The Armed Forces of the Philippines is seriously considering the former Long Range Navigation (LORAN) facility of the United States Coast Guard in Panay Island in Bagamanoc town as a naval base for vessels that would patrol the Benham Rise.
Last June 20, 2021, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr. of the Philippine Army’s Southern Luzon Command, Commodore Jose Ma. Ambrosio Ezpeleta of Naval Forces Southern Luzon, and Maj. Gen. Henry Robinson Jr. of the Army’s 9th Infantry Division, accompanied by their staff, set foot on the island a day after meeting with Governor Joseph Cua at the Provincial Capitol.
The three generals’ arrived on board a Huey helicopter past 11am, with a Navy patrol craft anchoring off the old port at the northwestern side of the island that afternoon to begin conducting a hydrographic survey.
Such a survey is usually done to determine the actual depth of the water bodies as well as the shape of the seafloor and coastline, the location of possible obstructions and physical features.
The results of the survey will determine whether the relatively shallow Babaguan Bay separating Panay from the main island is capable of hosting Navy vessels.
Prior to landing at Virac airport, a small Navy plane apparently went to Panay first for an aerial reconnaissance of the small island to determine a landing spot for the generals’ Huey helicopter. From the air, they spotted the road network being built by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Catanduanes District Engineering Office as part of a Tourism Convergence Project.
The road, according to DPWH sources, is being funded on a multi-year basis and will link the three barangays of Quigaray and Suchan in Bagamanoc and Panay in Panganiban, as well as the white sand beaches and the picturesque Lolong Point.
During the meeting with Gov. Cua, Lt. Gen. Parlade said he would pursue the naval base project at the former LORAN site and the old berthing facility.
The project will be prioritized for presentation as a package to the Regional Development Council soonest, Commo. Ezpeleta added.
It may be recalled that sometime before 2019, the Philippine Coast Guard secured funding for its proposed P500 million training facility at the same site, with an initial P150 million allocated by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) for the construction of several buildings and awarded to a contractor from Mindanao.
The contractor, however, was unable to begin the project due to a dispute with the heirs of the original owner of the five-hectare land on which the LORAN facility sits.
It is claimed that the PCG allegedly proceeded with the project on the assumption that the land was theirs as the facility was turned over to them by the US Coast Guard in 1971.
Reports also state that the impasse has prompted the PCG to transfer the proposed base and training facility to Oga in Pandan although there are other reports that it will be built in Codon, San Andres where the DPWH has completed the initial phase of a port and causeway project.
Catanduanes, more specifically Panay island, is about 220 kilometers south of the Benham Bank, the most prominent feature of Benham Rise.
The potentially resource-rich part of the continental shelf is an extinct volcanic ridge located in the Philippine Sea that has been known to the fishermen from Catanduanes as “Kalipung-awan” reportedly as early as the precolonial era.
According to a member of the Villena family that owns the LORAN land, the visiting AFP generals discussed the proposed development of the site with Florenia Arcilla Bonifacio, one of the surviving heirs of the landowner.
When asked as to when this would start, Lt. Gen. Parlade remarked that if that LORAN site was government-owned, it would have been easier.
But since it is privately-owned, the AFP would have to negotiate with the representative of the heirs, he stated.
Mrs. Bonifacio’s son, Raul, gave the contact number of their representative, Manila-based lawyer Ernesto Cabrera, to the general.
The meeting with the AFP bigwigs took place at one of the former LORAN station’s buildings which the Bonifacios are renovating.
After the brief encounter, the generals proceeded to the nearby beach where they had a boodle fight with Army soldiers who had deployed to the island as early as 6am of Saturday, June 19.
A former salesman for Saudi Airlines in Jeddah, Raul came home in 2019, just before the coronavirus pandemic began, to take care of his mother.
He told the Tribune that Florenia, who is now 84 years old, does not want to leave the place where she and her husband Amador lived and raised their family.
Raul disclosed that his father, who died six years ago, worked as an assistant cook while his mother was assigned in the laundry during the entire time that the US Coast Guard operated the facility from 1953 to 1971.
Erected under the Military Bases Agreement signed by then President Manual Roxas and US High Commissioner Paul McNutt, the station consisted of seven buildings and two concrete water tanks and was manned by 21 personnel tasked with providing navigation guidance to US battleships. Submarines and airplanes.
The American government did not pay any rental for the property and only paid the Villenas remuneration for crops and trees affected in its construction.
In fact, he said, the USCG gave his mother a document allowing her to travel to the United States without securing a visa in recognition of the work she did at the time.
When the Americans left in 1971, the facility was taken over by the PCG, which also shut it down in 1977.
The Bonifacio family began occupying the facilities, converting one of the rooms into their home and planting crops and raising chickens in their land.
Raul does not object to the possible use of the land and the facility by the Philippine Navy, as long as appropriate compensation is paid along with the assurance that members of the heirs’ families could be employed.
He also said that if that time comes, he hopes the national government would be compassionate enough to relocate him, his mother and a nephew to another home on Panay island.