Aurora economic zone a threat to people’s livelihood, say farmers, fishers


    MANILA, Philippines—Indigenous people, farmers and fisherfolk have turned to the Commission on Human Rights to get their voices heard in their struggle against the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport (APECO) project, which they said has been threatening to displace them, remove their sources of livelihood and disrupt their peaceful lives. The groups asked the CHR for help and called on the national officials to halt the APECO project and not to allocate any funding for it.

    CHR Chairman Loretta Rosales said that the agency’s own team found disheartening developments in Aurora, adding she would ask the commission en banc to urge Congress to repeal the law creating the APECO because of the human rights violations attendant to its establishment. Rosales said the CHR would investigate allegations of forcible displacement, fraud and other human rights violations, and would participate in the judicial review of APECO’s constitutionality as an amicus curiae.

    She also plans to write to Governor Bellaflor Angara Castillo and the Senate and House leaders to inform them about the concerns of the province’s residents. In a press conference, Rosales cited the findings of the CHR team that joined an international solidarity mission to Aurora, including the apparent displacement of communities, the vilification of the project’s critics and the lack of information about the status and programs of APECO.

    “The objections of the community to APECO cannot just be brushed aside. The perception that the project carries an adverse economic and environmental impact is a fundamental issue that must first be considered before the project goes full blast,” Rosales said. Also backing the tribes, farmers and fisherfolk were international religious groups and Catholic bishops and priests, who joined an international solidarity mission in Aurora to check on their plight. The Catholic Church officials in Aurora were the ones whom farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous people turned to with their problems related to APECO.

    The APECO project covers 12,400 hectares of land and has been mired in controversy. A petition has been filed asking the Supreme Court to declare the law creating it as unconstitutional. Urban planner Felino Palafox has also filed a complaint before the Office of the Ombudsman against the Angaras for allegedly pushing for APECO despite environmental concerns about the project site. At the CHR on Monday, the Aurora farmers, fisherfolk and tribes who had a grievance about APECO got a chance to air their problems related to APECO. Victor Abahon, a member of an indigenous group in Aurora, said that the APECO project came to be without any consultation with their group. He said structures were built in their communities without hearing their concerns first.

    Erlinda Bitigan, also a member of an indigenous group, said her group has long been asking for titles to their ancestral lands. But now, the land has been given to APECO, she lamented. Bita Banayad said she was concerned about being forced out of the land and mountains, which have been the source of their livelihood. “We hunt and fish. Our lives revolve around that. If we would lose the mountain, how will we live?” she said. Fisherman Marlon Angara said there has been talk that fisherfolk would be relocated, but he said it was a bad idea to get them away from the sea.

    “We won’t be fishermen if we do not have access to the sea,” Angara said, adding that there would be nobody to look after their boats and gear if they were relocated inland. He also expressed concern over the apparent lack of concern for the abundant mangroves and corals in the province. Farmer Antonio Avila said many farmers have become worried about losing their land because of the project. Avila said that if he lost his land, he would not know how to make a living. Rosales said the CHR team also found that those who visibly opposed the APECO project were subjected to “organized vilification.” Once, there was an attempt to harm Fr. Jose Francisco Tabalan, whose parishioners have come to him with grievances about the ecozone project.

    She also said fences and gates were constructed in the project site, making the people’s access to farm lands and fishing areas contingent upon the goodwill of APECO officials which, unfortunately, was in short supply. The displacement of communities has been evident, according to Rosales. She noted that the construction of a runway displaced several houses and deprived communities of traditional areas for bathing and recreation.

    by Leila Salaverria
    Philippine Daily Inquirer

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