Citizen Action Guide to Aurora

 

Area Profile 

Aurora is the seventh and northeastern most province of Central Luzon (Region III), situated about 232 kilometers northeast of Manila. It has a land area of 323,954 hectares or roughly 3,239 square kilometers. It is on the eastern side of Sierra Madre Mountains. Aurora is bordered by Isabela and Quirino provinces in the north, Nueva Ecija and Nueva Vizcaya in the west, Bulacan and Quezon in the south, and the Pacific Ocean in the east.

Aurora was a long and narrow strip of coastal and mountainous land of Quezon province until it became a sub-province in 1951 through late President Elpidio Quirino’s Republic Act 646. In August 1979 it became a full province – through President Ferdinand Marcos’ Batas Pambansa Blg. 7 – and part of Region IV-A. In May 2002, Aurora became part of Region III.

It has a lone congressional district and a third class economy, and is among the 20 poorest provinces in the country. Its 151 barangays (villages) are spread over its eight municipalities, including its capital Baler.

Topography and Climate. The province is 70 percent mountainous, with the Baler valley as its biggest plain land area consisting of vast stretches of rice and coconut fields as well as comprising the towns of San Luis, Maria Aurora, Dipaculao and Baler. From the town of Dinalungan to Dilasag, the plain is narrow and parallel to the coast line.

Rainfall in the province occurs throughout the whole year, with heaviest rainfall in January, February, April, October and November and the dry spell in August.

Aurora’s main drainage system consists of six rivers: Aguang River in Baler, Calabgan River in Casiguran, Ditale and Dibutunan Rivers in Dipaculao, and the Ibuna and Singauan Rivers in Dingalan. There are also many small tributaries running eastward to the sea.

The environmental situation of Aurora has deteriorated significantly in the past decade, based on government and non-government reports. Unbridled legal and illegal logging operations throughout the province has caused siltation and broadening of its rivers drainage system, landslides, and extensive flooding. Due to climate change and forest destruction, dry and rainy seasons have become less predictable. Yet it still continues to be a green, fertile province.

Aurora is no stranger to violent weather disturbances and natural disasters: It faces the Pacific Ocean and has no barriers to shield it, so typhoons coming from the east are typical. In 2004, three consecutive tropical cyclones – Violeta, Winnie and Yoyong – ravaged the province, costing the lives of around 2,000 people. In 2006 and 2013, Typhoons Paeng and Labuyo hit the province respectively, causing severe damage to houses, infrastructure, and agriculture production in northern Aurora.

The province is also prone to tsunamis and earthquakes. The Casiguran fault line in northern Aurora was the epicenter of the earthquake in 1968, which brought down the Ruby Tower in Manila. Centuries earlier, in 1735, tsunami “Tromba Marina” wiped out Baler area, according to historical records.

Population and Languages. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) in 2010 placed Aurora’s population at 201,233 or roughly 44,740 families with an annual growth rate of 1.48 percent. It is estimated to have reached 215,000 by 2015. A little more than half of this – 115,700 – are registered as voters.

Aurora is ancestral home to about 40 indigenous tribes, including the Ilongot; the Aeta sub-tribes of Dumagat, Alta, Agta and Ebukid; and the migrant Igorot.

The Ilongot communities live mostly in the tri-boundary of Aurora-Nueva and Vizcaya-Quirino, while the Aeta and Dumagat tribes live mainly along San Luis and Dingalan coasts. The Altas live in the hills between Aurora and Nueva Ecija while the Agtas are in Casiguran and the Ebukids in Dinalungan and Casiguran. These indigenous peoples mostly live as hunters, fishers and gatherers of forest products. The Igorots live mainly in the plains as farmers.

A 2000 national census showed that 53 percent of the population is Tagalog and 32 percent is Ilocano. The remaining 15 percent includes linguistic groups like Bicolano, Kapampangan, Igorot and Bisaya, who settled all over Aurora from their provinces of origin. It also includes ethno-linguistic groups such as Pangasinense, Kasiguranin and Kankana-ey.

Majority of the people here speak Tagalog and the working population is facile both in English and Filipino.

Economy. Agriculture is Aurora’s main economic activity, employing about half of its population.

A total of 49,991 hectares or 15 percent of Aurora’s land area are farmlands, nurtured by generations of common folk’s hard work. Of these, a total of 35,769 hectares of productive lands are planted to two main crops: palay or unhusked rice with a total of 14,360 hectares, and coconut trees, reaching to about 3.3 million planted in a total of 21,409 hectares The remaining 14,222 hectares are planted with banana, root crops, citrus, corn, mango, coffee and pineapple.

According to 2004 PSA data, Aurora accounts for about 69.3 percent of the number of coconut trees in Central Luzon. But the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) said in February 2014 its output dipped by 13 percent due to damages caused by typhoons Labuyo and Santi.

Cutting of coconut trees is temporarily banned in the province: In an attempt to sustain the coconut industry here, the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) inaugurated in 2010 the PhP 216 million Aurora Province Coconut Development Center in Dinalungan town.

The PSA reported in 2011 Aurora’s agricultural production from 2009 to 2011 as follows:

Land Ownership. About three-fourths (236,000 hectares) of Aurora is classified as forestland while nearly one-fourth (73,000 hectares) is considered as alienable and disposable land, which can be owned and/or used for residential, commercial, and industrial purposes. The remaining 60,000 hectares, meanwhile, are protected under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992.

Around 45,000 hectares of Aurora are used as agricultural land, while 2,800 hectares are residential area. Almost all forest lands are covered nowadays by logging concessions (200,000 hectares) or mining applications (277,000 hectares), causing a serious threat to the environment.

The province’s agricultural rural land is mostly privately owned and generally small in size. Research by peoples’ organizations based in Aurora revealed that Romeo Roxas, president and chairman of the Green Circle Properties and Resources, Inc., claims to own around 28,000 hectares of land located at the boundary of Aurora and Quezon province. Roxas’ company is behind the controversial Pacific Coastal Cities Project that aims to transform several coastal and agricultural areas in Aurora and nearby provinces into “modern urban center in a resort-quality environment” and “a new growth center” that features eco-tourism and international water and airports, as an alternative to Metro Manila.

The banking sector also has vast tracks of land under its control: Rural Bank of Baler, 90 hectares; Rural Bank of Maria Aurora, 306 hectares; Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), 181 hectares.

About 80 percent of the rural population is landless, mostly composed of tenants and farm workers. Data from the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) show that only 5,064 landless families benefited from the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). They are holders of Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOA) of farm lots with an average of 1.7 hectares each, covering 8,354 hectares.

Because of diminishing availability of useful lowland agricultural areas, farmers are being pushed to move further uphill. They resort to kaingin or slash-and-burn farming, charcoal making, pangangahoy or wood gathering, and gathering of forest products like rattan and wild orchids. These so-called “informal settlers” or “squatters” have a piece of land to cultivate, but are landless by law. As a consequence, they face constant risks of eviction and displacement by legal landowners, who are usually powerful government officials or wealthy businessmen.

Logging Industry. Aurora is one of the country’s few remaining frontiers of natural resources. A provincial government study in 1990 showed it still had 20,000 hectares of virgin, primary forests. This figure may have been reduced since then.

The Aurora State College of Technology (ASCOT) ranked Aurora 42nd of the 65 provinces with remaining mangrove areas. Nowadays, there are only 459 hectares of mangroves left, mostly in Dilasag and Casiguran. These mangroves are now also threatened to be cut and converted into fishponds and resorts.

In 2007, big logging companies covered and controlled about 201,758 hectares or 75 percent of Aurora’s forest land through the Integrated Forest Management Agreement (IFMA), Special Private Land Timber License (SPLTL), and the Timber License Agreement (TLA), issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). They continue to operate in Aurora’s remaining forest with impunity despite the 1978 log ban, based on the monitoring of environmental groups here.

Here’s an overview of logging concessioners in Aurora, according to DENR records:

Moreover, 32,921 hectares of forest are covered by eight Community-Based Forest Management Agreement (CBFM) licenses under DENR, managed by local community members – and most often in close collaboration with these logging companies.

In 2011, President Benigno Aquino III issued Executive Order No. 23 declaring a moratorium on the cutting and harvesting of timber in the natural and residual forests of the entire country. This eventually forced the logging companies to stop their operations. But illegal small-scale logging for local consumption still continues, as revealed in local groups’ monitoring data.

The Aurora Integrated Area Development Program (AIADP), a European-sponsored development program, said that frequent landslides and flash floods are linked to the various degrees of misuse of protection areas usually through large-scale logging, thus resulting to sedimentation of rivers and flooding of low lying areas. In 1996, it started to promote the protection of watersheds in the most critical areas.

The clamor to stop commercial logging operations grew in 2004, after the destruction caused by the three consecutive typhoons Violeta, Winnie, and Yoyong. The Prelature of Infanta and the Multi-Sectoral Action Group of Aurora (MSAG) led peoples’ actions to pressure the national government, local governments and DENR against rampant logging.

Mining. The Mining Act of 1995 has opened Aurora province to a rush of mining applications by foreign and local mining corporations, covering around 277,000 hectares or 80 percent of the province’s land area.

Several companies have also applied for offshore mining, particularly black sand in the municipal waters. Mining will take place at around 500 meters from the shoreline from the Baler Bay up to the Casiguran Sound, with a total area of 25,000 hectares.
The Executive Order 79, which President Aquino issued in 2012 to place reforms in the mining sector to protect the environment, has partially excluded Aurora as tourism area from mining operations.

Citizen action, however, has helped stop the granting of mining permits in the province: MSAG and citizens of Aurora help series of protest actions and dialogues, and received support from the provincial and several municipal local governments through their specific resolutions against mining.

Fishing Industry. The fishing industry is an important source of income in Aurora, as a third of it (50 barangays) is located along the seashore of the Pacific Ocean. A total of 4,035 residents work as full or part-time fishermen, with around 1,761 using motorized small outrigger boat (bangka) and 771 using non-motorized boats.

The PSA reported in 2010 the province yielded 300 metric tons in aquaculture fish production, 104 metric tons in commercial fish production, 3,064 metric tons in municipal fish production, or a total of 3,468.1 metric tons in fish production. The fish catch in 2014 has been estimated at 1.9 metric tons.

Some risks are however emerging: Foreign fishing ships have been monitored entering the municipal waters (15 kilometers from the coastline), thus driving marginalized fisher folk further out to sea, according to locals. Over-fishing and sedimentation continue to reduce fishing yield in Baler Bay, authorities also say.

Human Development Index and Poverty Incidence. According to the National Statistic Coordination Board (NSCB) the Human Development Index (HDI) for Aurora in 2000 was at 0.585, the lowest in Central Luzon. It hit 0.655 in 2009. In 2012, three of 10 families in Aurora are poor according to the agency.

The graph below for the first semesters of 2006, 2009 and 2012, save for some small jumps, generally shows a challenging picture on the state of poverty in the province.

Per Capita Poverty Threshold and Poverty Incidence among Families 

While these data are based on sampling of less than 100, the increase of severe poverty (0.7), of poverty incidence among families (30.7 percent) and of the poverty gap (7.6 percent) are significant indicators that the so-called trickle-down theory is still being challenged.

Education. According to the Department of Education in Aurora, the province has 136 elementary schools with 36,571 students, 1,140 teachers and 1,285 classrooms; and 39 secondary national high schools with 15,484 students, 594 teachers and 388 classrooms for School Year 2014-2015. It has seven private schools for elementary to secondary education; 28 for elementary education only; and six for secondary education only. The Catholic Schools of the Prelature of Infanta (CASPI) are the biggest among these private schools.

A branch of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) is located in Baler.

ASCOT was created in 1993 through the initiative of then Senator Edgardo Angara and late Aurora Congressman Benedicto Miran. The Wesleyan University of the Philippines is located in Maria Aurora, while the Lyceum of the East-Aurora opened its doors some years ago. The Aurora Polytechnic College (APC) in Baler, owned by the Angara clan, started in 2007. The Asia Pacific International System College Inc. also began operating in Baler several years ago.

Health and Welfare. Four public hospitals serve Aurora – the Aurora Memorial Hospital (AMH) in Baler, the Casiguran District Hospital, the Medicare Hospital in Maria Aurora, and the District Hospital in Dingalan.

The AMH is a small general hospital serving central Aurora, with 25 beds, a specialist doctor and four general physicians. The Department of Health (DOH) upgraded it from Level 2 to Level 1 to a cost of PhP1.09 billion of which PhP 509 million came from Japan's Grant Aid Program. Inaugurated in February 2012, it has now a 50-bed capacity with medical facilities such as X-ray machine and neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

The Maria Aurora Community Hospital upgraded from 25-bed to 50-bed capacity in 2009 through the financial support of the Japanese Embassy. The Casiguran District Hospital will soon be upgraded to a 50-bed capacity. The Dingalan District Hospital meanwhile will be upgraded to a 25-bed capacity with other hospital equipment and needs.

Rural health units (RHU) were established in eight municipalities to support different health programs of the DOH. Health Centers are also available in all barangays manned by about 1,200 barangay health workers.

Local health data as of 2012 showed that of the 71 barangay health stations serving 151 barangays, only almost half have assigned rural health midwives in charge of maternal and child care, prevention and control of communicable diseases, emergency disaster mitigation, safe water and sanitation, proper nutrition, family planning and responsible parenthood, and gender and development (anti-abuse against women and children).

A midwife serves at least three barangays, thus limiting her/him to attend to the needs of each barangay only once a week. To cover these areas, the midwife is compelled to shoulder her or his own transportation expenses, or at most, buy a motorcycle to be able to reach the remotest areas.

This lack of direct access to rural health services has contributed to the increase of preventable diseases in the province. Data from the Provincial Health Office in 2012 and 2013 showed increasing trend in cases of acute upper respiratory tract infection (AURI), urinary tract infection (UTI), wounds, and pneumonia.

The provincial health data in the same years also showed that common degenerative diseases/senility, cerebro-vascular disease/congestive heart failure and cancer (all types) lead the list oftop 10 causes of deaths in the province.

A recent research study which the local health group Alternatibong Kalusugan sa Pamayanan (AKAP) conducted led to these findings from among 600 respondents from 14 barangays spread in eight towns as the major constraints in the province’s health sector:

1. Lack of health facilities, medical supplies and personnel;
2. Poverty and lack of livelihood opportunities; and
3. Food security and nutrition

On maternal and child health, the study showed that mothers preferred giving birth at home because of high costs of service in hospitals or health centers, ranging between Ph 1,700 and PhP 3,000 for each birthing. Meanwhile, the “point-of-care” scheme of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), which insures non-members coming from indigent families confined in government hospitals, can be availed only in two hospitals in the province – in Baler and Casiguran.

Economic Opportunities: From ASEZA to APECO. The Aurora Special Economic Zone (ASEZA) was initially a 500-hectare economic zone project created in 2007 through the Republic Act 9490 and supposed to cover the rice granary of the villages of Dibet and Esteves in Casiguran in northern Aurora. Said to be the brainchild of former Senator Edgardo Angara, the project easily received support from family members in both chambers of Congress: through his sister, incumbent Rep. Bellaflor Angara and son, now Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara. Affected communities of farmers and fisher folk claimed that neither they nor local authorities were consulted on the project.

In 2010, the Angaras amended the ASEZA law through Republic Act 10083 to become the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport (APECO), with an expanded land area of 12,923 hectares, in order to become a major transshipment hub located along the Pacific Ocean. Once again, affected communities of indigenous peoples, farmers and fisher folk claimed that they were not consulted and were even threatened to be displaced from their current homes and stripped of their sources of living.

Peoples’ groups and their supporters, which included Manila-based CSOs, the Catholic Church, and several progressive politicians, accused the government of continually stimulating investors’ appetites through huge tax incentives and new infrastructure, by “offering” the eco-zone’s productive lands, forest lands, marine and forest resources, and cheap labor and services for its agro-industrial and eco-tourism thrusts.

After seven years of operation, however, APECO reportedly has yet to find investors and has failed to bring the promised development to the area, thus earning the term “waste of money” from Senator Sergio Osmeña in 2014 during Senate deliberations of its “caretaker” budget. The elder Angara then arbitrarily decided to link the controversial project with the potentials of the Benham Rise, a 13 million-hectare seismically active underwater plateau about 250 kilometers east of the northern coastline of Casiguran. Experts say the territory is rich in natural gas and minerals, as proven by its recognition in 2012 by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as part of the Philippines’ maritime territory.

Civil society organizations and other sectors, with a strong support from the Catholic Church, formed local coalition Pinag-isang Lakas ng mga Casiguranin (United Strength of the People of Casiguran or PIGLAS-CA) to lead the campaign against APECO. Together with other groups, PIGLAS-CA consistently opposed the eco-zone project, alleging that it exacerbates environmental destruction and legalizes land grabbing in Casiguran and nearby towns among other concerns.

Their struggle is also supported by the human rights organization Justice and Peace Action Group (JPAG), Bataris Formation Center and Alternatibong Kalasugan sa Payamanan (Alternative Health for Communities or AKAP), the Prelature of Infanta and national networks of the Task Force Anti-APECO and Resist APECO / Defend Aurora Movement.

APECO, the groups said, will:

• Displace 3,000 families and common folk in Casiguran;
• Further increase harassment from the military and its proponents: In July 2010, the convent of Fr. Joefran Talaban, parish priest of Nuestra Señora de la Salvación in Bianoan, Casiguran was strafed and community leaders opposing the project reportedly received death threats.

Communities – with support from politicians such as Senator Sergio Osmeña III and party list representatives of Bayan Muna and Anakpawis – continue to protest against APECO through these actions: (a) Petitioning the Supreme Court in 2011 to declare APECO and ASEZA laws as unconstitutional; (b) waging peoples’ campaigns such as the peoples’ walk twice from Casiguran to Manila and covering a total of more than 300 kilometers leading to a dialogue with President Aquino on December 11, 2012.

Pacific Coast City. The Pacific Coast City is another ambitious project aiming to establish a 80,000-hectare “metropolis” as an alternative to decongested Metro Manila within the framework of the Eastern Luzon Seaboard Strategic Scheme, a master plan from the project’s owner, the Green Circle Properties and Resources, Inc. Local groups see this project as another threat to indigenous peoples and poor farmers in the province, as they stand to face risks of losing their lands to this ambitious project of lawyer and businessman Romeo Roxas.

In the 1990s, Roxas bought from logging concessionaire Gopansoy a total of 28,900 hectares of flat and forest land on both sides of the Umiray River in Dingalan, Aurora and General Nakar, Quezon for only PhP 1.40 per square meter. The land covered indigenous peoples’ communities, affecting more than 800 landless farmers. These farmers were awarded around 1,500 hectares of agricultural land with Certificates of Land Ownership Awards (CLOAs) under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). Roxas filed a protest in order to declare all the CLOAs as illegal. The case is still pending.

President Joseph Estrada declared the project through Proclamation 233 of 2001 as a Special Economic Zone at Tourism Estate: the first economic zone to be along the Pacific Coast. However, the Pacific Coast City project did not prosper because of people’s protests and three consecutive typhoons in 2004—hundreds of people died and thousands of illegally cut logs rushed from the hills to the lowlands.
In 2014, the project restarted with the building of the bridge over the Umiray River, the crucial step in enabling the project to succeed as it connects the southern and northern parts of the property. The bridge was funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) through the DAR.

Military Reservation of Fort Magsaysay. Local groups also see the Military Reservation of Fort Magsaysay as another potential cause of the local communities’ displacement. Created through Proclamation No. 236 in 1955, this 50,000-hectare reservation in the middle of the Sierra Mountain range covers part of Laur, Nueva Ecija and Dingalan, Aurora.

In 2010, the Department of National Defense (DND) claimed that the boundaries of Fort Magsaysay extend up to the Pacific Ocean, which includes the villages of Ibuna, Matawi, Butas na Bato and Aplaya located inside the fort, claimed that “all the residents are squatters”. The military reiterated this view at the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in the presence of USA President Barack Obama in 2014.

For the local population, the expansion of Fort Magsaysay would mean another threat to their livelihood, properties and communities.

Tourism. Tourism in Aurora got its boost in 2006 – and appearing to be through the massive “investments” of the Angara clan. Then Senator Edgardo Angara began developing his beach resort in Sitio Dicasalarin, Barangay Zabali in Baler, including the improvement of access roads and the artists’ village. The clan subsequently bought vast tracks of land in Barangay Sabang reportedly to develop the Sabang Economic Tourist Area (SETA). Three high-end hotels – Costa Pacifica, Bahia I, and Bahia II – found along the now-known surfers’ favorite strip along the shore facing Pacific Ocean belong to the Angaras, together with the Machiavelli Lodge within Baler. The clan also reportedly completed the tourism package by owning and managing bus lines Genesis Bus and the executive Joy Bus to ply daily from Manila to Baler, and back. These, plus high-profile visits of celebrities including presidential sister Kris Aquino, have reportedly shot up the tourist population by 600 percent in less than 10 years – from a mere 10,000 in 2006 to 685,000 in 2014.

This tourism industry boom boosts job opportunities and local economy as transient houses, banks and stores continue to bloom. However, the social side effects of this sudden development are also evident, such as the displacement of fisher folk along the seashore; price increase of daily commodities; pollution; traffic jams; prostitution; and drug abuse.

Other development projects. The PhP 21 million food production project called “Food Basket” covers 582 hectares of forest land. The project, launched in 2006, is controversial as the land is claimed by indigenous peoples’ communities and other landless farmers. A green nursery was established and an impressive Guesthouse annex helipad on top of the hill was built with a first class cemented access road on encouragement of the proponents, the Angaras.

In 2007, an ultra-modern Integrated Rice Mill Complex was built in Baler to upgrade the rice production through a PhP 115-million grant from South Korea. However, the operation has been stopped last year because of mismanagement.


LOCAL GOVERNMENT UNIT PROFILE

The Angara clan, the alleged self-proclaimed ‘Builders of Aurora’, is the biggest and so far the sole political dynasty in the province. Dr. Juan C. Angara was the first elected governor-general of the province when it was annexed to Region III in 1958. From him, his family’s reign in the province continued for decades, from 1965 and through seven Presidents, from Marcos to incumbent Benigno Aquino III.

The late Dr. Angara’s son Edgardo – one of the founders of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala and Cruz Law Offices, a powerful law firm usually hired by big local and foreign companies) – served as senator. Daughter Bellaflor Angara-Castillo was the immediate three-term governor and the incumbent Congress representative of the province’s lone district, prior to her three consecutive terms also in Congress.

Four Angaras simultaneously held national and local positions in 2010 – Edgardo, then a senator; his son Juan Edgardo ‘Sonny’, a Congress representative; sister Angara-Castillo, the provincial governor; and another brother, Arthur, a dentist and the mayor of Baler (for 18 years). All served full terms and as soon as they reached term limits, they switched posts until legally allowed to seek re-election.

The Angaras dominate the 11-man Board Trustees of the Aurora Economic Development Inc. (AEDI), with former Sen. Angara as chairperson, Angara-Castillo as vice-chairperson, and incumbent Sen. Sonny as a trustee. Among the AEDI Council’s powers are to formulate integral development plans from provincial to municipal level on agriculture; education, social enterprises; infrastructure and tourism; act as implementing agency for province-wide projects; promote investments; receive and administer donations from foreign government, international agencies; conduct feasibility studies evaluation and monitoring.

Aurora failed to land in the Top 10 biggest investors on education, culture and sports, and manpower development in 2009 when Central Luzon provinces Bulacan and Nueva Ecija did. While poverty has high negative correlation with education, Camarines Sur, one of 2009’s poorest provinces made it to the top 10 biggest investors on education.

A July 2013 Manila Times article cited the Commission on Audit (COA) report for 2012 saying that the province had a PhP 127-million deficit attributing it to “poor financial management.” The same report said the province’s General Fund posted a negative PhP 87.52 million, Trust Fund a negative PhP 41.78 million – for total overdraft (or deficit) of PhP 127.37 million. Only the Special Education Fund remained strong at P1.93 million.

But the provincial accountant, according to the media report, said the COA’s audit observation was flawed, arguing that this was caused by “double entries in the list of 2012 payables”.

The COA further said that in 2011, Aurora had a deficit of PhP 86 million in the General Fund due to the 2012 payments of past years’ liabilities. The COA also found out the provincial LGU used revenues ‘mostly for administrative expenses’ leaving too little for programs and projects.
Personal services totaled PhP27.52 million – or 56 percent of total revenues and 20 percent over the 45-percent limitation set by law.

In the 2013 elections, Arthur lost to then incumbent vice governor Gerardo Noveras for the post of governor, despite his elder brother Edgardo’s endorsement since he (Edgardo) backed out to receive his post at the international Global Organization of Parliamentarians against Corruption (GOPAC).

Noveras won the trust of the people by addressing issues which the clan was perceived to evade in their many decades of rule, such as these which the first-termer presented in his first State of the Province Address: accessibility (communication, land, air and water); united people and leadership; resource sustainability; organization alliances; agricultural productivity; good governance; environmental protection; major commercial hub; and service excellence in health, education and housing.

PDAF Allocations. A Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism report series on Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) in 2013 stated that the Angaras controlled Aurora’s PDAF allocations. Angara-Castillo as governor managed several million pesos of the province’s IRA.

News reports have it that next to Senator Juan Ponce-Enrile, the Angaras received the second largest share of the controversial Development Acceleration Program (DAP) worth a total of PhP 889.9 million, broken down into the following: PhP405 million (P320M for PDAF projects) in 2009; PhP100 million (PhP50M for PDAF projects) in 2010; PhP100 million (PhP50 million for PDAF projects) in 2011; PhP194.9 million in 2012 with only PhP10 million for a Seawall project in Barangay Sabang plus 133 other projects for election time; and another PhP90 million in 2013.

Angaras’ PDAF transactions for 2007 – 2009

PDAF Projects in the province, mockingly termed as “Private Development Angara Fund” included the Baler Town Plaza (PhP100 million); Sabang roads and walkways (PhP20 million); Sabang Water system (PhP20 million); Barangay 5 perimeter fence (PhP1.6 million); Baler Port to Pag-asa Road (PhP30 million); technical equipment for Technical Education and Skills Development Authority Agricultural Training Institute [TESDA/ATI (PhP14 million)]; Tabas, Calabgan, Minanga River Flood Control (PhP100 million); and water system study for Baler (PhP2 million).

The COA found that the former senator from 2007 to 2009 coursed at least PhP243.16 million of his PDAF to NGOs with irregularities, or without liquidated balances. For one, he channeled PhP24.96 million to ‘The Assembly of Gracious Samaritans Foundation Inc.’ and to the Technology Resource Center without any liquidation.

Angara transferred PhP 14.4 million to the Kalusugan ng Bata, Karunungan ng Bayan, Inc. (KBKBI) where he was an incorporator, located in a nonexistent address under the name of a nonexistent tenant. Of Angara’s total PDAF releases to the KBKBI, only PhP5 million was apparently liquidated.

Other entities and bogus NGOs which Angara allegedly tapped to course his PDAF funds through his PDAF were the Kagandahan ng Kapaligiran Foundation; Molugan Foundation (not Security Exchange Commission-registered), READ Foundation (same address as KBKBI), Serbisyong Pagmamahal Foundation (no business permit) and Manila Seedbank Foundation.

Angara’s multi-billion pork project for APECO. Over PhP 2.85 billion from people’s coffers has been waylaid for the now called ‘white elephant’ APECO. From 2008 to 2012, the national government released a total of PhP915 million to APECO to reportedly fund these projects:

PhP 142-million 1.2 km airstrip in Barangay Esteves, Casiguran, funded through the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) with additional PhP92-million fund for 0.3-km airstrip extension; the PhP63 million port improvement project in Brgy. Dibacong, Casiguran, funded through Philippine Ports Authority with a proposed P2.4-billion additional fund to make it an international seaport; and the PhP1.66-billion Baler-Casiguran highway going to the ecozone, partially funded through loans from the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA).

The COA found that APECO has at least PhP 23.8 million in unliquidated cash advances in 2012—double than its 2011 unliquidated advances of PhP 13.8 million. APECO failed to keep a physical inventory of property and equipment worth PhP 575.7 million; had not properly documented the PhP 906,996 ‘doubtful’ transportation expenses declared by the ecozone; and failed to submit to COA copies of government contracts and purchase orders. It also engaged in the hiring of “dispensable and unnecessary” consultants worth PhP 9.1 million, resulting in ‘inessential expenses.’ All these have been linked to former Sen. Angara’s pet projects.

The COA report on APECO over 2013 reveals, among others, these: PhP 12.5 million in unliquidated cash advances; final tax of PhP 1.2 million withheld from the purchase of land was not remitted tot the Bureau of Internal Revenue; transportation expenses amounting to PhP 2.7 million were not properly documented; and previous suspension and disallowances amounting to PhP 69.4 million and PhP 336 million respectively remained unsettled.

The public here continue to ask why Angara, a known ally of the President, remains unsanctioned over abuse of public funds despite overwhelming evidence, unlike his colleagues at the Senate (Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Bong Revilla, and Jinggoy Estrada) whom the Ombudsman ordered arrested and detained in line with the PhP 10-billion pork barrel scam.

Local Government Expenditures and Financial Accountability: Majority of Aurora’s total funds come from the Internal Revenue Allocation (IRA) provided by the national government. It has received an IRA of PhP 424.5 million (86 percent of its total funds) in 2010; PhP 460.35 million (88 percent) in 2011; and PhP 438.7 (90 percent) in 2012. In 2013, its IRA reached to PhP 484.5 million and in 2014, to a total of PhP 546.9 million (92 percent).

The Commission on Audit (COA) report in 2012 said the province’s General Fund posted a negative PhP 87.52 million and its Trust Fund, a negative PhP 41.78 million.

The COA also found out the provincial LGU used revenues ‘mostly for administrative expenses’ leaving too little for programs and projects. Personal services totaled PhP 27.52 million – or 56 percent of total revenues and 20 percent over the 45 percent limitation set by law.


PEACE AND ORDER

The military authorities since the early 1970s have considered Aurora as a “hotspot” of the New People’s Army (NPA). Records and testimonies also showed that the military has accused the progressive peoples’ organizations, NGOs, as well as the Prelature of Infanta under the pastoral leadership of emeritus Bishop Julio X. Labayen, OCD and other church programs as “front organizations” and supporters of the country’s long-running communist insurgency.

The military’s anti-insurgency program have been closely linked with significant and repeated cases of human rights violations in the province -- extra judicial killings, involuntary disappearances, hamletting, and other forms of harassment.

Both foreign and national human rights organizations have blamed then Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan and the 48th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army for the dramatic increase of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of activists and community leaders under his watch. Palparan – who have earned the name “The Butcher” among human rights activists for allegedly killing innocent civilians in his campaign to crush communism -- and his alleged henchman Lt. Col. Joselito Kilala were suspected to be behind the March 3, 2006 abduction of Joey Estriber, staff of Bataris Formation Center and reporter of DZJO Radio Spirit FM. Estriber has not been accounted for since. Palparan has been arrested after hiding for three years to elude arrest in connection with the kidnapping and serious of University of the Philippines students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno in 2006.

Despite the 2009 declaration of then Gov. Bella Angara of Aurora as “insurgency-free”, the military’s anti-insurgency campaign called “Oplan Bayanihan” is suspected to continue in the province and is blamed for the continued cases of human rights violations, particularly these:
• the murder of Romualdo Palispis, spokesperson of the task force against the Dr. Juan C. Angara municipality and chairman of JPAG Maria Aurora, on June 30, 2012;
• the murder of Willem Geertman, a Dutch lay missionary of the Prelature of Infanta, on July 3, 2012, only three days after Palispis was gunned down, at the compound of Alay Bayan-Luson, Inc (ABI). Geertman had served poor farmers and indigenous peoples’ communities in Aurora since 1979. He had been involved with JPAG, Bataris Formation Center, Multi-Sectoral Action Group and in the pastoral formation programs in Aurora province.

No one has been brought to justice to this day for the abduction and two murders.


CIVIL SOCIETY AND MEDIA
Media community
Aurora has a small media community mostly organized under the Central Luzon Media Association. Radio is the dominant media platform with three local radio stations (all located in Baler) that air mainly local news and current affairs programs daily:

• DZJO Spirit FM (101.7 MHz) (Catholic Media Network - CMN) of the Prelature of Infanta, the oldest since 1992;
• DWLN-FM, Radyo Natin (RN) (88.5 MHz)) in partnership with the Manila Broadcasting Company’s DZRH Radio; and
• DZRA (92.1 MHz) television-radio since 2012 created through RA 10027 initiated by the Angara clan.

Both ABS-CBN Channel 2 and GMA Channel 7 have a relay station in Baler.
DZRH has a correspondent that covers Aurora Province and the adjacent Nueva Ecija. The correspondent of Catholic Media Network (CMN) informs through DZJO-FM, while one of RN-FM Baler reports occasionally directly to DZRH.

Aurora has been on line only since 2003, with increased access to cell phones and the mushrooming of Internet cafes through the province.

Since 2005, Interlink Cable Television Inc. enabled access to a wide range of television channels in central Aurora.

National daily newspapers, tabloids and magazines reach only the towns of the Baler-Valley by noon. Local newspapers are weekly distributed mainly in Baler.

Some websites such as Bagong Aurora Website ng Bayan and Batang Baler are distributors of local news.

Churches
Roman Catholic Church is the predominant religion in Aurora for the past 400 years, with about 80 percent baptized.

Other religions are the Methodists, Philippine Episcopal Church (Anglican), Seventh-day Adventists, Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches as well as the Iglesia ni Kristo.

The Prelature of Infanta, of which Aurora Province is part, started in 1980s under the pastoral guidance of Bishop Labayen, OCD and with the support of the National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA), to establish a Church of the Poor and a just, passionate society through Basic Christian Communities.

An initial meeting between Bishop Labayen and leaders of the sectors in the early 1980s had developed into a yearly forum between the Prelature and basic sectors now named the Daupang-Palad ng Sektor at Taong Simbahan (DPSTS).

In 2003 after Bishop Labayen had retired, Bishop Rolando Tria Tirona OCD has taken over until 2012. Bishop Bernardino Cortez has been installed last January 2015 as Bishop-Prelate of the Prelature of Infanta.

People’s Organizations and Non-Government Organizations
Human rights advocates organized themselves in 1984 in the Justice and Peace Action Group (JPAG) of Aurora.

Peoples’ organizations followed from 1984 on: Church-based NAMAKA (peasants) and Kabalikat (women); Anibang Kilusang Magbubukid sa Aurora (AKMA, peasants), Samahan ng Magbubukid na Kababaihan (SAMAKA, peasant-women), Samahan ng mga Kabataan ng Aurora (SAKA, peasant-youth) and the Indigenous Peoples communities, Samahan ng mga Katutubong Sierra Madre (SKSM), under the PAMANA (Panlalawigang Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Aurora).

Saint Francis Center was set up in 1984 in Baler serving the basic sectors in socio-economic projects and with scholarship program.

In 1987, Bataris Formation Center was established in Baler, serving the basic sectors and the lay through formation programs.

These organizations formed in 1990 the Multi-Sectoral Action Group (MSAG) of Aurora in order to promote the “People’s Agenda of Aurora” (land reform, protection of the environment, promotion of human rights, anti-corruption, responsible voting).

MSAG also organized the Task Force Pag-Asa as response to the 2004 typhoons disaster. Pag-asa collaborates with ABI, the parishes of the Prelature and the local government units in disaster risk reduction management program.

In 1992, Kalinga/AKAP started a province-wide community-based alternative health program and clinic.

Besides these, there are many other local People’s Organizations, different kind of Cooperatives, NGO’s, Associations and Clubs active in Aurora.


LGU – MEDIA-CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS (CSO) ENGAGEMENT

In the past these POs, CSOs and other citizen formations - with strong support of some local parishes - were willing to engage with the LGUs through continuous dialogues for reforms.
But their calls such as “No to APECO”, “No to Political Dynasties”, and “Land to the Tillers and IPs,’ as well as protest actions allegedly displeased the Angara clan and their allied forces in local government.

On the other hand, several reform-minded mayors and line agencies are open for dialogues and are supportive of the people’s issues.

The incumbent provincial government also offers space to promote increased transparency and accountability in its policies and programs, as manifested in the governor’s “open door” policy and his willingness to enter into dialogues.
The LGU’s attempt for transparency can at best be indicated by its use of local publications, press releases, and information bulletin boards, as well as the holding of public forums and assemblies, posting of job vacancies in bulletin boards, and publication of contracts.

The provincial government regularly releases its official publication “Aurora, Bukang Liwayway” and the Governor has his own radio program on one of the local radio stations.


OPPORTUNITIES AND THREATS
Opportunities
There is a growing public awareness on what progressive sectors call “Aurora Development Aggression” projects such as APECO and Pacific Coast City, according to peoples’ groups working here. Increased awareness of the people on issues of pork barrel, corruption, political dynasties (linked particularly to the Angaras), environmental protection and climate change is also notable. This draws great potential in creating a political and civil climate to tackle public transparency and accountability, and demand for reforms.

Threats
As anywhere in the country, any people’s movement aiming to harness citizens’ will to address their issues has to reckon with political divisiveness, patronage politics and harassment.

While there is a growing awareness of the citizens in their need to engage the LGUs on governance and accountability concerns, there remains a gap especially in rural communities in understanding practical ways that can help them effectively address their advocacies and increase their voice.