SONA 2017: Business interests with ties to Duterte to benefit from Martial Law extension

President Rodrigo Duterte with his Martial Law administrator Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and implementor Armed Forces Chief General Eduardo Año (Photo from Al Jazeera)

As expected, the so-called supermajority in Congress granted the extension of Martial Law that President Rodrigo Duterte asked for. Martial Law would be in effect in Mindanao until the end of the year.

Malacañang said that with the extension, the country could now “get on with the job of nation-building and contribute in the attainment of the full promise of Mindanao.” The Duterte administration intends to “transform Mindanao into a land of fulfillment”.

How exactly Martial Law could contribute in “nation-building” is unclear. What is clear is that the 261 lawmakers who rubber-stamped the presidential request have further built up the nation’s fear of an authoritarian regime that Duterte wants to establish.

Martial Law in Mindanao and its extension could indeed be just a dress rehearsal and forebodes an of all-out fascist rule that Duterte and his Martial Law generals plan to unleash on the entire country.

Meanwhile, the “attainment of the full promise of Mindanao” pertains to the unrestrained exploitation of the region’s resources. Despite decades of corporate plunder, many areas in Mindanao are still not yet fully exploited.

Business interests with ties to the President appear to be among the beneficiaries of the extension of Martial Law in Mindanao.

Investment opportunities

The World Bank, for instance, in an August 2016 report said that: “Mindanao has 10 million hectares of land, of which 59.4% or 6.066 million hectares are classified as forestlands… if properly delineated, and rights are defined, can potentially increase the land inventory for large- scale investments.”

It noted that of the 6.07 million hectares of forestlands in Mindanao, only 700,000 hectares are covered by industrial forest management agreements, mainly by corporations. There are 700,000 hectares more that are still not covered by any form of tenure instrument. Another 400,000 hectares of public forests that are unclassified – all potential areas for big corporate investments.

In addition, of the remaining 4.14 million hectares of alienable and disposable (A&D) lands in Mindanao, a huge 2.24 million hectares have not been covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). These millions of hectares of forest and A&D lands offer enormous opportunities for investment and profits.

“If we push for massive agri investments in Mindanao, we need to start looking at the availability of these lands for consolidation to achieve economies of scale,” said the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), a government body created to among others promote and facilitate investments in the region.

Under the Duterte administration, MinDA and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) are also working to fast-track the Mindanao Ecozone Masterplan. The plan will develop existing and new economic zones around Mindanao to increase trading activities and attract more foreign investments.

There are 81 accredited ecozones in the region covering agro-industry, manufacturing, information technology and tourism. The Duterte administration is currently conducting an inventory of areas in Mindanao that can be developed as “ecozone cities”.

But many of these supposedly idle areas or available lands are actually occupied by lumad and peasant communities. Their firm resistance and the strong presence of the New People’s Army (NPA) are the biggest obstacles to the massive expansion in Mindanao of corporate plantations, big mining companies, and export-driven industrial enclaves – and the construction of hard infrastructure to support their operation.

The resistance is not against development but against the land and resource grabbing and massive displacement of local communities that often accompany big-ticket investment projects in Mindanao. That is why the NPA, and the lumad, farmers and farmworkers are the real targets of the extended Martial Law in Mindanao.

Big business interests

Indeed, Duterte’s Martial Law is apparently more about providing security to big investors who want to further exploit Mindanao. And it appears that the business sector feels encouraged by the strongman rule that Duterte is imposing. The organizers of the recently held Davao Investment Conference (ICON), for instance, reported record-breaking confirmed attendance, including about 100 foreign investors.

In an earlier report, the organizers said ICON participants include the country’s biggest conglomerates like San Miguel Corp. (SMC) as well as 30-40 “big Chinese investors”, among others.

SMC and the Chinese are among those most aggressive in expanding in Mindanao particularly in establishing vast plantations and constructing infrastructure. Chinese investors have been reportedly discussing with the Duterte administration the possibility of a 6,000-hectare tea plantation in a territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Duterte has been actively seeking Chinese patronage, mainly in the form of official development assistance (ODA) or loans as well as military assistance. Among those that the administration is pitching to China are multi-billion infrastructure projects in Mindanao including expressways, coastal roads, seaport and airport development, and the Mindanao railway system.

On the other hand, SMC (together with Malaysia’s Kuok Group) is developing about 18,495 hectares of forestlands covering four Davao del Norte municipalities for oil palm production. Just last August 2016, SMC also opened a 2,000-hectare industrial estate in Malita, Davao Occidental that also has a 20-meter deep seaport that can accommodate container vessels.

Earlier, the conglomerate was reported to be looking at a total of 800,000 hectares of lands for development as commercial farms in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Sarangani, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, North Cotabato and Agusan del Norte.

Of course, SMC’s top man Ramon S. Ang is known to be “close” to Duterte. The SMC president was among Duterte’s campaign contributors in 2016 giving an undisclosed amount and perhaps other forms of support as Ang wasn’t even listed in the official Statement of Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE).

Ang also offered to buy Duterte a private jet (worth as much as US$65 million) that he could use as President while donating Php1 billion to the Chief Executive’s pet campaign, the war on drugs.

Meanwhile, Duterte’s former campaign spokesperson and Irrigation chief Peter Laviña and his group Philippine Palm Oil Development Council Inc. has been reportedly lobbying the government since Aquino’s time to develop at least 300,000 hectares of Mindanao lands for palm oil production targeting MILF territories as well as CARP and lumad lands.

These are some of the big business interests in Mindanao that stand to benefit from the state repression of local communities opposed to their operations. Apparently, Martial Law is more than what President Duterte, his Generals and their allies in Congress are telling us. ###

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Mindanao power is more expensive than Asia’s major cities

Mindanao power is more expensive than electricity rates in major cities in Asia but Aquino wants the region to pay more to supposedly address its power crisis (Photo from manilastandardtoday.com)

Mindanao must pay more to end the rotating brownouts, the President declared in his Power Summit speech. The region, said Aquino, needs more power supply but “cheap” power rates are discouraging private investors from building new power plants to meet Mindanao’s growing energy needs.

Pay more

“But how can you entice anyone to invest—and this is the question—if their generating cost is more than their selling cost?” Aquino, in his speech, asked. “The simple truth is: we can have a lot more energy, but we have to provide the incentives for businesses to come here to put up those plants. Therefore, there will be a change in what we have to pay. We will have to pay, perhaps, a bit more… You have to pay more because this is the reality of economics… Everything has its price. We have to pay a real price for a real service. There are actually just only two choices: pay a little more for energy, or live with the lack of energy and the continuation of the rotating brownouts.”

Cheap rates?

Aquino must apologize to the people of Mindanao for blaming them for the power crisis and accusing them of being spoiled by “cheap” power rates. Aquino must apologize for being shamelessly insensitive to the plight of Mindanao where 36% of the country’s poorest families live (based on the latest official poverty statistics released by the National Statistical Coordination Board or NSCB).

The premise that Mindanao has been unjustifiably enjoying “cheap” power rates is totally wrong. True, Mindanao has lower power rates than Luzon and Visayas. Latest available comparative data show that the region has an effective residential rate of P6.69 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Luzon has P9.84 while Visayas has P8.19. (Data from 18th EPIRA Implementation Status Report, which may be downloaded here)

Most expensive in Asia

Aquino, however, did not mention one very important fact. Mindanao power is “cheap” only because the country has the highest electricity rates in Asia. In a survey conducted by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), Manila posted the most expensive residential rate (P10.16 per kWh), while Cebu (P8.39) is ranked third (Singapore ranked second with P8.83). JETRO conducted the survey in January 2011 to compare investment-related costs, including electricity, in 31 major cities in Asia and Oceania. (See the table at the end of this article for the complete list; Download the JETRO survey here)

While Aquino is blaming the power crisis on the people of Mindanao for being pampered by “cheap” power, Mindanao is actually paying much more than most major cities in Asia. Did you know that residential consumers in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Cagayan de Oro City, Northern Mindanao, and the Davao and CARAGA regions are paying twice the electricity rates of residents in Seoul and Beijing? Except for CARAGA, all the Mindanao regions I mentioned also have more expensive residential power rates than Hong Kong. These areas in Mindanao, plus Cotabato City, Iligan City, SOCCKSARGEN, and the Zamboanga Peninsula all have higher residential rates than major Asian capitals like Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, New Delhi, Bangkok, and Shanghai, among others. All in all, Mindanao is paying an average of P1.82 per kWh more for electricity than the collective average residential rate of the 31 major cities in Asia and Oceania surveyed by JETRO.

I summarized these findings in the chart below, which culled data on residential rates from the JETRO survey and data on average residential rates of private distribution utilities (PDUs) and average systems rates of electric cooperatives (ECs) from the 18th EPIRA report. The red bars represent Mindanao regions and cities.

Poorest region

Note that Mindanao has an average official poverty incidence of 33.5% of families (the national average is 20.9%). The country’s three poorest regions are in Mindanao – CARAGA (39.8%), ARMM (38.1%), and Zamboanga Peninsula (36.6%). ARMM does not only have the most expensive power rates in Mindanao, it also has (consequently) the highest cost of living (more than P1,287 based on the family living wage released by the NSCB in July 2008) among all regions in the Philippines, while the minimum wage there is just P232 (or just 18% of the cost of living). Amid this condition, the people of Mindanao are being forced to pay for electricity that is way beyond the rates in Asia’s richest cities. Yet Aquino wants Mindanao to shell out more money to supposedly solve its power crisis.

Blame EPIRA

Mindanao has lower rates than Luzon and Visayas not only because it sources its energy supply from cheaper hydropower but also because the region has been relatively and temporarily spared from the privatization and deregulation drive under EPIRA. State-controlled/owned installed capacity in Mindanao is still about 82% of the total (as of 2010 data from the DOE), compared to 18% in Luzon and 36% in Visayas where most power plants have already been privatized and are now controlled by the country’s profit-seeking “power lords”. Furthermore, unlike Luzon and Visayas, Mindanao does not have an EPIRA-created wholesale electricity spot market (WESM), which has only become a venue for price manipulation and speculation by power monopolies, sparking off wild spikes in power rates.

But EPIRA is also to blame for Mindanao’s energy insecurity. While government retained control over most of the installed and dependable capacity in Mindanao, it did not invest in additional capacity to meet the growing power demand of the region. Government abandoned its strategic role to design and implement power development projects consistent with a long-term industrialization plan and instead focused on selling the assets of the National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR) to private investors as mandated under EPIRA.

Reverse privatization

To fully solve the energy insecurity of Mindanao and the rest of the country as well as the problem of expensive electricity, there is no other recourse but for the state to take over. Aquino could no longer use the excuse that doing so will just further bankrupt the government. Despite the EPIRA, NAPOCOR remains trapped in deep debt (read here). So instead of further wasting limited public resources on a flawed energy program – which only made electricity bills more exorbitant and power supply more insecure – government should start reversing the privatization and deregulation of the energy sector. #