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VITA BANAYAD, a chieftain of the Agta tribe in the northern town of Casiguran, Aurora province, stood silent in front of 20 students in the middle of a classroom 17,100 kilometers away from her village of Paraiso (Paradise).
She fidgeted, looked around the young people in front of her, offered a shy smile, and then laughed.
“I am sorry,” she said in Filipino. “I am nervous.”
She glanced at the student activist who accompanied her to the room. The activist smiled at Banayad and nodded.
“I am here to ask for your support,” Banayad said, seemingly after having found the courage to finally speak. “We want the Apeco project in our province stopped,” she said. “It is killing our people.”
She looked around the room and again offered what seemed to be an embarrassed smile.
“That is all,” she said and walked to the door.
APECO or the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport was established in 2007 through Republic Act No. 9490 that created the Aurora Special Economic Zone Authority, the body task to administer the project.
Senator Edgardo Angara and his son Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara, both from Baler town in Aurora, authored the law.
Congress later passed Republic Act No. 10083 renaming the economic zone into the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority or Apeco.
Senator Edgardo said the special economic zone status of the province would open northeastern Luzon’s abundant natural resources to businesses and “stimulate trade and investment.”
He said the town of Casiguran is a prime location for the economic zone. “We want to stimulate the economy, build better lives and provide a more conducive living environment for its people,” he said.
“With its vast natural resource-rich terrestrial and maritime area, this quadrangle has a huge investment potential waiting to be tapped,” Senator Angara said.
“The ultimate goal of this ecozone is to provide economic uplift for the people of Aurora and its adjoining provinces,” he added.
The proposed economic zone will cover 13,000 hectares of land in five villages of Casiguran. Residential, commercial and industrial projects, ports, eco-tourism, highway, airport, among others, are expected to rise in the area.
VARIOUS groups – farmers, tribal people, Church, pro-environment and rights groups – are however opposed to the project. They launched on September 6 the “Resist Apeco! Defend Aurora Movement” to defend a “paradise against destruction.”
Elmer Dayson, vice chairman of the Province Alliance of Farmers of Aurora, said the project will affect 5,430 residents and will eventually displace 22,043 residents of Casiguran and nearby towns.
Fisherfolk group Pamalakaya said the project will disrupt fishing activities and rice production in northern Aurora. He said 493 hectares of productive rice farms would be converted into support infrastructures for the economic zone.
“The people of Aurora live in what we may call a paradise. Now, with Apeco, they are faced with the danger of total destruction of their livelihood and resources,” said Danilo Ramos, secretary general of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines.
The groups also asked where the P2 billion ($47.04 million) spent for the project from 2007 to 2010 went.
“The Apeco authority should explain to the public how they spent 2 billion pesos of the taxpaying public in the name of a highly questionable and extremely anti-people and anti-environment project,” said Dayson.
Apeco asked Congress this year for an additional P3 billion ($70.56 million) budget, but the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) only approved P332.5 million.
Killing the people
BANAYAD told protesters during a rally outside Congress that the project will kill her people.
“Before the project, we were free to get anything from our mountains, forests and farms,” she said. “Today, they are taking our land from us,” she added.
“If [the project] will push through, we know that we will die…. Our lives are tied to the mountain, the land, and the sea. If they will take these away, we will nothing to feed our children,” she said.
The Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines and other tribal groups initiated a signature campaign last month to call for the scrapping of the project.
The group said it plans to gather enough signatures from schools, convents and the streets to convince Congress not to approve the funding for the economic zone.
Solidarity with the people
AMONG the most active supporters of the people’s struggle against the project are Church groups.
In a seven-page report released after a “fact-finding mission” last year, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines said Apeco will lead to the displacement of people, shift priority on land use away from food production, and lead to human rights violations.
The group also called on the Commission on Human Rights to look into alleged human rights violations in the province, including the shooting and bombing of a Catholic priest’s convent.
On June 26 last year, gunshots woke up Catholic priest Joefran Talaban in the middle of the night. When he ran outside to take a look, he saw men jumping into a van with no number plates. Not long after he returned to bed, a bomb exploded outside his window.
Fr. Talaban has been speaking against Apeco in the past nine years.
“When people are coming to the Church asking for help… the Church cannot just ignore them,” he said.
“The pain, the hopes, the grief of the people, should also be the grief of the Church,” he added.
Senator Angara decried what he described as the Church’s intervention in purely secular matters.
He called Bishop Rolando Tria Tirona of Infanta, a vocal critic of the project, an “absentee bishop.”
The senator also asked the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to remove Bishop Tirona from the diocese.
Fr. Talaban, however, said the Church cannot back out from its commitment to defend and take a stand against the “unjust enterprise” of Apeco.
“We do not waiver our commitment to take up the struggle of the poor,” he said.
Appeal for help
BANAYAD, the chieftain of the Agta tribe, expressed optimism that victory will be theirs after speaking to three classes at the university.
Although she complained of dizziness and sat on the floor outside one classroom, she was smiling. She was holding a box containing coins donated by the students.
“We came to Manila because of our problem in the mountains… It has been very difficult for us,” she said in a very voice.
“I feel awkward speaking before the students, but their signatures will help a lot to convince authorities to stop the project,” she said.
Still with a smile on her face, Banayad, who said she dreams of sending at least three of her seven children to school, said: “If people will support us, I believe something will happen to our struggle.”
She stood up clutching the box of coins. “I will go back to Paradiso tomorrow,” she said.