On APECO: the art and science of running the circus

The desperate call for justice of the people of Casiguran – both the indigenous and contemporary rural folks – are not assisted to live in a ‘better condition’ enough to make them incur gratitude at the progress of their ancestral lands: they are assisted to be dispossessed from those lands by suspending their economic-cultural identity so that a political dynasty can go on gratifying itself.

Aurora, Philippines

The influential writer H.L. Mencken laid a timeless remark that “democracy is the art and science of running the circus from a monkey cage” – a satirical comment on the way operations of such a form of government are instilled as an apparent economical concern, when at bottom is an entertainment played well by a circus master. True democracy is not to express opinion for the sake of sheer expressing, but to express the opinion in such a factual way that the opinion already expresses itself as fact: it no longer is the fetish of playing a self-interested vox populi; for it only exposes a collective ignorance that defends itself by quantity. In other words, the true democracy of peoples is to be sincere in expressing that there is in reality something wrong with governmental operations – that things are operated comically rather than seriously. There is nothing more relevant of such democratic sincerity than what is happening in Aurora since 2010 until today.

A mere local dispute?

 The Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport (APECO) Case: Republic Act No. 9490 or the Aurora Special Economic Zone Act (ASEZA) of 2007 envisions an Aurora that is a center of economics in the Pacific area, operating on public-private interests enticing a special place as it eyes on an international level of relations. Seeking to expand its resources from foreign investors, the law backing its cause offers in this center a self-sustaining industry where commerce, agriculture, and banking, are closely habituated in residential areas as part of its convenient resource.[1] Formulated in a rhetorical promotion for the people of Casiguran, particularly the poor and the indigenous natives of the place, it is confident in pursuing its goals as a propaganda of progress, to make a better living out of the people’s previous lifestyle.

The admirable vision gives way to a decent reference to the Angaras, the political elite of the place, who rule both the executive and legislative courts of the province as well as the Senate, composed of Senator Edgardo Angara, Senator Sonny Angara, and the congresswoman then governor Bellaflor Angara. The promotion of their cause, however, could have been ‘just’ in the legally and properly documented process if not for the commotion that reacts even in this optimistic endeavor.

The people of Casiguran Aurora (the target site of the project headed by the Angaras) are clamoring for justice. This clamor can no other than be described as a democratic response to the unsolicited form of humanitarian aid the Apeco imposes on them. The blatant effect on this does not only concern an intrusion of territorial domain but, as Arnim Scheidel notes in the Ejatlas (Environmental Justice Atlas) .org site, a loss of cultural identity. Is there any way that a possible instance of freedom may claim its reward in this heritage land that they hold dear since time immemorial? The foundationless rationales of the Angaras do not find support in the people, not even in the clear consent that must base from clarity of law that is verifiable by the local authorities. In this line there is no room for a democratic voice because a dynasty has established a stationary law. The clamor now in this sense becomes an expression of radical freedom because a possible threat of security is at stake and the response of the people of Casiguran is an expression of a democratic appeal of rights against the tactless avowal of the government’s pursuance of Apeco. Scheidel wrote:

The large majority of the local population, however, is much better off without the project and rather sees in the APECO zone a major land grab and a central threat to their lives and to the environment, as well as the end of their indigenous culture and identity [2;3;4;5]. APECO was established without prior consultation of the town major and local governmental units (LGU); without prior consultation of the people of Casiguran, and moreover, large parts of the 12,923ha concession area are located on ancestral lands of the Agta Dumagats indigenous. The concession was granted without their Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) [2;3], thus not complying with the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997. The APECO law was passed without a complete feasibility study and without consultation of affected communities [3]. Corruption during implementation and compensation processes has been evidenced [3]. Farmers who hold lease titles for years, fear that they will not be renewed anymore [3;4]. Mangroves have already been cleared and several hundred fisher families were evicted to make place for the coastal airport [3;4]. No less than 3000 families fear further displacement through the zone development [3]. Indigenous people would lose their ancestral lands, and with this, not only their livelihood source, but also their cultural identity [7].

There has been strong opposition by local groups, who organized public campaigns [3] and a 350km long protest march to oppose the project [2]. Local networks, such as the Anti APECO Task Force and the Resist APECO! Defend Aurora! Movement were establishment, which filed, with support of other NGOs, a petition to the Supreme Court to declare the APECO law unconstitutional and to obtain a temporary restraining order (TRO). The TRO was however not achieved, while, as of October 2014 [6], the resolution of the petition is still pending. Meanwhile, APECO opponents faced heavy repression, including death threats and attacks by gunmen [5] and grenades [7]. On the other hand, development of the APECO zone, funded with public money, has moved forward.[2]

The whole operational system of the government proves itself to be farce. The circus functions precisely in the scenario shown quite graphically: “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.”[3] Its failure to attest the voice of a people under a democratic province laid the obvious preposition that the case was caged, as in a monkey cage, where the only art and science is how to manage a circus. For if truly by nominal right a people marked by democracy expresses a collective statement that concerns directly itself, the process of proving that statement as fact and giving it a clear weight of a fact should prevail more convincingly than fabricated and misguided legal opinions, no matter how charmingly visionary it sounds. Unless the concern of democratic voice is examined and given more attention, the form of government at hand is nothing but playing the circus where people are played and their identities are unrecognized.

The repulsiveness of the vision is also telling. Ever since the project has started, up until a considerable time, one can notice how in 2013, two to three years from the brewing of the issue, a trace of positive change is nowhere to be found. The controversy heightens as “the project, its critics pointed out to the high court, is bleeding the national coffers dry and costs taxpayers P2 billion with a national annual budget allotment of P353 million but is proving to be unattractive to locators.”[4]
To what extent, then, must the issue draw the line in terms of locality and nationality – this is the scope in question. On an immediate level, it appears only as a local dispute, something that only situates itself in the ‘social’ in the Arendtian sense of the term, that is to say that it does not necessarily have to expose itself in a political realm whereby its questions can only be resolved only within its purview. On a deeper level, if this could only be labeled as a social local stirring, then why does its progress resonate as a region, or even more as a pride of a nation that aims at charming international interests? President Aquino ordered the suggested review of the case but still sided with Sen. Angara. He expressed his belief that the 12,000-hectare project would benefit Central Luzon.[5] The comical thing is that the problem is reduced as local in terms of hitches and legalities, but international in terms of progress and economic success.

So where does the problem really reside? On a specific scale, the commotion is situated locally in Aurora and regionally in Central Luzon, but this is not to say that justice only has to be served on that area, as a regional economic crisis, nor does it suggest that the exposition of injustice is specifically pinpointed exclusively. On a larger scale, there is a ubiquitous problem, and it is glaring at injustice as its source and the farcical democratic system of the Philippines as its form.

The real case at hand is the clandestine operations of injustice – here the ridiculous misnomer democracy functions in the nation where not only the people but also their native identities are neglected for the sake of quasi-fascist interests – and struggling against it is the call for justice. There are political masquerades everywhere that are covering these interests, and while they continue to operate, the struggle will always be done in dispositions of desperateness, as if there is more nihilism – in one’s tradition, culture, and identity as a whole – to be found. In these masquerades, there will be ambivalent traces of concerns, a playful rhetoric of concern which hides at bottom the true face of the circus master. The desperate call for justice of the people of Casiguran – both the indigenous and contemporary rural folks – are not assisted to live in a ‘better condition’ enough to make them incur gratitude at the progress of their ancestral lands: they are assisted to be dispossessed from those lands by suspending their economic-cultural identity so that a political dynasty can go on gratifying itself.

 A moral problem

 If therefore on a wider scale the universal problem of injustice penetrated into this scene as revelatory of governmental operations, then it also cannot escape the clutches of morality. The people’s call for justice also calls in the internal forum the conscience of those whose hands the projects of advancement are involved. Much of the advice is classically applicable even now as when Pope Paul VI addresses the Food and Agriculture Organization that “the most extraordinary scientific advances, the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress, will defin­itively turn against man”.[6] In every idea of progress, whether scientific or economic, a parallel progress for morality has to be considered as well.

But the main reason is not that progress is part and parcel of the moral domain. Progress needs morality because it affects humanity along with it. It cannot sacrifice humanity at the expense of itself. The main concern of the people is justice: a just resolution of their identity as the people of Aurora who, for a long time, cannot now be alienated from its true home. Pope Francis in his encyclical on our common home Laudato Si’ says that “human ecology also implies another pro­found reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment.”[7]

And yet another dimension of this morality in the human affairs of justice is the practice of proper judgment in a consumerist society. One cannot do away the fact that, as Pope Benedict XVI notes, “purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act.”[8] Is this not a crucial dimension of progress, when it requires, above all, prudence?

No wonder the CBCP on National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace (CBCP-NASSA) establishes its position of denouncing “injustice and human rights violation in the process of pushing through with construction of the projects”, which includes “legalized land grabbing and eviction.”[9]
Causes and the harmful effects

 What trivializes the injustice of land grabbing more is the horror tied to the legalized cunningness of the Angaras. Why this horror? The people are paying the price for the tilted vision of the political dynasty. In pursuing the project without minding the welfare of the people, the dynasty compliments itself as having an unparalleled cause that is devoid of its possible humanitarian adverse effects. It did not only undermine the moral consequences but it also blinded itself of the future continuation of ecological, health, and socio-economic decay.

The one that forgets its identity now is not the people but the political dynasty of the Angaras. Those who are blind of the catastrophe of power know that they are not really themselves who are acting but the ideology of power itself behind them. The cause is not that the Angaras are deliberately choosing the brigade themselves; rather the political dynasty itself has inculcated within them the identity that is not theirs: they have become a dynasty and not a family. This does not however cancel out the blame that calls for their responsibility. But as the identities of the Angaras have already identified themselves in the name of their fabricated dynasty, one can possibly note how a system swallows an essential freedom of a human by structuring him in an unbreakable chronic chain of political maladies. In tracing this newly-found identity, which is a horror of moral identity, the Anti-APECO groups spotted other anomalous projects of the Angaras.[10]

The P35-million San Ildefonso Core Housing Subproject
The P30-million Calabgan River Flood Control Project
The P10-million Casiguran Mariculture Park Project
The P25-million Eco-Market Solutions Biomass Gasifier Plant
The P120-million Purchase of IDC IFMA Rights


The resistance of the people, with all the remaining freedom they can muster out of their threatened identity, was despite its desperateness, an ethico-political act: against the causal chain of systematized corruption, they have fought for an autonomy which now makes sense of their true identity as a cultural and democratic people of the nation. It is a desperate call such that it pleads the Supreme Court to resolve a final ruling because it has been “quite slow in resolving the issue, which is a matter of life and death to thousands of farmers, fisher folks and indigenous peoples.”[11]

This, among other desperate movements, have made it clear how the colossal changes arranged for the vast land of Aurora can divulge a lot of social impact. To enlist these impacts in their visible and potential effects, Scheidel analytically tallies:[12]

Environmental Impacts

Visible: Food insecurity (crop damage)
Potential: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Soil contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion

Health Impacts

Visible: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Potential: Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution

Socio-economic Impacts

Visible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..)

 The social scientists of the Ateneo de Manila University stressed further the failure that the project dooms itself by betraying its very vision of growth:

Viewed by majority of Filipinos, the record of economic and social progress up to now has proved unsatisfactory for three reasons: first, its pace has been slow when measured against the achievements of the country’s neighbours; second, the benefits of that progress have not been broadly shared; and third, issues of massive corruption and of questioned political legitimacy have undermined the people’s sense of ownership of and control over public policy. Growth has not only lagged, it has failed to benefit the majority, who feel increasingly alienated because their political institutions provide little relief and have drifted beyond their control. Growth, in short, has failed to be inclusive.[13]

Government and religious leaders’ intervention

             With the president siding with the Angaras, Senator Osmeña’s sympathy for the people of Casiguran seems a solitary vote. But he is not alone in this fight. The Church’s social action is one with the people and the legislators who also fight for upright justice. Today, the status of the project is still on-going: a false development of what was once its true intent.

Fr. Edwin Gariguez, Executive Secretary of the CBCP-NASSA “expressed support on the policy demands of Casiguran Marchers and urged the Aquino government to prove his ‘Daang Matuwid’ by giving the Aurora Ecozone a zero 2013 budget.”[14]

The Aurora clergy intervenes with the resolve of ending the injustice emitted by the Angaras. The bishops concerned and the clergy made its move in supporting the priest-representative of the place.

In a statement on July 12, Bishop Rolando Tria Tirona, Bishop Emeritus Julio Xavier Labayen and 30 priests appealed to the Aquino administration and the Commission on Audit to review RA 10083 or the Apeco law and alleged anomalous infrastructure projects.

Pres. Aquino explaining to a Casiguran farmer his NO.

The clergy also condemned the June 26 attack on Casiguran parish priest Joefran Talaban, a known advocate of the residents’ rights to their lands and fishing grounds.[15]

 Fr. Joefran Talaban, the parish priest concerned, is a witness of the black propaganda going on: he was himself caught within it when he has been accused of spreading the black propaganda itself.[16] Reports are all over stating Fr. Talaban’s misappropriation of the causes against the grand-scaled propaganda of the dynasty. In the guise of the “rhetorics” the Angaras present legally for the people, it has condemned itself by being the propagator of false and ungrounded allegations: it is merely getting back its message in its true form – that the author of the black propaganda is not Fr. Talaban but the political dynasty itself.


When faced with this particular ambivalence of motives, this specific display of unparalleled power of a political dynasty playing the circus monkey cage, the key question is: how will the political and apolitical acts of this problem change the situation at all? On an epistemological level, the danger of non-suggestion after a critique must be avoided. On a political level, the same problem is imperative: what changes must be suggested after revealing the problem itself?

Here, I am almost at guilt when I see this painful scenario, because the desperate call for justice from the residents and the native people of Aurora is itself a sincere democratic act that is morally moving. The most human political act is to do what must be done in one’s own power to support the move, to provide a substantial change in the political maneuverings the people are fighting for right now. I am almost at guilt because, without a powerful influence and casuistic knowledge, I cannot find myself participating along the frontline. There is a feeling of helplessness that is critical against the power the government displays at its finest. We are forever bound with a moral imperative for humanity, and what comes with this is an uncompromising guilt that we are universally responsible for our brothers and sisters.

In Syria today, I am one of those who bemoan at the terrible scene of those who lost their home, those who cannot even feel at home in their own country, which is of course a direct destruction of human habituation by a merciless form of extremist idealism. It cannot be imagined how ideologies today are adamantly indifferent to humanity – especially the helpless, the poor, the children who will not even have the chance to see a better Syria.

This too is relevant for the people of Aurora today in correspondence to this international problem: the identity is likewise susceptible to negation. A Syrian who cannot even live in Syria is no different to a native of Aurora, whose cultural identity has immemorially rooted itself in the place, and whose adherence to ancestral traditions is sacrosanct as much as it is sacrosanct for humanity to rest on a peaceful home.

The negligence of the political dynasty’s sharing of itself as part of humanity imposes its reflection on the people to neglect their identity also – but this is not the case for them. While the political power of the government prevents the cause of the people to reach a definitive ruling, there is a much futuristic responsibility that can be expected within this struggle: how to preserve the future without sacrificing the present.

A seminarian from Ateneo leading the march for justice

Therein lies the authentic greatness of a sincere democracy, when a united call for justice makes the helpless acquire a bond of strength: in times of great upheavals making known the need for a just society, this sincere collective act must have started by purifying its prejudices of superficiality. It might, initially, begin to tell us how we have perverted its sincerity since EDSA revolution, quite far-fetched, how the powerfully old-rich has subsided and created more opportunities for new corrupted richness, or how rallies have become pointless in the face of legislative royalties or political dynasties, in short, how democracy has corrupted the field by incurring in politics a kind of mistrust of the people’s opinion. We need, more than ever, this desperate sincerity in democracy today.

But more than sincerity, what must be done after the revelation post-facto? How can this circus be turned upside down on the side of the people? I have to honestly say, that on a more directly political level, we cannot operate with sincerity only. Something much more extensive and penetrating is necessary. On the one hand, the appeal to a supernatural realm is also a practical as much as it is a spiritual move. Prayers are vital sources of hopeful actions: they are a sure foundation that amidst a superficial temporality of an unjust domain, there is a belief nonetheless that carries with it a communal bond of order. Prayers provide us a sure footing of maturity that concerns a responsible pace amidst rapid and indescribable changes. Isn’t this the same personal prayer of growth as we thank God in the Eucharistic prayer: “Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to Your greatness, but makes us grow in Your grace”. The EDSA revolution could not have happened without the strength of men and women who found inspiration in marching with rosaries in them: that picture of a woman praying intently in front of a tank that is ready to fire – that is the perfect time to pray.

On the other hand – and here comes a more theoretical point of departure – how can the circus outplay the circus master? One can well imagine a comical move for this, for it requires a way of dealing with the present situation without inventing a supraterrestrial move, that is to say without thinking of an alternative that succumbs to the temptation of the problem to escape it through foundationless maneuvers: in other words, how to play the circus without becoming like the circus master. How can one reinvent the farcical relations in a way that we do not relate like the abolished ones: how to overturn the political dynasty without building a new one?

I do not assume that we can immediately know the answer to this. Reality is glaring: that though we want to transcend politics by changing its course of facts and purifying its motives, we cannot escape the fact that such move can almost stand on a status of a utopian idea. To transcend politics, one needs to operate and alter the process of such politics within itself and only within itself. There is not an escape – this is the existential scenario of politics today, and we need to at least cope up with it if we aim in overturning it within its very processes however long term. The APECO case urges us that even if the situation seems to operate in a democracy that runs a circus in a monkey cage, we have to deal with it in a manner that we have to play the game to beat it. In other words, if in the hands of injustice, democracy is the art and science of running a circus from a monkey cage, we must learn how to wield it in the hands of justice also: we must be able to learn such art and science itself. We counter the play with the play, the sarcasm with the sarcasm – and only an event that operates all too well the processes of such present human condition can give its preexisting power-play a taste of its own medicine – in short, how to relive the democracy of the Old Marcos without becoming the Dictator one.

The art and science of running the circus from a monkey cage is crucial at this point.




[1] See the law at http://www.lawphil.net/statutes/repacts/ra2010/ra_10083_2010.html

[2] A. Scheidel, “APECO Special Economic Zone on ancestral lands and fishing grounds, Aurora, Philippines”, https://ejatlas.org/conflict/apeco-special-economic-zone-on-ancestral-lands-and-fishing-grounds-aurora-island-philippines (Last updated: September 4, 2015) [Retrieved September 6, 2015, 1:37 PM)

[3] Rappler.com, “P251-M budget for APECO? ‘Waste of money’ – Osmeña”, (October 21, 2014, 7:58 PM); See also Ditsi Carolino, “The March to Progress in the Philippines”, Al Jazeera, (Retrieved as quoted from Wikipedia, April 19, 2015). Italics added for emphasis.

[4] “Group prods SC to rule on Apeco case”, Inquirer.net (April 15, 2013, 6:20 PM).

[5] “Opponents of Aurora free port bring case to SC”, Inquirer.net (August 12, 2013, 8:40 PM).

[6] Pope Paul VI, Address to FAO on the 25th Anniversary of its Institution (16 November 1970), 4: AAS 62 (1970), 833. As quoted from Laudato Si’, 4.

[7] Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter On Care for Our Common Home: Laudato Si’, 155.

[8] Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (29 June 2009), 66: AAS 101 (2009), 699. See also Laudato Si’, 206.

[9] “Church backs repeal of Apeco law; cites abuses in free port project”, Inquirer.net (February 21, 2012, 8:22 PM).

[10] Kimberly Jane Tan, “Sen. Osmeña, Aurora residents call for zero budget for APECO”, GMA News, (November 27, 2012, 3:06 PM).

[11] Edu Punay, “SC asked to Rule on Apeco Case”, The Philippine Star, (April 17, 2013 – 12:00 am). Italics added for emphasis.

[12] A. Scheidel, “APECO Special Economic Zone on ancestral lands and fishing grounds, Aurora, Philippines”, loc. cit.

[13] Hansley Juliano, “A Statement of Concern on Apeco by Ateneo Social Scientists”, https://www.facebook.com/notes/hansley-notoapeco-juliano/a-statement-of-concern-on-apeco-by-ateneo-social-scientists/10151285608253607 ( December 16, 2012), cf. Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016

[14] CBCP News, “Priest urges zero budget on APECO”, (Manila, November 28, 2012).

[15] “’Where’s the money?’ – Aurora clergy, civil society ask Angaras on ecozone” Press release July 19, 2010. https://aurorafreeport.wordpress.com/tag/parish-priest/  (Retrieved: September 6, 2015, 2:03 PM).

[16] Mamer Banez, “Priest accused of fabricating lies vs Apeco”, Journal Online (November 23, 2014).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s