Tip of iceberg

Nueva Vizcaya tribe begs for action on Casecnan fund scam

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines — Officials and tribal elders of the Bugkalot community in remote Alfonso Castañeda town are growing edgy over the delayed resolution of a case filed against their former mayor involving the alleged misuse of P30.7 million in local funds.

Mayor Jerry Pasigian, a Bugkalot, said their people are wondering what has been keeping the Ombudsman from resolving the charges that four village chiefs filed in July 2006 against former Mayor Alfredo Castillo Jr.
“Our people have not forgotten about … the money that was supposed to benefit them. They want justice for our town,” he said.

The P30.7 million comprises the shares of villages Pelaway, Abuyo, Cawayan and Lipuga from the accumulated P250.7-million real property tax that was paid by California Energy-Casecnan, an American firm, in 2005.

CE Casecnan is the owner and operator of the Casecnan Multi-Purpose Irrigation and Power Project (CMIPP), a hydroelectric facility composed of two impounding dams and a power plant, connected by a pair of 26-kilometer tunnels.

In their complaint, Bugkalot village chairs Potado Gabogen (Pelaway), Tomas Cawad (Cawayan), Engagen Pasigian (Lipuga) and Milton Suaking (Abuyo) accused Castillo of allegedly defrauding them and appropriating for himself the proceeds of their village’s RPT share.

Mayor Pasigian expressed optimism that their case would not “fall into oblivion,” amid all the hype stirred by controversial national broadband network (NBN) deal.

“This anomaly may be too small compared to the other cases of corruption that we hear about these days. We may be a small town, but our people deserve justice as well,” the mayor said.

Pasigian defeated Castillo for the mayoral post in the May 2007 elections.

Contacted on the progress of the case, officials of the Office of the Ombudsman, however, said the charges against Castillo were still under review.

In a letter sent to this writer, Rolando Zoleta, acting director of the office of the Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon, said their findings on the case are now awaiting the approval of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez.

Official records revealed that when the case was filed, Pelaway, which hosts CMIPP’s weirs, has already received P20.3 million as its share in the RPT. Abuyo, which covers almost the entire length of the tunnels, got P10.4 million.

Lipuga and Cawayan were also given their share as a form of goodwill, as the chiefs agreed that these villages were also part of the CMIPP’s “primary impact zone.”

Aside from the village’s share, the town government of Alfonso Castañeda also received P110.6 million representing 40 percent of the CE Casecnan’s tax payment.

“This [case only involves] the share of the village. The Ombudsman should look deeper because this is just tip of the iceberg,” said an official, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

The source, who is privy to the disbursement of the Casecnan fund, said provincial officials have been very lax in releasing the RPT shares of Alfonso Castañeda despite the perceived irregularities, because “they, too, abused the Casecnan fund.”

“We see here a plunder case just waiting to be uncovered,” the source said.

The complainants said that Castillo, after they received their share of the Casecnan RPT, instructed them while inside a hotel in nearby Solano town to issue blank checks. This was supposedly to facilitate the start of projects in their villages.

“The mayor told each of us to issue about five or six blank checks, without knowing the exact amount that would be charged against them or the purpose for which we were issuing,” the complainants said in their sworn statements.

They said they waited for the projects to come as promised by Castillo but no projects were ever started.

They soon discovered that two checks, which had the amount of P3.2 million each, were issued to one Silvino Uera, supposedly the mayor’s close-in aide and driver.

This writer tried to contact Castillo on Friday, but he could not be reached through his mobile phone.

In an interview made before the cases were filed against him, Castillo insisted that he had nothing to do with the loss of the village’s RPT share.

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Buying N. Vizcaya’s IPs

Mine firms dangle cash to get tribes’ nod

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–Foreign firms that are attempting to conduct mining exploration in ore-rich areas in the province have devised a way in getting the approval of affected tribal communities: give them money.

Documents showed that in the villages of Papaya and Pao in upland Kasibu town, where two mining companies claim to have obtained the consent of residents for their exploration activities, written agreements contained provisions which promise cash to villagers.

Royalco Resources Limited, formerly Oxiana Philippines, Inc. (OPI) has committed to give “monthly salaries” of P3,000 to P4,000 to 34 tribal elders and leaders of the Bugkalot in the area, who gave their approval of the project.

The amount is the tribe leaders’ supposed compensation as liaison officers for the duration of the two-year exploration project, according to a compliance certificate issued by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.

The certificate was issued to indicate that the Bugkalot tribe in the area has given its free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the project. OPI’s exploration site in Pao and Kakidugen in the hinterlands eastern Nueva Vizcaya has been declared as the Bugkalot’s ancestral domain.

Aside from the tribal leaders’ salaries, Royalco has also pledged to provide a “trust fund” of P150,000 to the Bugkalot Indigenous Cultural Community.

On the other hand, OceanaGold Philippines Exploration Corp. (OGPEC), has also given P50,000 to barangay officials of Papaya upon signing of an agreement expressing the village’s approval of the firm’s exploration project.

It has also pledged to give the village a quarterly payment of P30,000, supposedly for “community development projects” in the village, the agreement entered into by OGPEC and the Papaya village government showed.

“How can there be free consent from the affected tribe when they are being lured with money in exchange for their approval [of the project]? This clearly is exploitation of our indigenous peoples,” said Bernabe Almirol, convenor of Dapon Ingenous Peoples Center, Inc., a non-government organization.

Almirol said majority of the people in Kasibu have remained steadfast in opposing mining in their communities, and rejecting the monetary benefits being offered to them by the companies.

OPI failed to enter the exploration site last month after Kalanguya, Ifugao and Bugkalot villagers, including and teenagers and women, set up a barricade and stopped the passage of heavy equipment by sitting in the middle of the mountain road in Paquet village.

Residents in Papaya have signed a petition rejecting OGPEC’s exploration project, citing a barangay ordinance that declared their village as watershed area, and thus, should be free from any mining activity.

They assailed village chief Avelino Puguon for signing an agreement with OGPEC and personally receiving the P50,000, allegedly without consultation with other officials and villagers.

Sought for comment, mining company officials denied that they were bribing the tribal leaders to approve of their respective exploration projects.

“The thrust of the company is development, so that when we explore and we don’t find anything feasible [after the mining exploration], we hope that even when we leave the area, our programs can have an impact on the lives of the people,” said Joey Nelson Ayson, Royalco country manager.

Ramoncito Gozar, OceanaGold vice president said it is not their company’s policy to engage in bribery to get the people’s consent.

“Rather, we support livelihood community development and the general upliftment of the standards of living of the Papaya community as direct beneficiaries of the project,” he said.

Prolonging the agony

Village execs urge Senate to postpone barangay, SK polls

SOLANO, Nueva Vizcaya — The national assembly of the federation of barangay (village) chairpersons in the country has urged the Senate to support a proposal to postpone elections for barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan (SK or youth council) officials scheduled next month.

In a September 20 resolution, the Liga ng mga Barangay (League of Villages) said “supervening circumstances” have made the conduct of the elections in October impractical.

The Liga cited the lack of time to prepare for the elections.

The problem, it said, is complicated by “unresolved issues” that include proposals to automate the polls, its proximity to the recently held national and local elections, budget constraints, and representation problems confronting the SK.

Republic Act 9340, passed on May 25, 2005, mandates the holding of synchronized barangay and SK elections “on the last Monday of October 2007 and every three years thereafter.”

RA 8436 authorizes the conduct of a modernized system of elections through automation, the Liga said.

The eight-member Liga council, led by its president, James Marty Lim, has sought the help of Senator Richard Gordon to file a bill calling for the examination of the “[im]practicality” of proceeding with the October 2007 elections.

To rectify the “incongruity” of past election controversies like reports of “dagdag-bawas” (vote-padding and -shaving) and the “Hello, Garci” scandal, “the perceived key is automation,” the council said.

The “Hello, Garci” scandal refers to purported wiretaps of phone conversations between President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo‘s and former elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano at the height of the 2004 presidential election canvass that allegedly touch on plans to rig the results of the vote.

The Liga said the synchronized barangay and SK elections would be the best dry run for automated elections in 2010.

“Since automation of the [Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao] elections had provided nothing more than lackluster results, the true test now to gauge and validate the importance of computerizing the elections should be at the level of the barangay,” the resolution said.

But since the scheduled barangay and SK elections are just more than a month away, the Liga council said the planned automation may have to be shelved again if the polls are not reset to a later date, such as May next year.

The council said the request of the Commission on Elections for barangay councils to allocate counterpart funding for the elections casts doubt on the poll body’s claim that it had enough funds to push through with the October schedule.

“A considerable part of the funds [for the synchronized] elections would reportedly be [taken] from the individual funds of the barangays at a fixed amount, without regard to their income level. This would greatly prejudice poor barangays,” the resolution said.

Problems plaguing the SK, including calls for its abolition due to the supposed “non-performance and inefficiency” of its officers, further reinforce the need for a review of the practicality of the simultaneous holding of the barangay and SK elections, according to the Liga.

Divine intervention

Bishop steps in as Vizcaya mining row gets violent

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya—Catholic Bishop Ramon Villena had to finally step in to resolve a mining conflict between tribal groups in the province and an Australian mining firm.

Villena had a hastily-called dinner with President Macapagal-Arroyo in Malacañang on Wednesday to seek her help in solving the mining conflict between Oxiana Philippines Inc. (OPI) and members of the Bugkalot, Kalanguya, Ibaloi and Ifugao tribes now living in Kasibu town.

The next day, Environment Secretary Lito Atienza ordered OPI to stop its planned exploration activities in the area, until the issues raised by the people there were resolved, according to media reports.

Dialogue with the President

In a statement made over the Catholic Church-run radio station dwRV on Friday, Villena narrated how he had to ask Ms Arroyo for a dialogue on Wednesday, hours after several tribal men and women in Kasibu were hurt following an attempt to dismantle their human barricade in remote Paquet Village.

“Over dinner, I told the President about the highly explosive and critical situation in Nueva Vizcaya. I told her my fear that there could be bloodshed and that lives might be lost because of the persistence of the mining company,” Villena said.

Quick action

Immediately, the President called Atienza on the phone and asked him to talk to the bishop.

“(Secretary Atienza) assured me that he would act on my request immediately. Indeed, we have read in newspapers today about his order,” Villena said.

He said he was flustered when Sister Maria Eden Orlino, directress of the Church-based Diocesan Social Action Center (DSAC) reported to him by phone from the barricade site in Paquet Village about the violent dispersal of the protesters, most of them women. Scores were hurt during the dispersal.

Militiamen in plain clothes dragged protesters who sat in the middle of the mountain road to stop a bulldozer that was to be used by OPI for clearing the land at the exploration site.

Tears

“The bishop was crying over the phone when he heard about the confrontation, and immediately said that he would do his best to personally talk to the President about the matter,” Orlino said.

Since July 12, members of the Bugkalot, Kalanguya, Ibaloi and Ifugao tribes from six villages in Kasibu have been guarding the barricade to prevent the entry of OPI’s heavy equipment.

In his statement, Villena thanked Ms Arroyo for giving him the time and for listening to his plea and Atienza for “acting like a good father and brother.”

He called on officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, National Commission for Indigenous Peoples, the local governments, OPI, the local church and the protesters to come together for a dialogue and conduct an honest-to-goodness consultation.

Bottom line

“The bottom line here is that no human life should be sacrificed for the sake of development or of mining. Above all these, human dignity must first be respected,” he said.

Villena said mining companies should use the Pao experience in learning the lesson that “no amount of wealth, not even guns, can destroy the determination of the people.”

Tribal folk, who were resisting OPI’s entry in Pao Village, welcomed Atienza’s order but said they were not leaving the barricade site.

“We are thankful to Secretary Atienza, if indeed, there is such an order. But we are also wary that this could just be part of the government’s tactics to soften our resistance,” said Benito Cudiam, vice chair of the Kasibu Inter-Tribal Response for Ecological Development (Kired), a people’s organization.

“We will remain at the barricade site until we receive the formal order for Oxiana to stop its activities,” Cudiam said.