco deputy administrator.
“It is still a free port. The [new Neda] mandate is to establish industries, tourism and agricultural-aquatic (agri-aqua) projects. We have focused on the latter and tourism to be able to give Apeco a comparative advantage and integrate the communities,” Avestrus said when reached by telephone on Saturday.
He said a proposed agri-aqua park has been situated in a
90-ha area within 496 ha of Parcel 1 of the port while Parcel 2, covering 12,426 ha, has been reserved as a forest area.
“We don’t intend to use this. We may later venture into [Integrated Social Forestry] projects,” he said.
He said President Aquino had not yet appointed a chair to the Apeco board. The board directors include Gov. Gerardo Noveras, Casiguran Mayor Ricky Bitong and Aurora
Rep. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo.
“We are proceeding in the right direction as far as Apeco is concerned,” Avestrus said, quoting Neda findings.
Apeco, he said, needs to improve its utilities and transportation system.
In Baguio City on Thursday during a health forum, Noveras said Apeco administrators had concentrated on the development of an airport while investors maintain a healthy distance from the controversial free port until all the legal issues are cleared.
But Calivara said portions of the airport, as well as a site meant for the free port’s administration building, would displace 20 ha of mangroves.
Pabilio asked the President not to include funding to the Apeco project in the proposed 2014 national budget, which is up for discussion in Congress.
He asked the President to consider helping the majority of the people and “not just one family and foreigners.”
Apeco failed the economic viability assessment of Neda, the 70-page petition said.
On the local autonomy violations, it pointed out that for one, the power of taxation was threatened by the Apeco law because it was “unclear whether the affected local governments can exercise their power to create its own sources of revenue.”
It said the Apeco law had “super body powers that make it a sovereign entity above the LGUs (local government units) and the national government.”
Lawyer Eirene Aguila told reporters that the Department of Justice had released a legal opinion in April stating that some parts covered in the Apeco free port were agricultural lands, such as the 110-ha campus of Aurora State College of Technology.
Another lawyer, Ray Paolo Santiago, said this only showed that no consultations were made to the farmers and residents in that area.