Mariano orders criminal prosecution vs APECO

news national 2 pix 1 july 28 2016Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano ordered the filing of criminal charge against officials of the Aurora Pacific Economic Zones (Apeco) for the illegal conversion of some 2.5 hectares of agricultural land in Sitio Landing, Bgy. Esteves, Casiguran, Aurora.

Mariano in a resolution dated July 27, 2016, ordered the DAR Region 3, the Provincial Agrarian Reform Office, and the Task Force on Illegal Conversion to "immediately identify the entities or individuals who may be held criminally liable on the commission of the unlawful land use conversion and to cause for the criminal prosecution of the individuals identified."

Mariano in effect denied APECO'S appeal filed last December 14, 2015 and maintained the validity of DAR Regional Office (DARRO) Orders dated September 15 and November 23, 2015 to issue "a CDO and enjoining APECO and all persons acting under its command in performing acts that would alter or change the use of the property without DAR conversion clearance."

The case stemmed the complaints filed by Casiguran parish priest Fr. Jose Francisco Talaban and Mr. Vicente Convicto on March 9, 2013 before the DARRO. The complainants alleged that APECO committed illegal conversion activities that involve the physical alteration of the use of agricultural lands for the housing project and relocation program.

The complainants claimed that the property is irrigated, considered a prime agricultural land in the locality and is part of an existing agrarian reform community (ARC) in the area. Talaban said that with many residents reliant on farming and fishing, APECO is also a threat to the province’s food security.

Acting on the complaints, a joint validation inspection conducted showed that there is a massive land use conversion activities in the NHA-APECO Nayon Kalikasan Housing project without a conversion clearance from the DAR.

Further, the DARRO received a report from DAR Provincial Office showing the presence of large quantity of screened sand and bunkhouse in the area including heavy equipment such as bulldozer and double cab truck and on-going earth movement.

Dizon in a letter dated March 29, 2016, ordered APECO Pres. Malcolm Sarmiento and NHA General Manager Atty. Chito Cruz to explain "why no appropriate legal action  be filed against you  and other persons acting under your command in addition to the of illegal conversion by the task force before a competent court."

NHA and APECO however argued that the said property does not require conversion clearance as it is exempted the from the coverage of agrarian reform program by virtue of Pres. Decree No. 1472.

DOJ Secretary Leila de Lima on DOJ Opinion No. 965 dated  August 5, 2015 said Republic Act (RA) No. 9490 as amended  does not exempt lands covered by Apeco  from the coverage of CARL or RA 6657.

DOJ opinion No. 44 states that the DAR Secretary has the power to authorize the conversion of all agricultural lands not yet re classified as industrial, commercia or residential uses upon the passage of CARL or RFA 6657 on June 15, 1988.

APECO is a P1-billion economic zone project conceived by the Angara political dynasty in Aurora. Three of its members sit on the board.

Former Edgardo Angara and Aurora Representative Sonny Angara authored RA 10083 which created Apeco and expanded the former Aurora Special Economic Zone (Aseza) from 500 to 12,923 hectares. Aurora Governor Bellaflor Angara-Castillo endorsed it amid strong opposition from thousands of farming, fishing and tribal communities to be displaced as vast tracks of irrigated agricultural, forest and ancestral lands, including a huge portion of municipal waters, are appropriated for the project.

"Appellant APECO's and NHA's develoment activities on the subject property without an approved conversion order from the DAR, and which undisputedly have already resulted in the destruction of the agricultural land which found by the DARRO to be an irrigated riceland - is CLEARLY repugnant to the agrarian laws and policies," the order stated.

Mariano said the CDO is to implement and enforce the agrarian laws on the prohibition against illegal, premature and unauthorized  conversions under Section 57.2 of DAR AO No. 01, series of 2002 and not to preserve the status quo between the parties pending the litigation of the cases.