MANILA— The establishment of an agro-aqua and ecotourism zone in Casiguran, Aurora can promote growth and development in the area and its adjoining municipalities, according to the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA). 

Referring to the development of Casiguran under the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO), a report by NEDA said that the area “has intrinsic economic potential as an agro-aqua and ecotourism zone” given that the activities proposed are going to be well supported by the resources of the area. 

Apparently, APECO, the manager and operator of the zone, has veered away from the original plan of establishing a freeport zone, based on the findings of the study conducted by NEDA to assess the economic potential of the controversial project. The study team assessed the project as a potential agro-aqua and ecotourism zone, and not as a freeport zone as originally conceived by its developers, after observing developments at the site. The report noted that developing the area for agribusiness and ecotourism was appropriate given the existing resource base. 

“A well-defined market for outputs within and outside of the ecozone as well as the abundant agri-aqua raw materials and human resources in the area serve as a strong draw for locators,” according to the NEDA assessment. “This new plan would generate employment and spur development not just in the catchment area of Dilasag-Casiguran-Dinalungan in Aurora, but also in the nearby provinces.” 

Local stakeholders note that “for so long government had neglected the municipality (i.e Casiguran).” They believe that the employment generation effect of the ecozone will also serve to preserve the forests which are now being exploited because of lack of livelihood opportunities in the lowland. APECO’s plan is to promote forest preservation in San Ildefonso, except for a 200 ha. area for bamboo culture and production. 

Access by land to the zone is via the almost completed Baler-Casiguran national road, which is part of the government’s national road network development initiative. LGU officers in the Casiguran and nearby municipalities of Dilasag and Dinalungan noted that before APEFZ came along, they never thought that national government would pay attention to the area, which only merited national attention when calamities struck. 

Given the amount of public funds already spent, NEDA is of the view that giving up on developing the area will be more wasteful. The area has to have the minimum facilities to attract locators and undertake operation. The critical facilities required are a stable source of power supply, access to safe and clean water supply, and facilities for proper solid waste management. 

However, NEDA is not recommending immediate implementation. “Further investment support for the installation of all these additional facilities will be contingent on APECO’s completion of its master plan, and other essential corporate business plans and policies in place, including its land use plan,” according to NEDA. “Partnership with local government units and other national agencies through dialogues and consultations would truly make the effort supportive of inclusive growth. 

In December, the President instructed NEDA to undertake an assessment of the economic potentials of the APECO project, which had become controversial. The evaluation of the legal issues surrounding the project was not part of the terms of reference, however. NEDA’s task was to determine if it made economic sense for the Government to continue to invest in the project, and how much additional investment is needed to make the project operational. The economic evaluation followed established principles of benefit-cost analysis. 

“But future investments will have to be conditional on transformational interventions that have to be done to ensure the successful achievement of a sustainable development of the area,” according to the NEDA assessment. 

The study was conducted drawing from documents available from various sources and interviews with stakeholders. These were validated by several field visits to the area by the NEDA.