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Waiting for the flight from Laguindingan

July 22, 2007

MISAMIS ORIENTAL, Philippines—Skeptics have already shoved it off as a pipe dream. After all, it has been 15 years when it was first announced that a new modern airport would soon rise in Laguindingan town. It was to respond to the growing demand for better air transport facilities for Northern Mindanao and Lanao provinces.

The Laguindingan Airport of international standard was expected to be built in Barangay Moog, in the booming town of Laguindingan, a 35-minute drive to Cagayan de Oro City and less than an hour to Iligan City. It would have boosted the region’s economy and opened this part of Mindanao to international trade.

Years have passed but the project hung in uncertainty for lack of funds. The Korean government did loan out 21.172 billion Korean Won (about $16 million) as early as 1998 but the national government failed to meet the 70 percent equity to complete the funding requirement for the project. Now, the total project cost has ballooned to more than P12 billion.

This week, Misamis Oriental Gov. Oscar Moreno, head of the inter-agency task force for the Laguindingan airport project, happily announced that the project was starting to take shape with the construction of the access road to the airport now underway. The Korean-trained Filipino contractor for the access road received from the Department of Transportation and Communications their notice to proceed only last July 2.

Pet Project

Engr. Della Capicencio, project manager of the DOTC-Laguindingan Airport Development Project (LADP), also confirmed that the pre-qualification bidding for the procurement of the project was almost done. She expressed optimism that civil works or the actual construction of the airport may begin by December of this year.

As early as 1995, then Sen. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo supported the proposal of the Cagayan-Iligan Corridor Development Authority to construct a new airport that will boost the region’s sagging economy. A technical study for the best possible airport site was conducted by Louis Berger Philippines using funds granted by the Unites States Agency for International Development. The study showed that the proposed Laguindingan site meets the criteria for terrain and vicinity requirement for “international status’ airports.”

In 1998, the South Korean government approved a loan of KrW 21.172 billion under the Economic Development Cooperation Fund to jumpstart the project. The loan has an interest rate of 2.5 percent payable within 20 years with a 10-year grace period. This amount was based on the 1996 estimated project cost of P902.7 million. The government’s equity then would have been less than P700 million.

Arroyo explained later that as a senator she had always fought for the inclusion of the funding requirements for the project in the national budget but that there was always never enough money. Over the years, the national government opted to fund the construction of new airports in Iloilo, Bacolod and Ilocos.

Luckily, with the Korean government’s 10-year grace period almost ending, South Korean President Roh Moo-Yun agreed to amend the loan during his state visit in the country in December 2005. Arroyo said that the Overseas Cooperation Fund of South Korea had committed a P6-billion loan for the project.

In January last year, President Macapagal-Arroyo led the airport’s groundbreaking in a simple ceremony witnessed by South Korean officials, local government officials and residents.

But Northern Mindanaoans were hardly reassured that the airport will soon rise when even President Macapagal-Arroyo could not give a timetable.

“As of now, we cannot as yet say when [construction] will start. P6 billion [in government equity] is really very hard to put up,” Ms Arroyo said in her speech during the ceremony.

Privatization

In the same ceremony, President Macapagal-Arroyo announced the privatization of Lumbia Domestic Airport in Cagayan de Oro City to pay for the government’s loan with the Korean Export-Import (Exim) Bank.

The old airport in Lumbia has been criticized to be deficient owing to its location that has made it impractical for expensive upgrading. It sits on top of a plateau where heavy-set clouds can make landings unsafe. The runway can only accommodate small aircraft and is dependent on the sunlight for visibility.

Governor Moreno explains that the Lumbia airport will still be used for private aircraft when Laguindingan airport is completed. In the meantime, an improvement of its runway is being planned to allow airbus jets to land temporarily to generate more earnings.

Most modern airport

The new airport will rise in a sprawling 417 hectares of land acquired by the government from Ayala Land Corp. and from individual lot owners of Barangays Moog, San Isidro and Tubagon in Laguindingan.

Engr. Ryan Gico, OIC of the DOTC-LADP management office in Cagayan de Oro, explains that while the airport will initially cater to domestic flights, it can be easily upgraded to accommodate wide-body jet aircraft.

“Based on the classification set by the Air Transportation Office, the Laguindingan airport will be a trunkline airport of international standard. Our target is to cater to one million passengers annually. That’s a hundred percent more than what the Lumbia airport can accommodate,” he said. “Eventually, it will cater to international flights,” he added.

The airport was also designed to suit the current standards in air transportation, with all the modern equipment and technology in place. A business park and amusement area is also being planned beside the airport.

“It will be the most modern airport in Mindanao, almost at par with Davao International Airport,” said Gico.

Relocation

The wide open space where the airport will be built used to be occupied by about 600 families, most of them farmers with titled lots that they have tilled for generations. The Ayala Land Corp., which owned 88 ha of the land, agreed to expropriate the entire area with pre-conditions granted by the ATO, such as exclusive rights to develop a business park around the airport.

Negotiations for the relocation dragged for three years and caused much delay to the project implementation. Finally, in 2001, the National Housing Authority, in coordination with the DOTC-LADP and the local government, began what it called the Phase 1 relocation of 248 families. The families were each compensated with P50,000 cash. All properties and crops that were acquired were fairly valued and settled.

The relocation process, however, was met with dissatisfaction among the affected families. The agreement was for the government to provide the lots but the actual construction of the house was to be shouldered by the relocated family. Many families refused to transfer to the site. Development of basic utilities such as potable water, sewage system and power lines were left unfinished and there was no clear indication from the NHA or the local government if it will be finished at all.

During the groundbreaking ceremony last year, Ms Arroyo ordered the relocation of another 100 families still living in the project area and ordered the immediate release of P10 million for this. The Laguindingan Housing and Resettlement Board was set-up to oversee the transfer of the original settlers.

Governor Moreno said the local government was doing its best to have all the affected families properly resettled. The process of land acquisition began only in August last year. By June of this year, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources finally decided to allot 34 ha to accommodate the remaining families. Site development, which will cost P40 million, was expected to begin next month.

Still, the question of housing for the affected residents remains hanging. The Gawad Kalinga foundation many years ago built a few houses at the Laguindingan relocation site in response to the appeal of the farmers for help but a large number of residents is still clamoring for a clear answer.

Some officials of the inter-agency task force say they might ask Vice President Noli de Castro to come in to settle the question of housing.

Timetable

Moreno said they were doing everything to fast-track the project. The inter-agency task force has been meeting every week for constant updates and was working overtime to meet the required timetable set by the Korean government, which is December.

Moreno admitted though that much work was still to be done before they could begin construction. “Everything is dependent on many factors, and one of this is the national economy,” he said.

As a flagship project of the Arroyo administration and a personal goal of the president, it can be easily understood why all the agencies concerned with this project has no time to relax just now.

“If we start construction by December 2007, we will count another four to five years before the airport becomes operational,” Gico said.

This means the airport will open not in 2010, as President Macapagal-Arroyo would have wished, but in 2012.

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