Battleground shifts for Tampakan miner, foes

Edwin Espejo
Philippines' single biggest foreign investment project is up against local politicians' May 2013 re-election bids, and the anti and pro mining groups

MINING OPERATIONS. It took over a year for the government to grant the operator of the Tampakan mine in Mindanao its environmental clearance. Photo shows a visualization of the Tampakan mining site by Parsons Brinckerhoff for Swiss miner Xstrata

GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – It took a little over a year for Sagittarius Mines Inc to finally secure an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) for its multi-billion dollar copper and gold project in Tampakan after it was initially denied one by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in early 2012.

The notice of ECC approval, released by Environment Scretary Ramon Paje on February 19, was immediately welcomed by the mining company controlled by Swiss miner Xstrat.

It came after years of SMI lobbying, back channeling and campaigning to obtain the crucial government go ahead to mine 375,000 metric tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold ore deposits in Tampakan, South Cotabato for at least 17 years when it begins commercial production in 2019.

The ECC however came with several caveats. Among them, the company needs to secure “social acceptability through consultation with stakeholders.”

SMI had already secured the consents of at least 5 B’laan tribal communities that have existing ancestral domain claims and the cooperation of local government units that host its vast mining development area. SMI is operating in the quad boundaries of Tampakan, Columbio in Sultan Kudarat, Kiblawan in Davao del Sur and Malungon in Sarangani.

It, however, faces stiff resistance from local Catholic churches in the dioceses of Marbel, Digos and Kidapawan, environmental groups and the communist–led New People’s Army (NPA).

More problematically, SMI is facing a major stumbling block.

Local battle, 2013 elections

The provincial government of South Cotabato passed an ordinance in 2010 banning open pit mining, putting it in direct collision course with the mining company whose officials said gold and ore deposits in Tampakan will be extracted through open pit mining method.

Despite pressures from the national government, provincial officials led by Gov. Arthur Pingoy said the ban will stay until it is declared unconstitutional by a competent court.

Pingoy is up for re-election and is facing stiff challenge from his predecessor Rep. Daisy Avance Fuentes who is trying to reclaim her old gubernatorial position.

It was under the watch of Fuentes when the provincial environment code was passed.

Fuentes herself said she signed the controversial ordinance just days before stepping down as governor after SMI failed to give categorical assurances on two major points she raised while the mining firm was still formulating its environmental impact assessment.

She had asked SMI to identify and construct a water impounding site to replace supply that will be lost in the province’s aquifer once the mining firm starts operations. She also said SMI must identify and immediately reforest a buffer zone that will protect the lowlands from the environmental impact of its operations.

Pingoy, Fuentes and the 3rd gubernatorial candidate Fernando Miguel are careful not to antagonize the strong anti-open pit mining sentiment of the Catholic Church in a still largely rural and very religious province.

But they have also carefully crafted their position, which could alter once the political landscape changes after the May elections this year.

Battle of anti- and pro-mining groups

Pingoy for one, can be swayed into changing his position if eventually ordered by the court or there will be a new political configuration in provincial board comes June if he is re-elected. At present, the provincial board is stacked up with anti-open pit mining local legislators.

Pingoy earlier attempted to have the environmental impact study of SMI reviewed by a German consulting firm. Pingoy however backtracked after Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez rebuffed him and after failing to get the support of the provincial board.

Fuentes could also drop her opposition once SMI is able to address her concerns. Although known to be independent-minded, she could also face pressure from the presidential palace. Fuentes belongs to the Nationalist People’s Coalition, which is into a ruling coalition with Liberal Party of President Benigno Aquino III.

Pressure could also come from the pro-mining advocates and local officials.

Host Tampakan town is virtually assuring a pro-mining local chief executive in June will remain in the helm of the town as the two candidates for mayor are staunch and decidedly pro-SMI. Incumbent Mayor Leonardo Escobillo is running for re-election against come-backing former mayor Claudius Barroso.

The provincial tribal council and the tribal chieftains of host communities have also openly supported the US$5.9 billion SMI project.

Financial bonanza, investments

The financial bonanza of the mining operation could extend beyond the borders of South Cotabato. Maasim town in Sarangani and General Santos City could benefit from direct investments coming from SMI.

SMI is planning to build a 400-megawatt power plant in Maasim, right beside the 200-MW coal-fired power plant of Sarangani Energy Corporation. A 100-kilomer transmission line passing through General Santos City and the towns of Polomolok and Tupi in South Cotabato will connect the power plant to its main mining site in Tampakan.

In addition, it will also lay down a 100-kilometer 12-inch pipe, presumably along the same layout of its power transmission lines, to pump copper and gold ore concentrates from its main plant in Tampakan to a wharf also in Maasim, Sarangani.

SMI has been claiming that its mining operation will boost the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 1 percent and the Soccsksargen region (Region 12) by 10%.

The mining project is touted as the single biggest direct investment in the country and the government cannot simply ignore its impact on the economy.

While the ECC is not a guarantee SMI will be able to meet its production year target in 2019, its issuance has placed the provincial government on the defensive.

With an ECC in hand, SMI is now forcing the issue and directly challenging the provincial government of South Cotabato to prove the constitutionality of the Provincial Environment Code that bans open pit mining in South Cotabato, a legal tact that the mining company has repeatedly avoided from initiating in the past.

Violence

Fr. Rey Ondap, head of the Justice and Peace desk of Marbel Diocese, conceded that they are now facing an uphill battle following the turnaround of DENR.

But he also told a local television here that they still have the support of the people in South Cotabato and hoped that the Provincial Board will hold on to their position against open pit mining.

The priest however fears violence could further escalate if SMI is allowed to operate in Tampakan.

His fears are unfounded.

Several B’laan tribal leaders, among them the fugitive Daguil Cafeon, have taken up arms against what they described as SMI encroachment into their ancestral domain. He and his group have already claimed responsibility over the ambush-slaying of a retired police officer who served as consultant to SMI, 2 security guards and 3 drill contractors of the company.

In return, Cafeon’s wife and two children and a younger brother were killed in recent separate military operations launched to hunt him down.

SMI could also face more violent attacks from the NPAs who have not shied away from launching their own “punitive actions” against the company.

On New Year’s Day in 2008, the NPAs attacked and burned the main base camp of SMI in the village of Tablu in Tampakan prompting the mining company to relocate its base in Kiblawan, Davao del Sur. The following year, it also raided the police office right in the very heart of the town center of Tampakan after accusing the town’s police force of acting as security force for SMI.

The NPAs are believed to be consolidating its influence in the area in preparation for another round of fresh attacks following the deployment of more government forces and militiamen and outposts in and around the mining site.

The battleground has now clearly shifted and it will now be a clash between SMI and anti-mining advocates for the support of the people. Both are not wanting with supporters.

Between now and 2019 when SMI begins commercial production, the struggle between pro and anti mining interests will be a major social, political and economic issue in South Cotabato.

It will be intense and the government will have its hands full addressing the social and political dimensions of SMI’s operations. – Rappler.com