mining industry

Subanens, officials protest looming open-pit mining in Zamboanga del Norte

Gualberto Laput
Subanens, officials protest looming open-pit mining in Zamboanga del Norte

MINING. A worker walks past a heavy equipment at a mining site in Barangay Bacong, Gutalac town, Zamboanga del Norte.

Gualberto Laput/Rappler

Two mining firms have so far moved in earth-moving heavy equipment and hired several dozen skilled miners and a squad of militiamen to secure what local officials say is going to be an open-pit mining site in Gutalac town

ZAMBOANGA DEL NORTE, Philippines – Subanens and local officials demanded the termination of what they called illegal mining operations that threaten to destroy a watershed, and drive them out of their ancestral domain in an outlying village in Gutalac town.

Florjenmar Mining and Development Corporation, which has partnered with the larger Zamboanga Nickel Corporation, plans to construct its wharf. 

The firms have so far moved in earth-moving heavy equipment and hired several dozen skilled miners and a squad of militiamen to secure what local officials said was going to be an open-pit mining site.

In the past months, the Zamboanga Nickel’s workers felled trees and flattened upland areas within a government-identified watershed, and a Subanen ancestral domain in Gutalac, an outlying town situated some 200 kilometers southwest of Dipolog City.

THREATENED. Subanen leaders stage a demonstration against the mining operations that they see as a threat to their ancestral land in Zamboanga del Norte. Gualberto Laput/Rappler

“We are afraid of losing our farms, our homes, and even our lives because of the mining operation,” said Walter Timol, Gutalac town’s indigenous people’s mandatory representative and leader of the Subanen group’s highest policy-making body, Gokum.

Timoays protest

At least 50 Timoays (Subanen leaders) protested in Gutalac on Monday, October 10, and called on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to protect them and prevent their families from getting displaced as a result of the operations of Florjenmar and Zamboanga Nickel.

Gutalac Mayor Eddie Justin Quimbo joined the Timoays as they gathered for the protest rally right inside the mining area.

“I have to protect my people because their livelihood, way of life, and their lives are being threatened,” Quimbo said. 

The mayor also accused Florjenmar and Zamboanga Nickel of operating illegally, pointing out that the mining firms have not secured a business permit and complied with other requirements of the municipal government.

Julma Villanueva, Zamboanga Nickel’s community relations officer, said they were still in the process of getting business and engineering permits from the Gutalac town government.

Villanueva, who met with the mayor and the Timoays, said what the mining company has is an April 25, 2022, exploration permit issued by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in the Zamboanga Peninsula, an agency under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

She said the firm’s initial exploration covered 15 of Gutalac’s 33 villages or roughly 85 hectares of the Subanen group’s 7,921-hectare ancestral domain claim. 

At least 40% of Gutalac’s 36,090 population are Subanen, 50% are Bisaya, and the rest are Kalibugan (Subanens who converted to Islam).

“Once the mining operations become full-blown, we will be dead,” said 80-year-old Busio Lumambao, the leader of a Subanen group in the village of Tipan.

AT WORK. Heavy equipment, workers and security forces at a mining site in Barangay Bacong, Gutalac town, Zamboanga del Norte. Gualbeto Laput/Rappler

Lumambao said the destruction of forests, watersheds, and landslides due to earth-moving mining and construction operations was inevitable.

He warned that his village and other coastal barangays, including a community in Bacong directly below the mining site, were now in harm’s way.

Shortcuts?

The Timoays questioned the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) for issuing on April 11 a Certification Precondition (CP), a document required by the MGB before it granted Florjenmar an exploratory permit.

Timol said he, being the indigenous people’s mandatory representative of Gutalac town, was bypassed by the NCIP, and shortcuts were made in the free and prior informed consent (FPIC) process needed before the CP issuance.

The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 provides that no concession, license, lease, or agreement should be issued by any government agency without CP from NCIP.

Based on the same law, the NCIP is mandated to protect and promote the interest and well-being of indigenous cultural communities and indigenous peoples “with due regard to their beliefs, customs, traditions, and institutions.”

Mayor Quimbo said the CP signed by NCIP-Zamboanga Peninsula Director Ferdausi Cerna “is as good as nothing.” 

Quimbo also questioned a clause in the CP, which read that Florjenmar had “undergone the process required by law for its exploration.” 

Another part of the CP, he pointed out, was a contradiction because it read that Florjenmar “will also undergo the full-blown free and prior informed consent (FPIC) process after the exploration.”

“FPIC process is by law a requisite to the issuance of CP. Telling Florjenmar to comply with the FPIC process after the exploration is absurd,” said Lolito Miraveles, the mayor’s executive assistant.

Responding to the criticisms, Cerna told Rappler on Thursday, October 13: “My certification was for exploration purposes only…. The FPIC was religiously conducted.”

Cerna also denied that the IP group was bypassed and that shortcuts were made, claiming that there was a resolution from the Subanen leaders.

He said he issued the certificate “based on the resolution coming from [Subanen] leaders of Gutalac imposing no objection [to Florjenmar’s application for exploration].”

“Timol’s representation as IPMR was assailed by the [Subanen] leaders [in Gutalac],” he added.

‘Still exploring’

Ervin Samaniego, Zamboanga Nickel’s chief geologist, told Rappler they were still in the exploration stage.

“Right now, we’re just drilling, not bigger than my legs, and not more than 20 meters in depth to get materials for analysis,” Samaniego said.

He added: “We’re looking for nickel and its by-product, iron. But we still cannot say whether there is a nickel deposit here, and how big, until we finish the exploration.”

Samaniego said the clearing operations in elevated areas of Bacong were being done so the firm could construct offices and bunkers for workers.

EARTH-MOVING OPERATION. A worker uses heavy equipment to start flattening an elevated area in the town of Gutalac, Zamboanga del Norte, where two mining companies have partnered to extract mineral resources. Gualberto Laput/Rappler

The Timoays and local officials doubted Samaniego’s claims.

“I’m afraid they are now going into full-scale mining, and the leveling of that mountain is for their open-pit mining operations,” Quimbo said.

The mayor said the heavy equipment brought in by Florjenmar and Zamboanga Nickel suggested that the firms were no longer into exploration.

“Why did they move in that kind of heavy equipment then? Why would they build offices and bunkers, obviously for a lot of workers? And why would they apply for ]a permit for] the construction of their wharf?” Quimbo asked.

MGB acting regional director Hernani Abdon maintained that the issuance of the exploration permit was “above board,” and that Florjenmar “has not violated the terms and conditions of the Exploration Permit.”

Nevertheless, Abdon said, “I have instructed my technical personnel to conduct an immediate investigation.” – Rappler.com

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