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THE GREEN REVOLUTION: Special Economic Zones in inappropriate places

Manila Times
Sunday, March 15, 2009

THE GREEN REVOLUTION: Special Economic Zones in inappropriate places
Aison Garcia, Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal (SALIGAN)

I never thought that there is a place called Casiguran in the province of Baler. I only know Baler to be the capital of Aurora Province. To go to Casiguran, we rode a bus at 2 a.m. in Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, and traveled for 15 hours along rocky and dusty road traversing the Serra Madre.

Luckily, we survived the trip despite the mechanical trouble that happened to our bus (its brakes gave up and the driver had to slam it in a mound of clay to stop it). Upon reaching our
destination, we were welcomed by farmers and fishers whose faces were downtrodden but hopeful upon seeing us who they hope to give them some clarification to the issue they are facing.

Their problem arose when their place was declared as a special economic zone by Republic Act 9490 also known as Aurora Special Economic Zone Act of 2007 (ASEZA). The special economic zone will cover at least 500 hectares of irrigated rice lands, coconut lands and the fishing grounds in Casiguran Bay. ASEZA will transform the area into commercial ports, resorts and residential areas. The place was envisioned to be the gateway from the pacific side.

Simply reading the law, one will realize that it will only cover public agricultural land. However, in actuality the areas that will be covered are lands with private titles and are owned by agrarian reform beneficiaries through the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. The affected owners of the land and residents in the area say that they were never consulted by the National Government regarding the ASEZA. The law requires that any national project must undergo public consultation especially to the affected communities. In fact, a concurrence must be given by the affected people to the project otherwise it cannot be implemented. In this case, the people were surprised to know that there lands are included in the ASEZA and are being taken away from them.  The residents and owners are told by ASEZA representatives
that they cannot do anything anymore because there is already a law telling them that the place is a special economic zone. They are told by ASEZA representatives to start vacating their lands or accept very low payment for their lands (P15,000 for one hectare of irrigated rice field). They were wondering whether their Certificate of Titles (i.e. TCTs, CLOAs) have any worth against ASEZA’s claims.

The more alarming issue is the five hundred (500) hectares of irrigated rice fields that will be converted into industrial, residential or commercial when the economic zone will commence. Under the law, irrigated agricultural lands are protected areas and are non-negotiable for conversion into non-agricultural uses. Any conversion must be approved by the Department of  Agrarian Reform which ASEZA does not have. The people are wondering why the irrigated ricefields should be converted into an economic zone. They said that there are areas that are still undeveloped which can be developed into a special economic zone. They foresee that when the rice fields are converted into non-agricultural then the community will suffer from the supply of rice and lack of employment.  These ricefields provide numerous jobs to the community from field preparation, to planting, to harvesting, milling and selling. They conjectured that putting up an economic zone will not bring progress to their place because of the global economic crises and many companies in special economic zones are shutting down. Moreover, they also learned that the only industry attracted to special economic zones are casinos which they believe to be detrimental to their community.

Besides the rich agricultural lands, we are fortunate to experience their rich fishing grounds. Everyday, big tanigue and malasugi fish and crabs are caught from Casiguran Bay.  The fishers in the area fear that when the special economic zone will be put up, the fishing ground will deteriorate because of the commercial and industrial activities in the area. Their source of living would be lost. The environment will definitely suffer. And they will be driven away from the shore where they presently inhabit.

Recently, ASEZA has been very aggressive. They survey the place, build an airport and set up a temporary office in the area. The people on the other hand, opposed ASEZA’s moves by  putting signs in the area, opposing ASEZA and mobilizing at least 1,000 people around their municipality to show that they oppose ASEZA. The parish is active assisting the community mobilize and link the community to possible allies. As a result, the Sangunian Bayan issued a resolution inquiring about details in the process of setting up the ASEZA. The people sometimes feel helpless because they believe that the Angara clan, will do anything to push the project.

The people in Casiguran continue to stand firm on their right. Because they are far, they wanted to tell their story to the whole nation hoping to get more support to their cause. The farmers and fishers are asking for legislators to review the law and to conduct an actual ocular inspection to see for themselves that the area is irrigated prime agricultural land, non-negotiable for conversion.  Proper consultation must be conducted in the community to inform them of the national government project. National government must not impose their ways and beliefs on development to the community. The questionable project must be reviewed by the executive department if it is the best development strategy in the area. The Courts must also check the law whether it violates  private and communal rights of farmers and fishers.