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GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – Local environmental activists, religious, and civil society groups expressed outrage after the provincial board lifted the 12-year-old ban on open-pit mining in South Cotabato on Monday, May 16.
The lifting of the ban means allowing the controversial $5.9-billion Tampakan copper-gold mine project to proceed.
The project seeks to extract from the largest untapped copper-gold deposit in Southeast Asia and one of the world’s biggest.
The Tampakan project is expected to yield about 375,000 tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold.
The project, however, faced stiff opposition from various sectors, and religious and non-governmental organizations.
Bishop Cerilo Casicas of the Catholic Diocese of Marbel described the project as one “that even God will not approve.”
Casicas called on South Cotabato Governor Reynaldo Tamayo to veto the amendment.
Father Jerome Millan of the Tampakan Forum, a coalition of groups against open-pit mining in the province, said 93,453 people signed a petition in opposition to moves to lift the open-pit mining ban in the province as early as December 2021.
Environmentalists said various groups were organizing a series of mass protests against the move.
On Monday, provincial board members amended Section 22b of the 2010 South Cotabato Environment Code, a provision that banned open-pit mining in the province.
“It is tragic, not only sad but tragic,” said Bishop Casicas, adding that South Cotabato’s legislature just allowed all forms of mining in the province with “undue haste.”
Casicas said the decision to amend the ordinance came as a surprise because many groups opposed to it had called for more public consultations.
It was the chairman of the legislature’s environment committee, provincial board member Hilario de Pedro VI, who moved for the amendment.
“There was no objection. In effect, the motion was adopted by the body without [a division of the house] or discussion by any member,” Casicas said.
He added, “The future of the province was decided in less than 15 minutes.”
The move would benefit the multinational firm Sagittarius Mines, Incorporated (SMI) which had wanted to undertake the Tampakan project since the early 2000s.
The firm had announced plans to employ the open-pit method which it sees to be the “most practical and most viable.”
SMI, however, had put on hold its plans soon after the provincial government implemented its environment code in 2010.
Environmental activist Chinkie Peliño-Golle turned emotional as she spoke about how she and other activists invested their time and effort for years to oppose open-pit mining in South Cotabato.
“High school pa ako kampanya na namin ito dito sa amin. After college, ito din ang unang advocacy work ko. Today lang ako nanghina ng masyado sa nangyari. Parang walang halaga ang lahat ng opposition ng tao, simbahan at iba-t ibang sektor. Really a tragic day,” she said.
(I have been campaigning against this since I was in high school. After college, this became my first advocacy work. Today, I was really stunned by what had happened. It’s as if the opposition put up by the people, church, and other sectors were all for nothing. It’s really a tragic day.)
Peliño-Golle said it was unlikely that Tamayo would veto the amendment, saying the governor is pro-mining.
Environmental activist group Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) joined calls for the governor veto the amendments to the provincial environmental code.
“Lifting the open-pit mine ban will allow mining projects to destroy life-giving watershed ecosystems within South Cotabato. The Tampakan mining project will destroy the Altayan-Taplan River ecosystems in the Quezon Mountain Range, while various coal mining projects are poised to ravage the Daguma Mt. Range,” said Kalikasan PNE national coordinator Leon Dulce.
“We will be left with Marcos-legacy areas like the Marcopper open-pit mines, forever scarred and polluted, unfit for the flourishing of life,” she added.
During her watch, the late environment secretary Gina Lopez, the first environment chief of the Duterte administration, was strongly opposed to the Tampakan mine. At the time, the provincial ban on open-pit mining was the only hurdle to the project.
Asked about the $5.9-billion SMI mining project in July 2017, just weeks into the Duterte administration, Lopez had said in a media interview: “It’s a 700-football field open-pit mine on top of rice fields and agricultural lands affecting four provinces and six rivers. Why do we even consider it? I don’t like it at all.”
“For me it’s socially unjust to allow business companies to make money and putting the lives of all the farmers there and the indigenous people there at risk,” Lopez had said at the time. She served as environment secretary for less than a year as she was rejected by the Commission on Appointments months after she closed down or suspended mining operations in the country, and canceled mineral production sharing agreements. – Rappler.com
Rommel Rebollido is a Mindanao-based journalist and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship