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More ugly than ang gara

(Article published in the Jan 12,2011 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

The good senator, Edgardo Angara labored with might and mien to make it appear that all was pretty, or at least, all was well at the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone Authority (APEZA).  He condescended to conduct on November 11, 2010 a second hearing on the proposed budget allocation for the APEZA, just to accommodate certain issues raised against the enterprise during the first hearing. But since, the APEZA was a major advocacy of the good senator, and, we must mention, also of a number in his family many of whom are holding public positions in the local and national government, it was not surprising to see a tint of self-interest in the composition of those asked to act as “resource persons.”

“Resource person” is the preferred term of current use, rather than witnesses because from these peoples’ expertise and experience the legislative body is to draw the information and guidance they need to craft the proper legislation.  At the Nov. 11 hearing, the unabashedly admitted mandate of the resource persons was to make the rest of us benighted understand how beautiful a project the APEZA was.

But despite the formidable array of Angara allies conscripted into the service to stonewall those who oppose the enterprise, the operation to paint the Angara version of the truth was not entirely successful. After all, the truth is an ungovernable substance that like water seeps through every nook and cranny available until, no matter how long and tedius, it comes out into the open.  Making matters difficult for the Angaras, was the happy circumstance that the oppositors found their voices articulated by a community not only known but also respected nation-wide for its dedication to truth and justice.


It is not very often that I find my church living up to its avowed mission to take the side of the poor, or what theologians call the preferential option for the poor, and, thus, am more than glad, now that I come across one, yield most of  space today to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines-National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace’s statement about the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone.  As published recently in the broad sheets, the text reads as follows:

“Anuman ang dinaranas na takot at pagharap sa panganib ni Fr. Joefran, mga magsasaka at katutubo na naninindigan at sambayanang mulat, kasama kami sa tuloy-tuloy na pagtutol sa proyektong ito [ASEZA/APECO] ng pamahalaan… Ilalaan naming ang aming mga sarili sa anumang hamon sa aming buhay pagkapari mangahulugan man ito ng sakripisyo at pag-aalay ng buhay.”


The CBCP-National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace joins Bishop Rolando Tirona of the Prelature of Infanta in condemning the attack against Fr. Jose Francisco Talaban, parish priest of Nuestra Señora de la Salvacion in Barangay Bianoan, Casiguran on June 26, Saturday, at his parish convent.  We share the sentiments of the prelature that said attack was related to Fr. Talaban’s strong advocacy against the establishment of the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (APECO).  Similar incidents of threats and harassments are being experienced by the local residents and indigenous people, who continue to oppose the operation of APECO in province.


In solidarity with the Prelature of Infanta, the CBCP-NASSA denounces the unconstitutional passage of RA 10083 creating APECO.  APECO replaces the equally disputed RA 9490 that created the Aurora Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA).  The railroading of the law in both the Senate and the House, in the absence of committee hearings, manifests political expediency and violates national legislations, such as the Local Government Code of 1991, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, and the new CARPER Law.  Its passage only affirms the oft-held perception that the legislature can conveniently pass laws that serve their interests, but will suspend the advancement of bills that are inimical to their advantage.


APECO has become an omnipotent entity, with extensive powers that even go beyond the regulatory controls of the local and national government.  It covers 12,427 hectares of highly irrigated lands, and displaces thousands of farmers and indigenous people.  Its creation is highly questionable given that the affected sectors and communities were never consulted about the economic zoning.  Moreover, the people will be made to pay for its establishment through the taxes, even without a discernable benefit to the province and people of Aurora.  The APECO is clearly a private enterprise, designed to uphold the interest of foreign investors and enrich the few who control its operation.


The Church condemns the fact that all other social reform laws, such as environment protection and natural resource management, agrarian reform, and labor will lose supremacy within APECO.  This means that the administration of APECO are granted legal powers to sequester private lands even those already committed for agrarian reform without needing to undergo a legislative procedure.


The Prelature of Infanta and Fr. Talaban’s resistance to his enterprise is well justified in the light of the social teachings of the Catholic Church.  The right to progress, insofar as community development is concerned, becomes acceptable if it is inspired by moral values that consider the integral development of people, and if the advancement of the few will not be a cause of suffering for the many.  Clearly, this is not the case with APECO.  If the lands will be appropriated for said economic zone, many indigenous people will lose the only home they ever had, and the food security of the province will be imperiled as wide tracks of irrigated and productive lands will no longer be utilized for agriculture.  The fisherfolks will likewise be displaced from their source of livelihood when the coastal areas will be populated with high-end and luxury resorts.


CBCP-NASSA, in solidarity with the Prelature of Infanta, strongly condemns the gross violation of national laws on indigenous peoples, agrarian reform and local governments’ autonomy committed by the House and Senate in the course of passing the law.


In the light of the undermocratic nature of this enterprise, we call on the new president, Benigno Simeon C. Aquino, who ran on the platform of good governance, to immediately call for the review of the APECO Law, and meanwhile suspend its operation and budget.


We trust in the sincerity of this government to effect promised changes and we hope it starts by upholding the wellbeing of the poor and marginalized over the designs of the corrupt and powerful politicians behind questionable legislations like APECO.  We reiterate our expression of solidarity with, and prayers for Their Excellencies, Bishop Rolando Tirona and Bishop Emeritus Julio Labayen, Fr. Joefran Talaban, and the Infanta clergy who bravely face risks to ensure that the rights of the farmers, fisherfolks, and indigenous people are respected.


For the Social Action Network.

18 July 2010.


It is obvious that much debate, discussion and deliberation need to be done to ferret out the true picture of APEZA.  What is already obvious, though, is that the picture seems to be turning out more “ugly” than “ang gara.”