Casiguran tribal leaders deny APECO land grab

Tribal leaders and barangay officials in Casiguran town in Aurora province on Tuesday denied that the Angara-led Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (APECO) has been forcibly acquiring their ancestral land. At a press conference at the Senate, several tribal leaders, chieftains and barangay officials defended APECO and said they were not being forced to sell their land for use by the economic zone. "Wala pong pinapaalis, walang inaagawan ng lupa, wala pong katotohanan 'yun," said Dalugan settlement chieftain Tersing Bitagan. "Wala pong inaagaw na kahit isang lupa sa amin," added Madrona Corbadura, a local official in Barangay Esteves. This was contrary to the claim of Task Force Anti-APECO, which said numerous residents had manifested in affidavits submitted to the Supreme Court on October 12, 2011 that they were victims of "intimidation, deception, legal manipulation, and social tactics by APECO-linked brokers." "APECO’s land acquisition activities have clearly not followed a 'regular pattern of negotiation and purchase.' On the contrary, obligations to due process have been sullied, and truthful bargaining have been supplanted with a variety of underhanded dealings," the task force said in a statement. Fair price, housing The Casiguran chieftains and barangay officials, however, said that APECO bought land at a fair price and even provided housing for the sellers. They said that no one was forced to sell their land. Dumagipo settlement chieftain Joel Guerra said APECO even gave them livelihood opportunities. "Lahat ng requests namin ginagawa ng APECO. Ang 'di ko lang po lubos maisip bakit 'yung nakakatulong mismo sa katutubo na tapat 'yung gusto nilang alisin sa komunidad namin," he said. At the same briefing, APECO president and CEO Malcolm Sarmiento said the same fears were expressed four years ago when they first implemented the project. "After four years, those fears remain fears. They cannot cite one instance when there was in fact oppression or dislocation," he said. Zero budget APECO and the local leaders made the statement after more than a hundred people supposedly representing 3,000 farmers, fishermen, and indigenous families from Casiguran went on a 21-day march toward Metro Manila to ask for a zero budget for APECO. Nora Gutierrez, president of the Dumagat, Igorot, Ilongot Federation Inc., said those opposing APECO were from the Visayas and not from Casiguran. "Bakit ginugulo po nila kami sa Casiguran?" she said. "Wag po nila kami pag-away-awayin bagkus kami ay pagkaisahin para 'yung proyekto ng gobyerno ay mapa-saamin." According to tribal leader Ely de Pablo, the marchers are actually informal settlers who have no claim on any land in Casiguran. "They have no right to stay in that place," he said. "Nang-aakin lang po sila ng lupa ng may lupa," added Corbadura. Inadequate compensation According to Sen. Edgardo Angara, co-sponsor of the law that created APECO,

the average price of the lands they acquire ranges from P240,000 to P300,000 per hectare, while developed lands may go for as high as P600,000 to P700,000. Angara and his son, Aurora Rep. Jun Edgardo "Sonny" Angara, co-sponsored Republic Act No. 10083, the law that created APECO. The younger Angara and Aurora Gov. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, the senator's sister, sit on the APECO board. But Task Force Anti-APECO said some lands were bought for only P45,000 per hectare. "Where it has purchased lands from Casiguran’s basic sectors, APECO has failed to adequately compensate these lands’ original owners or claimants," it said. Last week, Angara delivered a privilege speech denying allegations that APECO was a waste of public funds as alleged by its oppositors, which included Sen. Sergio Osmeña III. Task Force Anti-APECO said Angara painted a "lopsided picture" of the project. It specifically said that APECO is not transparent with its budget disclosures. "This non-transparency is indicative of how APECO has failed basic governance standards of transparency, accountability, participation, and effectiveness more generally," it said. The group further said that the 700 jobs reportedly created by APECO have a "deplorable quality" since they are contractual in nature, which lacks full working benefits.

It added that in the past five years of its existence, APECO's corporate campus site has only been partially developed. "Despite five years of existence, APECO’s record has been a major disappointment, whether from a construction, utilities or livelihood-provision standpoint," it said. The task force also said that APECO hasn't really secured five locators as alleged by Angara. "[They are] only the latest in a series of potential investors whose commitment to investing in APECO remains under question," it said. — KBK, GMA News