By JOHN RIZLE L. SALIGUMBA
DAVAO CITY – The regional director here of the environment department belied allegations that the drones they use to monitor their reforestation program are also being used for other “malicious” purposes.
“Walang malicious, we have no capacity to do it (We are not doing anything malicious, we have no capacity to do it),” said Jocelin Marcus Fragada, the Region XI director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Fragada said the drones only “look at National Greening Program (NGP) plantations because they want to make sure survival rate issues of greening program are addressed”.
Fragada made the statement in a press conference held after four drone operators of a contractor hired by DENR were captured by New People’s Army guerrillas last May 30, but were released through the help of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.
The NPAs allege that DENR and its private contractor Skyeye’s “aerial reconnaissance is a pretext to intensify imperialist mining plunder and counter-revolutionary intelligence in Southern Mindanao.”
“Far from protecting the environment, it is meant to defend the interests of big mining companies guilty of destroying and plundering our environment,” Daniel Ibarra, spokesperson of the NPA’s ComVal-Davao Gulf Subregional Command, had said in a statement.
Matthew Cua, leader of the Skyeye team contracted by the DENR, said the drones they are using are “not like Predators or Reapers (attack drones) but they are only styrofoam-based and are very fragile”.
“These (drones) are created specifically for this project. We made them ourselves,” said Cua.
However, the NPA maintained that it was not “the first time that US gadgets were used in the revolutionary territories of Southern Mindanao.”
Ibarra alleged that “US troops were spotted operating a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle or drone)” in May 2008 in an operation with the Army’s 1003rd Brigade in Barangay Ngan, Compostela.
“Similar looking gadgets were found in Paquibato and Marilog districts in Davao City last year.”
But Fragada said the public can look “at the contract that we have (with Skyeye)”. He said they treat the greening program as “a flagship program, not only of the DENR but of this (President Benigno Simeon Aquino’s) administration.”
The NGP is the Aquino administration’s flagship environment program with a budget of P6.1 billion out of the P23 billion overall budget of the DENR. It aims to plant 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 million hectares by 2016. (According to its report posted in its website, it said it only planted 392 million trees in over 683,482 hectares so far.)
Meanwhile Cua said his colleagues Ken Wong, Chrisandro Favela, Tim Sabino and Nico Lasaca are “ok.”
“They are not hurt and in good spirits. They are resting,” he said.
Cua said that the four were on their “last flight [of the drone]” when on “their way down, they were questioned by armed men (NPAs).”
He said it was the first time in their work that the NPAs confronted them and he clarified that all personal belongings of his colleagues “were returned.”
Cua said the rebels moved his colleagues from one area to another but has “taken care of them.”
Cua did not confirm their drones were indeed “confiscated” by the NPA. He, however, said “some were damaged due to mishandling.”
Fragada said they are still on the stage of “assessing” how to proceed with the monitoring of their greening program which has a target of 4,000 hectares in Compostela Valley this year.
But he added that the incident is a “lesson to all contractors” to coordinate with local government offices and to have an escort. That should have been the “proper procedure.”
“That’s what happened in Kapalong (Davao del Norte). In fact I was there with them and we were escorted by the police and the military,” he said.