AN ENVIRONMENTAL group hailed Tuesday the reported “cancellation” of the controversial P2.1 billion-worth bio-ethanol plant in two hinterland barangays in Cagayan de Oro.

Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRNC) said this is another victory for the communities in Barangays Mambuaya and Bayanga that are supposed to be affected by the proposed cassava-based bio-ethanol plant.

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“While the project rooted tension on issues of employment vis-à-vis safe and clean water, food security vis-à-vis fuel demands, community decision vis-à-vis local government unit consent, watershed, heritage and natural park vis-à-vis agro-industrial land, our LGU is silent on this issue when they are central in converting the 25 hectares agricultural land into agro-industrial land to facilitate the entry of the multi-million bio-ethanol plant,” said Carl Cesar C. Rebuta of LRNC in a press statement.

He said the plant’s site is inside the watershed area of Cagayan de Oro, a very critical source of community’s domestic water needs and irrigation for the downstream farm lots.

He added that the watershed must be a no-go-zone for this project that would affect the biodiversity in the area.

Late last year, farmers are already convinced to give-up their farm lots through a memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for a contract-out cassava grower for the bio-ethanol plant. At least 10,000 hectares are identified and most of them are the ancestral domain of the Higaonon tribes in the city.

“Sad to note, a rich source of maize, upland rice, root crops land will be sacrificed in lieu of cassava for bio-fuel. This time it would be food versus energy,” Rebuta said.

On Monday, Alsons Consolidated Resources Inc. (ACR) shelved its plan to develop the bio-ethanol plant due to vague provisions in the Biofuels Act, stiff opposition, and “unjustifiable delays” in the release of an environmental clearance.

In a disclosure to the Philippine Stock Exchange, ACR said it regretted the move while blasting the Catholic Church and non-government organizations for the “apparent lack of genuine concern for the plight of the poor.”

The company added that the project went into delay due to the “congressional intervention into the executive branch functions over the issuance of the ECC (environment clearance certificate).”

Last February, Cagayan de Oro second district Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, vice chairperson of the House Committee on Ecology, recommended to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources that the ECC should be denied because the controversial project is located in the critical watershed areas.

Cagayan de Oro City Mayor Constantino Jaraula had earlier identified Mambuaya and Bayanga as part of the city’s watershed area and are included in the 3,000 hectares reforestation program.

Rodriguez said the DENR had identified a large portion of Bayanga and Mambuaya as alienable and disposable, which could be seen as the reason behind the pushing of the bio-ethanol project that is expected to produce 100,000 liters per day of bio-ethanol – a fuel additive mandated by law.

Earlier, ACR reassured that the project would be environment-friendly because it will use dried cassava chips.

In a special board meeting last Friday, ACR said it could just channel its efforts in building the 200 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant in Maasim town in Sarangani.

However, ACR chairperson and president Tomas Alcantara said it "would not help solve the current power shortage in Mindanao caused by El Niño," noting that the plant would not start operating until late 2012 or early 2013 "in answer to the expected increase in power demand by that time."

The company also said the existing diesel plants – the 100 MW plant in Zamboanga and 55 MW plant in Alabel, Sarangani – were now running full time “to ease the current power shortage.” (With reports from Sunnex)