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Bongbong’s first veto surprises, raises questions

The Marcoses and San Miguel Corporation have a shared history

It did not take long for new Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to exercise his veto power and against a bill seen as favorable to an entity long associated with his family: San Miguel Corporation (SMC). And it raised quick questions from one of his family’s long-time nemesis.

Marcos sent a letter to the Senate on July 1—his first day in office—explaining his opposition to the proposed law creating the Bulacan Airport City Special Economic Zone and Freeport spearheaded by SMC. Marcos said he sees “substantial fiscal risks” in the proposal as well as inconsistencies with existing tax laws that focus more on income generation for the government.

“While this administration recognizes the objective of the proposed measure to accelerate economic growth in its locality, I cannot support the bill considering the provisions that pose substantial fiscal risks to the country and its infringement on or conflict with other agencies’ mandates and authorities,” the President wrote.

The veto, however, raised questions from one of his family’s long-time nemesis, Jose Maria Sison, who wondered about Marcos’ real motive.

‘Run-away cronies’

Reacting to the news of the veto, Marcos martial law survivor Sison asked: Is the Marcos family trying to take back controlling stocks in the SMC it allegedly entrusted to the long-time chairperson of the conglomerate: Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco.

Cojuangco was regarded as among the closest cronies of the late dictator Marcos Sr. who spearheaded the Coconut Levy Fund from 1973 to 1985 worth billions of pesos. Cojuangco later used the fund to acquire and take control of both the United Coconut Planters’ Bank and the SMC.

The Corazon Aquino government, through the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), said Cojuangco served Marcos family’s financial interests through the bank and the conglomerate.

In a September 2012 decision, the Supreme court affirmed that the 27% block of SMC shares were government-owned, worth at least P71 billion at the time. The coconut farmers who were forced to contribute to the funds said the money should be given back to them.

Cojuangco died in June 2020 at the age of 85.  

Long-time SMC vice chairperson and chief operating officer Ramon Ang succeeded as chairperson and chief operating officer in June 2012 after reportedly acquiring Cojuangco’s stock shares. It is under Ang that the Bulacan ecozone project started in 2018 with a corporate life of at least 50 years.  

The project’s centerpiece is SMC’s P740-billion New Manila International Airport, capable of up to 100 million passengers per year and is expected to rival Philippines’ main gateway, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.  

WHAT KODAO REPORTED BEFORE: Saving Taliptip

‘Entirely his’  

Department of Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla in a radio interview Monday morning said the president’s veto is entirely his decision, saying the president sees the proposed measure as disadvantageous to government. Remulla said the measure, known in the 18th Congress as House Bill 7575, will give ten years of tax incentives to SMC while similar measures only offer five to six years.  

Once signed into law, the government would surrender much of its oversight powers on the airport and freeport to the powerful conglomerate, Remulla added.  

As expected, Ang defended the project, saying the Bulacan economic zone will be managed by government while its tax incentives will still require Department of Finance review and approval.

“My intention is to help create (a) science and technology export hub with cheapest logistics cost because of nearest airport and Manila seaport. World-class semiconductor manufacturing power battery storage, manufacturing electric vehicles (and) manufacturing and modular nuclear power assembly plants target to export $200 billion annually to help our GDP (gross domestic product) growth,” Ang told The Philippine Star.  

In a later statement, press secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles said President Marcos fully supports the project and his decision to veto is meant to cure its “defects”.

“Presidential Veto is fastest way to cure the defects of HB 7575 especially the provision which exempts the Commission on Audit to look into the financial transactions on the special economic zone and freeport,” Angeles said. “Had the President not vetoed the HB 7575, it would have lapsed into law on July 4 or 30 days after the bill was sent by the legislature to Malacanang,” she added.

Former Senate President Vicente Sotto III said he will advise incumbent senators to re-file the bill without the provisions objectionable to Marcos.

Sison however said the new President is likely already spending time running after so-called run-away cronies like Cojuangco who may not have given back assets entrusted to them, in much the same way that the PCGG “ran after Marcos loot hidden under multi-layered schemes to conceal ownership.”  

“The Ecozone will be revived as soon as the issue is settled behind the scenes?” Sison asked. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)          

Reclamation project tinututulan ng mga taga-Taliptip

Isang kilos-protesta ang isinagawa ng mga residente ng Sitio Taliptip sa Bulakan, Bulacan sa harapan ng Department of Environment and Natural Resources Region 3 sa San Fernando, Pampanga.

Nanawagan sila sa ahensya na ipawalang-bisa ang Environmental Compliance Certificate ng Silvertides Holdings na siyang sub-contractor ng San Miguel Corporation para sa pagtatayo ng New Manila International Airport o Aerotropolis sa nasabing lugar.

Tinatayang nasa 1,000 pamilya ang mawawalan ng tirahan gayundin na ang hanapbuhay ay pangingisda. Masisira din ang mga bakawan at ilang yamang tubig sa nasabing isla.

Ang Bulacan Aerotropolis ay isa mga proyekto ng pamahalaang Duterte sa ilalim ng Build, Build, Build Program. Bibigyan ng Department of Transportation ang San Miguel Corporation para pamahalaan ang konstruksyon ng Aerotropolis. (Music: news background. Bidyo ni Joseph Cuevas/ Kodao)

Saving Taliptip

by Leon Dulce

Obando Fishport was bustling with activity at 6:00 in the morning. A colorful and tightly packed flotilla has gathered, fishing boats carefully slipping and sliding past each other to get their turn at docking.

 The bustle slowly fades to an idyllic backwater as we travelled via pump boat to the coastal village of Taliptip in Bulakan town, Bulacan province. Its surrounding seas is life to some 5,000 mostly fishers and salt-makers. It is from the gentle waters and mangrove corridors where they get their bounty of fish, mussels, crabs, shrimp, and krill.

On this collection of small island communities, a 2,500-hectare reclamation project by the San Miguel Corporation is being aggressively pursued, threatening to convert everything in its wake into a an aerotropolis complex of airports, expressways, and urban expanse.

 The project was a well-kept secret from Taliptip’s residents until concerned environmental advocates and church workers raised the issue among the communities—and until President Rodrigo Duterte was seen in the news already inking the project’s deal.

 Residents, especially the families who have lived in the village over the past 80 years, are concerned that their life and livelihood are under threat by this project.

A fisherman tending to his nets in Taliptip. Photo by Leon Dulce/Kalikasan PNE

“So long as the sea is here, there is hope…What will we fish when all this is turned into cement?” said Arthur*, a fisherman from Sitio Kinse, an island community of Taliptip ensconced in a dense shroud of mangroves.

 Arthur shared that the average fish catch for a day would net them around 500 pesos. Deductions from their gross income will be used to defray gasoline and other expenses and pay their boat consigner’s share. During the dry seasons, some fishers tend to the salt fields and get 154 to 254 pesos as payment per sack depending on the quality of the salt.

 A good day’s catch is a rarity nowadays, however. Gloria*, a woman resident of Sitio Dapdap, explained that fishing families usually stock up their live catch in makeshift pens and sell these on a weekly basis. A daily trip to and from the central market in Obando is simply too expensive compared to the dwindling daily catch.

A section of the Bulakan Mangrove Eco-Park. Photo by Leon Dulce/Kalikasan PNE

The hardships push the people of Taliptip to be sustainable by necessity. Living off the grid, residents pooled their resources to set up solar panels and batteries for their simple electricity needs. The residents take care of the mangroves since the shellfish they harvest live among its roots, and serve as a natural barrier to big waves.

 Aside from a 25-hectare eco-park established by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), various other stretches of mangroves are spreadt across Taliptip’s waters. A huge population of birds such as terns, egrets, kingfishers, and swallows make a home out of these trees.

A plethora of birds roosting over makeshift structures put up by fisherfolk. Photo by Leon Dulce/Kalikasan PNE

It is not hard to see the importance of these coastal greenbelts. The National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), the lead agency that approved the reclamation project, however, apparently has a diametrically-opposed view.

 San Miguel has pronounced that it can payroll entirely for the P735.6-billion aerotropolis, a hefty price tag that must have been the clincher. That amount seemed enough to justify ignoring the thousands of people set to be displaced and the ecologically critical vegetation to be converted.

A portion of a stretch of mangroves allegedly cut by San Miguel personnel. Photo by Leon Dulce/Kalikasan PNE

Early this year, the Duterte government also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Dutch government to cooperate in the crafting of the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Master Plan (MBSDMP). The cart came before the horse, however, with projects such as the aerotropolis rapidly progressing without the guidance of a comprehensive sustainable development and management framework.

San Miguel personnel were reportedly behind a massive mangrove-cutting spree in Taliptip two weeks ago. Communities had no idea if the cutting had a special tree cutting permit from the DENR, as required by law.

 Almost 30,000 hectares of such projects presently cover the entire length of the bay.

A fisherman off the port of Obando. Proposed reclamation projects span the entire coastline of Manila Bay. Photo by Leon Dulce/Kalikasan PNE

For Arthur, defending the only livelihood they know from the real threat of reclamation is non-negotiable. “We will not leave our homes. We will fight so long as there are people supporting us and giving us strength to fight,” he declared.

Environment groups and churches are digging in deep with the communities for the struggle to save Taliptip and various other communities across Manila Bay. Will Duterte stand with the people and stick to his rhetoric against reclamation, or will he bow once again to the oligarchs it has vowed to stand up against?#

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Leon Dulce is the national coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE). Follow the local people’s struggle to save Taliptip on Facebook, or through the hashtag #SaveTaliptip on Twitter.

*Real names withheld for security purposes