A real estate firm owned by the brother-in-law of Executive Secretary Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa Jr. benefited from a “midnight deal” during the Arroyo administration for the lease of 2,000 hectares of forest land and beach-front property in Busuanga, Palawan province, according to whistle-blower Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada and documents obtained by the Inquirer.
Presidential Proclamation No. 2057 was signed by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on May 7, 2010, or three days before the general elections.
The proclamation authorized Philippine Forest Corp. (Philforest) to “administer the development of the area covered” by the Busuanga Pasture Reserve, vast pasture and grazing lands on the picturesque island municipality.
The pasture reserve also covers pristine white-sand beaches which, Lozada said, had been identified as prime tourism areas.
Philforest has been identified by Malacañang as one of the five state entities which had been used as conduits in the anomalous release of pork barrel of lawmakers to fake nongovernment organizations (NGOs).
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said Malacañang was set to abolish Philforest and approve the indefinite suspension of its current president, Erwin Krishna Santos.
On Nov. 17, 2009, Philforest entered into a “tenurial agreement” with New San Jose Builders Inc. (NSJBI), a real estate company owned by businessman Jerry Acuzar, who is married to Ochoa’s sister.
In the agreement, Philforest gave Acuzar’s company the right to develop the public lands “into a technically feasible and economically viable grazing land in accordance with its approved development plan.”
The agreement was signed by then Philforest president Harlin Cast Abayon and NSJBI president Felicisimo Isidoro.
Lozada, a former Philforest president, said President Aquino should have canceled the deal as he had promised to annul all agreements that Arroyo entered into during the last few weeks of her administration.
Against midnight deals
“The President said he was against all the midnight deals that Arroyo had signed. That included the appointment of (ousted) Chief Justice (Renato) Corona,” Lozada told the Inquirer.
“He used billions of pesos in presidential pork barrel, presidential power and presidential influence, and the support of the people (to impeach Corona) … He should be consistent and prove that he was fighting for his principles and not out of vindictiveness,” said the whistle-blower in the NBN-ZTE deal.
“But they will not do that … These things are happening under the Office of the President. That really saddens me,” he added.
Lozada said at least two whistle-blowers had agreed to come out and testify that the agreement was disadvantageous to the government.
Under the agreement, Lozada said NSJBI should pay Philforest P500 per hectare in annual lease.
For some unknown reason, he said the annual rental was lowered to P100 per hectare.
Asked why Philforest agreed to lower the lease price, he said: “That’s the question. Why only P100?”
“The real test of daang matuwid (straight path policy) in this particular case is not whether the agreement between [Philforest and NSJBI] was canceled or not. The right question is why Presidential Proclamation No. 2057 has not been recalled,” Lozada said.
Quoting residents, Lozada said the current monthly lease of beach-front properties in Busuanga was P3,000 per hectare, while forest lands could fetch up to P2,000 per hectare every month.
Yulo King Ranch
The 2,000 ha awarded to NSJBI was part of the 40,000 ha that then President Ferdinand Marcos awarded to Yulo King Ranch (YKR) in 1978 for the breeding of cattle through a presidential decree.
The Palawan provincial government has been asking the national government through the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development to transfer portions of YKR to farmer beneficiaries from Coron and Busuanga towns who have been occupying the land.
The sprawling property is within the jurisdiction of Coron and Busuanga.
The Bureau of Animal Industry took over the property after Edsa I in 1986 and converted it into the Busuanga Breeding and Experimental Stations.
In the agreement, Philforest said NSJBI won the rights to the parcel of lands during the bidding that the agency conducted on Nov. 6, 2009, or 11 days before the deal was signed.
Lozada said the two whistle-blowers identified Ochoa’s consultant, a certain Glen Mislang, as the one who runs the affairs of Philforest.
He said the whistle-blowers would present evidence, including phone calls, supposedly showing Mislang’s influence in Philforest.
“Erwin Santos [Philforest president who was suspended indefinitely in the wake of the pork barrel scam] is just their dummy there … That’s also the reason why Erwin Santos, despite being an active part of the propaganda of the Arroyo administration against me and the Senate, has been rewarded very well by this administration,” Lozada said.
Lozada is facing charges for awarding parcels of land to his brother.
He said religious groups had repeatedly sent letters to Aquino asking him to void Arroyo’s proclamation over the Busuanga lands, but they did not get any reply from the President.
Santos was appointed by then Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, who Lozada said was a close friend of Acuzar.
Lozada said Acuzar was also known to have close ties to Speaker Feliciano Belmonte.
“If you will look at its (NSJBI) history, it got its biggest project in 1988 when Atienza was chair of the NHA (National Housing Authority),” he said.
At that time, Lozada said Belmonte was the head of the Government Service Insurance System while Ochoa was the GSIS legal counsel.
Ochoa also served as city administrator during Belmonte’s nine-year tenure as mayor of Quezon City.
“The sad reality is that the people who are abusing this nation are usually business associates. They just look for new partners when the new administration comes in,” he said.
The Inquirer called up Ochoa to get his side but he did not respond.
The plan to abolish Philforest is a mere “cover” to supposedly protect Aquino’s allies involved in the pork barrel scam, said an official of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Men in the Philippines (AMRSMP).
Over Church-run Radio Veritas on Monday, Fr. Marlon Lacal, AMRSMP executive secretary, said the investigation of dubious deals the Philforest entered into with bogus NGOs must not stop at Santos but must “go to the highest level of power.”
Lacal said that the investigation must include Ochoa, who he claimed was a close friend of Santos.
The priest alleged that Ochoa used his ties to Santos to pave the awarding of government land in Busuanga to his brother-in-law.
Also on Radio Veritas, Lozada said the paper trail and evidence showing how Ochoa’s brother-in-law benefited from Philforest’s transactions may vanish with the closure of the state firm, the agro-forestry arm of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.—With reports from Jocelyn R. Uy in Manila and Redempto Anda, Inquirer Southern Luzon