MANILA, Philippines – More than 100 farmers, fishermen and indigenous peoples (IPs), who have been marching from Casiguran, Aurora, since November 24, met with President Benigno Aquino III on Tuesday to plead for the repeal of the APECO law and for its budget to be withheld, in order to save their land and livelihood from the economic zone.
Representatives from the Agta tribe, as well as leaders of the marchers said they wanted an independent review of the laws that created and expanded the scope of the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO).
The marchers gave moving testimonies on the destruction which the APECO development has allegedly brought to their community.
They claimed they were not consulted on the project and that at least 3,000 families would lose their land and livelihood in areas covered by close to 13,000 hectares in the special eco zone.
Pina Binayad, one of the chieftains of the Agta tribe claimed that APECO seized large areas of agricultural lands from farmers, intruded into ancestral lands of the indigenous Agtas, and displaced 28 families in the construction of a 1.5-meter airstrip.
Another protester cried as he narrated how hundreds of other families of fishermen would have to be driven away for the construction of a seaport. He also accused APECO of violating environmental laws.
The protesters underscored that they are not against progress and development, as long as it takes into consideration their welfare as well.
President Aquino was visibly irked during the dialogue which lasted for more than 2 hours, when the protesters kept on insisting that the project should be junked.
But the President was adamant that a thorough review by NEDA be conducted first before he decides on the fate of APECO. He also gave instructions for the protesters to be represented in the group conducting the review.
NEDA is expected to give initial findings in a week, and its recommendations in 2 months.
Though the protesters thanked the President for his time, they were dismayed with his decision.
They admit, however, that they don’t have a choice but to remain hopeful with the results of the review.
Also present at the San Jose Seminary at the Ateneo University with the President were Secretary Julia Abad of the Presidential Management Staff, Secretary to the Cabinet Rene Almendras, Strategic Communication Secretary Ricky Carandang, Sec. Sonny Coloma, Budget Sec. Butch Abad, Justice Sec. Leila de Lima, Environment Sec. Ramon Paje, and officials of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.