MANILA, Philippines – The Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO) should get only maintenance funds in 2015, said Senator Sergio Osmeña III on October 21, the day of the controversial project's budget hearing.
The senator called APECO's proposed P251.3 million (US$5.6 million) budget a "waste of money," saying the economic zone and port falls short of its promises of bringing economic growth to the country.
"There is no chance for a freeport to develop so far away. Maski ang malalapit na freeport mismo, nahihirapan (Even nearer freeports are having a hard time)," the senator said.
APECO should only receive a "caretaker budget" of around P40 million ($893,500), said Osmeña, just like the budget it is working with this year. APECO's 2014 budget is P48.5 million ($1.1 million), just enough for maintenance and some personnel.
Even that caretaker budget, Osmeña said, would be a "waste of funds."
APECO is a 12,923-hectare development in the remote town of Casiguran, Aurora, some 6 hours away from Metro Manila. It was envisioned to become a freeport because of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. (READ: APECO in Aurora: Chaos and paradise)
Its plans also include hotels, ecotourism, an airport and agri-aquaculture facilities.
APECO should learn from the lessons from the Subic and Batangas ports, said Osmeña. Despite problems in the port of Manila, shippers still refuse to use the two other Luzon ports.
"The government has spent a lot on on the ports of Subic and Batangas and yet, both are only about 10 to 20% utilized," said the senator.
Osmeña, who has been vocal about his opposition to the project in previous years, said there are other ways by which APECO can be discontinued.
A case questioning the constitutionality of the APECO law (Republic Act 9490) is pending with the Supreme Court. The law, created in 2007, was authored by former Senator Edgardo Angara, patriarch of a clan highly influential in Aurora.
The case points out that the APECO law was passed without a proper feasibility study, despite the large size of the development and impact on the environment. There was also allegedly no consultation with local government units and indigenous peoples.
Some 11,500 hectares of APECO land are being claimed by Casiguran indigenous peoples as part of their ancestral domain.
Since the case, APECO has come under fire for premature conversion of land. Groups like the Task Force Anti-APECO say that APECO has been converting agricultural, irrigated or irrigable land into other uses without the approval of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR).
Commission on Audit (COA) reports also accuse APECO of misspending, bad financial management and lack of documentation. (READ: P23.8M APECO funds unaccounted for – COA)
But APECO president Gerardo Erquiza Jr, in a previous interview with Rappler, defended APECO. He said, the economic zone was developing slowly precisely due to lack of financial support from the government.
He also said the APECO management is making efforts to improve financial management and liquidate expenses unaccounted for in past years, as they were instructed to do by COA. – with reports from Pia Ranada/Rappler.com