Monday, July 26, 2004

Refugee camp transformed into techno park

A VIETNAMESE executive in America who recently visited Morong, Bataan, cried after seeing the rickety wooden boat still standing. To him, it was more than a boat.

It was a symbol of the struggles he and the rest of the Vietnamese "boat people" had gone through decades ago to escape the oppressive socio-political environment in Vietnam, Cambodia and the rest of Indochina.

Looking back

He reminisced how 34 men, 20 women and 11 children (he was one of the children) set off from Phu Khang (in Nha Trang City, Vietnam) on two motorized light fishing boats and headed for the open seas on May 12, 1981.

For almost a week, these boats were adrift in the high seas, precariously keeping afloat amid storms. Somehow, these boats found its way to the Mabayo Beach, Morong, Bataan. During the '80s and into the early '90s, over 400,000 refugees from the Indochinese Peninsula made the 15.6-hectare Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Morong, Bataan their home. In its 14-year existence, this United Nations facility was, at one point, home to some 18,000 refugees and asylum seekers, and here they stayed until the United States and European governments could find host families for them.

When the UN wrapped up work here in 1994, it left behind an intact infrastructure-roads, sewerage and irrigation systems, buildings and houses. Power was still running.

Special eco-zone

Now, 10 years later, the Center is part of a 365-hectare Bataan Techno Park (BTP), a special economic zone primarily designed to host high-tech agriculture and aquaculture ventures. It is positioning itself as the next investor site outside the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.

Morong's physical characteristics and the manpower availability would soon make it a center for modern agriculture and aquaculture technology focusing on biotechnology in partnership with the country's top scientists and agriculturists.

It would also focus on small and medium enterprises developing high-value indigenous products and generate sufficient quality employment.

BTPI recently acquired 2.7 million-pesos worth of communication equipment and services, making it now capable of 24-hour Internet connectivity, according to its president and CEO Isaac Puno III.

He added that with the installation of the communication facilities in BTP, specifically the satellite phones and the Internet connection, investors are now assured of reliable communication services within and outside the BTP complex.

Land-use categories

The 365-hectare fenced ecozone will be subdivided into three several land-use categories-117.30 hectares for agriculture, 10.42 hectares for commercial purposes and 1.97 hectares for a green buffer zone. On the other hand, 134.67 hectares were allotted for industrial purposes, 24.33 for institutional, 56.12 for open spaces, 5.82 for parks, 9.20 for residential and 5.40 for mixed residential and commercial use.

BTPI is a subsidiary of the Bases Conversion Development Authority, which has already infused 289 million pesos to jumpstart the technopark development. Another 108 million pesos was used for the construction of the 10-km backdoor access road from the Subic special economic and free zone to BTP.

Tissue culture

Said Irwin Jose M. Baylon, head of BTPI's planning and business development: "We have a tie-up with UP Los BaƱos and Diliman on tissue culture. Plant tissues derived from one original (fruit-bearing) plant will enable us to create up to a hundred thousand plants of the same kind that would not be prone to diseases and will bear fruit simultaneously."

This plan, however, seems to be long-term and would not be realized until the technology and knowledge transfer is complete. "People from UP need highly technical individuals (at BTPI) who know tissue culture. The educational attainment is still not that high because this is a fifth-class municipality," added Baylon.

More immediate plans would include an ostrich farm, coffee and banana plantations, and even a watermelon farm.


An organic farm for large-scale production of herbs for export is planned for BTP. Barnston Herbs International Inc., a multinational agriculture-based firm, will invest at least 30 million pesos within the next three years.

Barnston Herbs will lease 10 hectares of land for the first five years to be used for organic farming of culinary herbs, spices and high-value crops such as basil, chervil, chives, lemon balm, lemon grass, marjoram, mint and oregano.

Thirty workers will work initially at the herb farm-all residents of Morong. This will be done in coordination with the skill enhancement training of the BTP Labor Center, said Puno.

BTPI chair Rufo Colayco said what makes BTP a good investment site is that stakeholders are included in the development plan, implementation and monitoring. Some of these stakeholders are the BCDA, SBMA, the Bataan provincial government, Morong municipal government, the private sector, the Kasamaka multipurpose cooperative, the community, the Bataan Center for Innovative Science and Technology Inc. and the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Brigadier General Lysias C. Cabusao, BTP administrator, said that since it was declared a free zone, the whole area has been free from politicking and bureaucracy.

He added locators also have the advantage of easy access to SBMA facilities via the BTP-SBMA backdoor road. For groups on tour, there are picnic grounds, shrines, monuments, ample water, power and road infrastructure, and the security of a perimeter fence.

At present, facilities are available for lodging, conference and sports functions. There is even a paint-ball war game field and a jungle survival training that are being used for company team-building seminars.

For its first to third year, BTP aims to generate employment, and to achieve this the area is being promoted as a venue for out-of-town seminars, weddings, workshops and corporate programs. The combination of modern infrastructure such as office spaces, guesthouses, dormitories and cottages, and historical sites and markers from the turbulent Vietnam War era enhances BTP's attractiveness as an educational venue for an otherwise routine company trip, Cabusao said.

Furthermore, BTP is also being developed as an ecotourism site. It boasts of neighboring pristine beaches such as the Sudeco Beach Resort-a five-minute drive from SBMA southgate complete with a casino, nature trails, hotels and restaurants, snorkeling and diving sites.

The BPTI decided to hold on to the stone markers, sculptures, small temples, the rickety boat and some sacred spots in memory of those who searched for their freedom.

But like the refugees who have now found new beginnings in new lands, the former refugee center has also moved on and carved out a new beginning for itself.

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