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A Storm Rages in the Pacific

(Article published in the Jan 5,2011 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

The place is called “Casiguran,”; its name, it is said, comes from the Tagalog word “kasiguruhan” which in turn appears to be  a corruption (neither pun nor fun nor, despite what follows below, satire intended) of the Spanish word “siguro” which means safety or security.

The name was well-earned, so the story continues, because in that peninsula the galleons that once upon a time plied the Manila-Mexico trade route sought safety from strong storms that sometimes deranged the otherwise sober waters of the ocean called Pacific. 

 But at the Philippine Senate recently, Casiguran did not provide safe harbor to someone who claim to be its son, Senator Edgardo J. Angara, from the fury of the storm stirred up by the many protesters against the budget allocation proposed for the Aurora Special Economic Zone.  The venue of the disturbance was the Senate floor during the consideration last November of that portion of the budget of Trade and Industry and its attached agencies.  Senator Angara was sponsor; he was interpellated by Senator Sergio Osmeña III who was articulating the concerns of the protesters.

Perhaps to serve an appropriate appetizer to make his budget proposal palatable to his colleagues, Senator Angara sought permission to run  what he described as “a 7-minute video showing what Apeco is and the present state of Apeco.”  But whatever may have been its true intent, the video succeeded in alerting the senators to APECO’s shortcomings.  Indeed, the video seemed less than accurate.  For instance, the dive sites (shown to give the impression that the site is a tourist attraction) were not all in Casiguran; as admitted by Senator Angara, “the dive sites are in Baler but some of them are in Casiguran…”.  The video’s images of  beaches were also deceptive.  Senator Angara had to admit, “The beaches are in Baler…”.  He was quick to add, in fairness, that “we did not show a beautiful bay in Casiguran called Casapsapan which I believe can compare favorably with any other beach in the country.”  The query, in the minds of those listening, whether on the floor or at the gallery, is, “if Casapsapan was as great as Senator Angara would project it, why was it not put in the video itself.” 


But really, those instances of a propagandist’s license were mere just minor minor. What seemed major major, though, were admissions regarding the proposal itself. 

First is the real amount of money that has already been put into APECO.  The total is unfathomable; but what is clear is that certain expenditures which are primarily for the project are nonetheless lodged in the expenditures for the other departments.  For instance, the amounts allocated for the network of roads and bridges are part, not of the APECO budget in the Department of Trade and Industry, but part instead of the budget of the Department of Public Works and its agencies.  Hence, there is really no way of knowing exactly how much money was put into good use and how much went down the drain, drained hopefully not necessarily into the pockets of those interested in maintaining the appearance of a viable project.

From how much money was already spent, the mystery spreads into, also, how much more is needed to be spent to make APECO a viable enterprise.  The sponsor’s “personal projection” is that an “additional P700 million to P800 million” is needed “in the next three years, then,” he surmises, “the whole development stage would have been completed and now attractive enough to attract the locators, and, henceforth, the locators will pick up the tab, build their own warehouses, build their own facilities.”

The sponsor had several reasons for his “personal projections.”  The primary one seems to be that the Aurora eco zone is allegedly “the only international port [that is] both air and harbor on the Pacific.”  Philippine ports are all on the western side, on the side of the South China Sea primarily because the trade with our neighbors was conducted in that region; but the “great ports of the world are all on the Pacific, from Sydney, to Singapore, to Shanghai, to Gaoshiung, to Seoul, to Vancouver, to Los Angeles, to San Francisco.”  While our focus on the South China Sea had served us well, the sponsor believes that, particularly on account of the currently troubled waters of the South China Sea, the peaceful Pacific will regain its stature as a maritime highway of the world.  Hence, the allegedly strategic location of the APECO.

Unfortunately, the good sponsor did not have, nor did he think it necessary for his advocacy to have, a feasibility study to validate his hunches.  What he can merely claim to have were the opinions of so-called experts whom he had consulted from Finland, Spain, Taiwan, Korea, all saying that Casiguaran is one of our safest harbors.  For that reason, among others, the sponsor proclaims, “I can bet, and the gentleman [meaning his interpellator who did not seem to be sold on the idea] mark this day that the P1.5 billion that our taxpayers money will invest in this port will be recovered in less than five years because of the business and income that will be generated.”

This is the apparent vision of the sponsor’s mission: “The opening of the Casiguran Free Trade Zone will open up almost a million hectares of land and water to future investment…It will provide access to the provinces of Quirino and Vizcaya which are landlocked.  They will now have access to the sea.  It will provide even people of Isabela access to their products to the sea because they do not have access to the Pacific.”

Unfortunately, there seem to be impertinent flies in the sponsor’s ointment, that do not seem to want to go away.  Thus, a study by Professor Renato of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies and the University of the Philippines casts doubt on the economic foundation of Senator Angara’s optimism.  And when asked if any of the well-respected academic had come out in support of his project, the good sponsor was unable mention a single name.  All he could do was to assure his interpellator that “there are many of them, but I will arrange just one.”  To see the interpellator in private, it seems.

At the end of the hearing, though, the budget of the entire Department of Trade and Industry, together with its attached agencies was nevertheless deemed submitted for the Senate’s consideration.  Even if by then or thereafter,  no such name was ever put on the record.