May 22, 2013By Jerik Cruz Down at the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains, sheltered from the Pacific ocean by the San Idelfonso peninsula, the first infrastructures of the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (APECO) are slowly rising. Along the shore, where some fisherfolk used to live, now runs a 1.2-kilometer airstrip. Less than ten minutes away, on a road still strewn with more mud than asphalt, the freshly-painted colonnades of the ecozone’s administration building juts out of the earth, the first in what shall be a series of large and imposing edifices. The infrastructures of APECO are being built in the municipality of Casiguran, a town which was named after the Spanish adjective ceguro (safety) and the Tagalog word kasiguruhan (security). It is sheltered within the San Ildefonso Peninsula, which provides a natural harbor from ocean currents and storm surges, while the mega-diverse Sierra Madre rainforest shields its northern and western flanks. The municipality also envelops two internationallyrecognized watersheds, where unique flora and fauna abound. The municipality’s soil quality and natural irrigation resources likewise make Casiguran deeply conducive to farm production, and according to 2007 NSO figures, roughly seven out of 10 of Casiguran’s 25,800-person population is directly involved in agriculture. For its folk, Casiguran is considered the primary rice bowl of Northern Aurora, with its harvests usually finding their way via rural traders to meal plates across Central and Northern Luzon, as well as in Metro Manila. Small wonder then that the lands tilled by Casiguran’s lowland farmers alone produced around 16,881.0 metric tons of rice in 2010. In marked contrast, APECO presently intends to develop 12,923 hectares of alleged public lands in Casiguran into a decentralized, self-sustaining and ecologically-sustainable investment hub. To spur industrial development across northeastern Philippines, the ecozone’s administrators aim to attract massive investment and create employment opportunities by introducing an extensive array of fiscal perks, while engaging in infrastructural initiatives in public works, basic utilities and real estate development. Most of these ventures, asserts APECO, will be carried out via publicprivate partnerships—stimulating capitalization by the big business sector for the expressed purpose of rura sustainable development. But the ecozone’s territorial scope was not always so ambitious. Before 2009, APECO had been limited to only five-hundred (500) hectares on the Aurora mainland. RA 9490 created the ecozone in 2007 (then called ASEZA— the Aurora Special Economic Zone Authority), mainly through the efforts of Senator Edgardo Angara, his son Congressman Juan Edgardo Angara and his sister Gov. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo. For all of APECO’s pledges of development and modernization, it turns out there is no warm welcome for the megaproject Only three years later, the lapsing into law of RA 10083 in 2010 brought about an expansion of the land area approved for ASEZA by over 25 times. The initial land coverage of the megaproject was largely sustained through the creation of APECO’s Parcel I in Brgys. Esteves and Dibet, which encompassed an area of 496 hectares. Added to this land size, however, was the San Idelfonso-sited Parcel II, encircling some 12,427 hectares of the peninsular lands of Brgys. San Ildefonso, Cozo and Culat. Strangers on the land Based on the Freeport’s latest available land blueprints, Parcel I of APECO is poised to showcase the megaproject’s airport, corporate campus, financial and communication center, central business district, as well as relocation areas. Moreover, a 100-hectare plot in Brgy. Esteves (expandable by another 108-hectares) has allegedly been reserved for the development of an agricultural biotechnology park meant to cash in on the burgeoning Philippines “natural ingredients” industry through the production and processing of food additives, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals materials, plant seed and aquacultural produce, and other organic products. Parcel II, by comparison, has been mostly dedicated to the of eco-tourism and resort development, cultural and environmental reservations, and various maritime structures. Other subprojects officially planned by APECO in the peninsula will involve the creation of hotels and water cottages, wedding venues and naval outposts, piers and wind farms. It will take years yet before all these plans come to fruition, but already, a number of large companies such as the Sumitomo Corporation, the Unilever Group and Dalisay Farms Corporation have expressed willingness to invest in the ecozone’s budding biotechnology park. Other investors who have signed investment MOUs with APECO in July 2011 include former foreign mining companies such as Chinabond International Co. Ltd. and TP Colors Corporation, which have voiced interest in testing the waters of agribusiness and aquaculture operations, and the Taiwanese Great Sun Optoelectronic, an electronics manufacturing firm which has broached plans of developing a $5-million mari-culture farm in the Casiguran bay. Some Filipino companies have also given their commitments to set up their operations in the area. Philippine Kingford, Inc. is a tuna trawling and exporting firm that has also decided to venture into the field of milkfish aquaculture, and Eco-Market Solutions, a renewable and biomass energy concessionaire whose co-founder Roberto Mathay was actually installed as President and CEO of APECO from February 2011 to July 2012. Though no longer on the roster of the Freeport’s investors, it is worth bearing in mind that the very first domestic locator of APECO was Industries Development Corporation (IDC),the sole legalized logging concessionaire in the Casiguran locality. From 2010 to 2012, in fact, APECO compensated IDC P120-million in order to acquire its logging rights in San Idelfonso, regardless of longstanding Ancestral Domain claims which Casiguran Agtas have been pressing since the passage of the IPRA law in 1997. End of “Kasiguruhan” in Casiguran Time and again, APECO’s proponents have alleged that the situation of Aurora’s impoverished sectors would be vastly improved by the new job opportunities and infrastructures that the ecozone will generate, while leaving the municipality’s natural flora and fauna untouched. With its sponsorship by the Angara family at the Philippine legislature, the ecozone administration has promised to create healthy synergy between investors, public officials and municipal residents, where the interests of all stakeholders will be equally respected and delivered upon. Yet for all of APECO’s pledges of development and modernization, it turns out there is no warm welcome for the megaproject in the once-tranquil municipality. Thousands of farmers’, fishers’ and indigenous peoples’ families have opposed the emerging ecozone. In sharp contrast to the Freeport’s rhetoric, they see APECO as threat to their living conditions and land rights throughout and beyond the municipality of Casiguran. Although the APECO Act of 2010 outright assumed that the areas for the ecozone were public, state-owned lands, official government surveys have revealed the same lands to be titled in the name of small farmers with Certificates of Land Ownership and Acquisition (CLOAs) or Integrated Social Forestry Certificates of Stewardship Contracts (ISF-CSCs), and indigenous peoples have had long-standing applications for Certificates of Ancestral Domain Title (CADTs). In San Idelfonso, for one, as much as 11,900 hectares of APECO’s Parcel II have been undergoing applications for certificates of ancestral domain title (CADT) since 1997 at the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples, a process which has been for mally recognized by the town’s local government since January 2001 onwards. No less disconcerting, around 525 and 288 hectares of land throughout APECO-covered areas were registered for agrarian reform and integrated social forestry programs in 2010, while yet another 110 hectares were up for CARP redistribution in Sitio Reserva in Brgy. Esteves. Based on the most recent figures, 444 individuals and 90 families respectively have been direct beneficiaries of these asset titling arrangements, while yet another 46 households in Brgy. Esteves are still awaiting decisive redistributive action from DAR. All these land assets, along with the ancestral domains of the Casiguran Agtas, stand to be leased on long-term to foreign and domestic investors. This is being done through a process which has been continually denounced by local residents for its lack of consultative mechanisms, its disregard of established governance processes, and occasional employ of coercive and deceptive measures. But if one actually follows APECO’s own logic, tens of thousands more Filipinos across Aurora and the entire northeastern region are liable to confront indirect, and possibly negative, spill-over effects. By altering provincial labor, land and commodity markets, by introducing new economic investors, the changes in Casiguran’s economy will doubtlessly prompt vast secondary impacts on its neighboring municipalities. Already, along the Baler-Casiguran highway, several resort and real estate companies have been rapidly buying up plots along the Pacific coast. In fact, according to members of PIGLASCA (a local peoples’ organization), land prices and valuations in Casiguran have skyrocketed by more than 100 percent since RA 10083 was legislated in 2010, reflecting rising demands from real estate developers and other land brokers from beyond the municipality. If APECO is finally completed, these land use conversions and plot purchasing sprees are poised to escalate over time, crowding out even more farmers, fisherfolk and IPs from their lands and other resources. Many residents fear the bearing of the ecozone on the food security situation of Aurora, for the Freeport authority has evidently given little weight either to agriculture-centered development and land redistribution. Spurring what may eventually prove to be an unchecked series of land conversions, APECO has set the stage for upheavals in Aurora’s rice and food supply, which will likely have its worst repercussions on the marginalized constituents it allegedly seeks to uplift. If APECO were to change land uses or crop cultivation patterns in its encompassed areas, Casiguran would immediately lose a full third of its present rice production—about 5611.0 metric tonnes of annual yield. Applying conversion estimates by international charities like Feed the Children4, this loss will affect around 42.08 million meals or the annual rice needs of 39,400 individuals. This estimate, however, still does not account for potential expansions of APECO’s boundaries, and the impacts of APECO-induced land-purchasing episodes. Between two visions of development Yet on the other hand, there remains another vision of development that has been advanced by the anti- APECO movement and other residents of Casiguran. Directly at odds with APECO, this vision instead stresses the efforts of the basic sectors themselves from the bottom up. It thrives on democratic practice, and strives to ensure that equity and rootedness in the poor’s existing livelihoods is maximized. For unknown to APECO, many of Casiguran’s townsfolk have been undertaking initiatives that point towards alternative development for the municipality. Most significantly, around a hundred farmers and 40 fisherfolk throughout the town have been beneficiaries of the Philippine Farmers for Food Project (PFFP)—an agricultural venture coordinated by PAKISAMA (a national peasant federation) and PIGLASCA which aimed to promote organic seed banks and learning farms throughout the municipality. Building upon past organic agriculture initiatives pioneered by the Casiguran’s local church, the fruits of these efforts are now being reaped by dozens of the town’s farmers: in 2011, around 500 sacks of top-grade organic rice was already harvested by the PFFP’s cluster farmers5. The immense potential of mainstreaming these farmer-centric sustainable agriculture ventures deserves to be further supported by the province’s local government to fully cement Casiguran’s place as Aurora’s primary rice granary. As most of those who have espoused these alternatives have argued, should “development” come into the lifestyles of Casiguran’s poor and marginalized, it should begin by respecting, building upon—not negating—the rights, assets and agency of those whom development projects assert they will uplift. After all, if the balance between Casiguran’s natural beauty and its abiding agricultural productivity has lasted as long as it has, this has largely been because of the activities and active stewardship of those residents APECO has driven further and further into jeopardy from their lands and livelihoods. “Shouldn’t APECO’s development strategy, then, be the other way around?” contend members of the anti-APECO movement. These people are not at all “anti-development”, as some of the champions of APECO have portrayed them to be. They have studied the impact of like ecozones in the Philippines, and have seen the inequities that such development has deepened in its wake. They are not against development per se, but against the kind of development that privileges the few, while worsening the situation of the many. Yet this is the kind of development that APECO is already bringing to Casiguran. The struggle over Casiguran’s future boils down to the struggle of these two visions of development. Equity or Inequality? Rootedness or Vulnerability? Development for the poor—or development for the rich? The stakes are up, the cards are down, and the majority of people in Casiguran have made their choice on the matter clear for all to see. Today, Casiguran is the locus of a struggle over two competing visions of development. The voices of the anti-APECO movement have been sounded in unison, and the task of making this call echo—towards the long-awaited triumph of asset reforms, ecological sustainability, democratic processes, and equitable, participatory development—continues without faltering. This article was culled from the condensed and modified version of a report on APECO, which shall be part of the research report on land and resource grabbing that Focus on the Global South – Philippines is preparing to release in early 2013.