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ZAMBOANGA DEL NORTE, Philippines – A mayor in Zamboanga del Norte has questioned the environment department’s move to lift its order for two mining companies to stop exploration in Gutalac town, just a month after issuing it on March 1.
The order was lifted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) following the submission of a document called “Certification Precondition” from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), a prerequisite for obtaining an exploration permit.
It was like putting the cart before the horse, according to Gutalac Mayor Eddie Justin Quimbo who strongly criticized the move.
The Certification Precondition is a document given by NCIP to show that a site in question is not overlapping with any ancestral domain.
“The release of the Certification Precondition is highly questionable. They already have an exploration permit. So, does that mean the Certification Precondition they had submitted was fake?” Quimbo told Rappler on Monday, April 10.
Quimbo said the NCIP certificate is required before an exploration permit can be granted, further casting doubt on the legitimacy of the mining operations in Gutalac town.
Florjenmar Mining and Development Corporation, in partnership with the larger Zamboanga Nickel Corporation, has commenced exploration activities and development of a mine site in Bacong village, located approximately 200 kilometers southwest of Dipolog City.
The company secured an exploration permit from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in early 2022.
Quimbo said the recent development raised more questions that require answers even as he doubted the regularity of the NCIP’s issuance of the Certification Precondition just eight days after the DENR’s order to stop mining activities.
Since the site in question overlapped an ancestral domain, he said a comprehensive Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) process should have been required.
Under the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997, no concession, license, lease, or agreement can be issued by any government agency without a Certification Precondition from the NCIP.
The initial exploration activities covered 15 of Gutalac’s 33 villages, which is approximately 85 hectares of the Subanen group’s 7,921-hectare ancestral domain claim.
The Subanen comprise 40% of Gutalac town’s population of 36,090, while the Bisaya make up 50%. The remaining 10% are Kalibugan or Subanen who have converted to Islam.
Quimbo said an FPIC the process could not have been completed because Gokum Walter Timol, Gutalac’s Indigenous Peoples mandatory representative, and some 50 members of the IP community in the town were strongly against the mining operations.
The mayor, who supported a group of Timol and Timoay members in holding a protest rally at the mining site on October 10, 2022, promised to take the matter to national government offices, including Malacanang, to stop Florjenmar and Zamboanga Nickel.
The protest prompted an investigation by the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) in Region IX. After four months, Environment Assistant Secretary for Field Operations Gilbert Gonzales issued a cease-and-desist order against all development activities within the mine site on February 28.
In the order, Gonzales cited Florjenmar and Zamboanga Nickel’s failure to obtain an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) for the site development infrastructure and non-compliance with the prohibition on conducting reclamation activities for the mining firms’ seaport project.
An inspection by the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) showed that approximately 0.81 hectares, representing 89% of the total area designated for the proposed port, had already been reclaimed.
On March 1, Ronald Gadot, DENR’s acting director for the Zamboanga Peninsula region, ordered Florjenmar and Zamboanga Nickel to halt the mining exploration activities due to their lack of Certification Precondition from the NCIP.
Former NCIP-Zamboanga Peninsula director Ferdausi Cerna explained that although he issued a certification to Mariano Candelaria Jr., the owner of Florjenmar, it was not a Certification Precondition.
Cerna said only the NCIP en banc, consisting of seven commissioners, can issue a Certification Precondition, and that his certification only pertained to the FPIC process.
On March 27, Gadot, together with EMB-Zamboanga Peninsula director Alex Jimenez and MGB regional director Hernani Abdon issued a joint order allowing Florjenmar and Zamboanga Nickel to resume exploration activities after the firms showed their Certification Precondition on March 8.
The joint order, however, showed that the cease-and-desist order for all infrastructure and site development projects, including the construction of the seaport, would continue to be in effect until Florjenmar and Zamboanga Nickel submit their ECC and comply with the other provisions under the exploration permit.
Pressed for comment, Candelaria declined to grant Rappler an interview but sent copies of the joint order issued by Gadot, Abdon, and Jimenez.
Quimbo said, “It’s only a matter of time before they start digging the open pit, which we believe they have already done. This will pose a direct threat of landslides toward the Bacong dwellings located below.” – Rappler.com