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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dumagats, fighting for their culture, way of life and future in Casiguran, Aurora, vs. the Angaras and Apeco, find sympathizers and defenders in the Monsods and Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan.


Former NEDA director-general
 Winnie Monsod

A tiny sampling of the indigenous people of Casiguran in Aurora province along the Pacific coast of Luzon was gathered in Faber Hall of the Ateneo University in Q.C., earlier this morning for a press conference called by the Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan, headed by its executive director, Fr. Xavier C. Alpasa, S.J. The aim was to bring into sharper public focus the plight of the indigenous people vs. the scandal-ridden Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport  Authority (Apeco) created by law by the powerful Angaras of that province.

The non-violent Dumagats tried to put on a brave face as they sat in the presscon with their Ateneo supporters; but anyone’s heart would easily go to them as they protest that their ancestral lands and fishing grounds have been grabbed from them---without consultation and due process. 

Some 120 of them, dark-skinned and kinky-haired men and women, had walked 350 kms. from Casiguran to Manila last December to seek an audience with President Aquino about their plight. But he was in a foul mood during the meeting at San Jose Major Seminary, as arranged by Fr. Jett Villarin, Ateneo President and classmate of P-Noy. 

Last month, the Dumagats forsook their homes and hit the road again, trekking first to Baguio to try to bring  their plight to the justices of the Supreme Court on vacation there. From Baguio they marched down to Manila again, this time hoping to pressure P-Noy to deliver on his promise of last December of a review by Neda of the  P11 billion Apeco project in Casiguran.  

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Yesterday morning they won a partial victory, as Neda rejected the concept of Apeco as freeport and transshipment project---as conceptualized in RA 9490, passed in 2007 but later amended and expanded by RA 10083 in 2010. Instead NEDA recommended Apeco's conversion into an agro-aqua and ecotourism zone to help promote the vast and diversified natural resources of Casiguran and neighboring municipalities in Aurora, and the preserved quality of its natural environment. 

 But NEDA clearly also recommended withholding “further investment support for installation of additional facilities in Apeco until its completion of its master plan and other essential corporate business plans and policies in place.”  In other words, no more additional funds for now, which is a sensible and correct posture. For the fact is that by this time, three years after the amended law was passed, Apeco has used up nearly P11 billion in public funds and there’s very little to show in terms of return on investment---a WHITE ELEPHANT. 

There are no commercial flights to and from the airport, no ships a-calling at this eastern seaport as most major shipping routes remain concentrated on the Western seabord. There are hardly any locators, but this should not be surprising---for there is only about a max of 20 hours’ energy for Casiguran and neighboring municipalities.


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Christian Monsod
Former NEDA director-general Winnie Monsod, who together with husband Christian Monsod, has been supportive of the plight of the Dumagats (both spoke at this morning’s presscon), had lamented in her column last Saturday that the NEDA recommendation of continuing support for Apeco is a “huge mistake.”  This is because Apeco still lacks a master plan, a land-use plan, feasibility studies for various projects, other operational plans, and coordination between stakeholders, government and civil society organizations.  

The conclusion one can arrive at, she said in her column, is that “this is a situation where a conclusion comes first, with the findings supporting that conclusion having to be tailored during the interim.” Or “this is an attempt to postpone facing the political fallout until such time that the damage would be minimized.” 

But the FALLOUT IS NOW. It's election time for the five Angaras running (one for the Senate, another for the House, another for governor and two for the  provincial and municipal boards), except for the paterfamilias who's winding up his second term in the Senate.


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Another former NEDA director-general, Dr. Cielito Habito of the Ramos era, was just as merciless in his column today, as he sensed the “agony that must have gone into (yesterday’s Neda review’s) preparation.” 

It should be noted that all the Neda Chiefs since Winnie have thumbed down the Apeco concept, except for current Chief Arsenio Balisacan (who was bumped off from P-Noy's chartered plane to the Asean meeting in Brunei after he courageously released worsening poverty statistics here).

Balisacan, this time apparently caving in to tremendous political pressure, obviously "agonized" over the Apeco review and sought a compromise by recommending shift of the project from the unviable ecozone to an agri-aqua and tourism project. But the question is, would Apeco flourish as a tourism hub with the province's power problem in a typhoon belt area, and the 10-11 hours per trip from Manila over rough, undeveloped roads?


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Taking the cue from Winnie Monsod’s “here’s-the-conclusion-come-up with the study” observation, Habito termed it “policy-based evidence making,” in  reverse of what should be “evidence-based policy making.” In plain language, Apeco became a case, he said, of putting the cart before the horse.

What the critics are saying is that the authors of the law creating Apeco, Sen. Edgardo Angara and son, Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara Jr. (now running for senator under President Aquino’s LP) first worked out the law and then began creating the conditions for implementing it AFTERWARDS---which is why the feasibility studies, master plan and other requisites STILL HAVE TO COME as an after-thought.


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Dr. Habito noted that with all the deficiencies suffered by Apeco, chief among them its failure to be connected to the Luzon power grid, “Apeco has difficulty attracting major investors.” Tied up to this fact, he said, is that government statistics show that poverty in Aurora worsened by over 10 percentage points, from 20.4% in 2009 to 30.7% in early 2012.

Habito also cited findings of the original master-planner hired in 2006, the world-renowned Palafox Associates, as testified in the Senate inquiry by architect Felino Palafox Jr.: that the Apeco site is “subject to flooding, liquefaction and storm surge” (Palafox was slapped a libel suit by Sen. Angara). These findings, said Habito, pose “severe questions on the environmental integrity of the area development, and dramatically raising required engineering costs."

He stressed that “basic road, energy, water and communications infratstructure long lacking in Aurora province must be provided without delay if its residents’ lives are to be uplifted through expanded economic activities and better linkages to markets.”

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The controversy over Apeco brings its critics as well as sympathizers of the protesting Dumagats to the key issue of its viability. While Neda recommends continuing support for Apeco (which Winnie termed in her column a “huge mistake”) it also does not want to sink in more money into the project---after the P11 billion that went into the still-far-from-finished freeport zone, much of which, as COA noted, remains unexplained and unaccounted for.  

It’s even a nightmare that without a master plan or feasibility studies and given all the disaster-prone characteristics of the area, the freeport zone was able to bag the incredible funding sunk into it. This really shows how superficial Congress can be about enacting legislations (reports say a total of only a half hour was devoted to the one and only Senate hearing on this multi-billion project). 

It also shows what dynastic power can wreak especially in a small province.

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At today’s presscon, Winnie Monsod opined that the Freeport concept is simply not viable, so that the shift to an agro-aqua zone might be more sensible. The Dumagats, led by Fr. Joefran Talaban, the militant parish priest of Casiguran, welcomed this shift too, as it would be more akin to their cultural background and environmental resources.

On the other hand, Christian Monsod, who has been “lawyering” gratis et amore for the Dumagats, declared plainly that the more immediate recourse should be to ensure that RA 10083 creating Apeco should be struck out of the statute books. Otherwise, it will continue to be a source of graft and corruption “and can be used by the Angaras well into the future.”

Atty. Monsod cited the possibility of smuggling prevalent in freeports, lottery and gambling, collecting taxes for private benefit, violating the Local Government Code by taking over LGUs, issuance of three-year visas to locators, etc.

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Listening to the Monsod couple talking freely about Apeco’s negatives before the awe-struck Dumagats and bewildered Ateneo students, I was quite impressed. For I know how close they are to the Angaras, especially Winnie who had worked with Sen. Ed Angara when he was president of the UP in the dying years of the Marcos era. Noting their incredible outspokenness about Apeco's negatives before the presscon, Winnie replied that truth has to be stated and this goes beyond friendships.

By contrast, the Inquirer, in a nearly half page story-interview yesterday on Sonny Angara to obviously shore him up despite media flak, quoted him as saying “I’m prepared to defend Apeco;” yet the interview stops at that remark---when this issue should be the very meat of his campaign. Young Angara should be grilled toughly on this raging issue as his dynastic family has toyed with the lives and future of the indigenous folks---all in the name of a “development” alien to them. 

In fact because of Apeco, Sonny Angara doesn't deserve the people's vote.



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