Whose mine is it?
New People’s Army (NPA) rebels ambushed and killed last week Mario Okinlay, Mayor of Impasug-ong town in Bukidnon province, accusing him of land grabbing and using violence to force civilians to surrender as communist guerillas.
As mayor of Impasug-ong, Okinlay had pushed for the declaration of 2,000 hectares of land as a “People’s Mines” (Minahan ng Bayan) site. Although a ban on large-scale mining is being implemented in Bukidnon province, small-scale mining is allowed as long as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Mining and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) have declared the exploration area a “People’s Mines” site.
Both the DENR and MGB admit that small-scale mining is an environmental and labor hazard (READ: Small-scale mining: A 3-decade industry that kills). Steps to curb its operations continue to fail, however. Figures from the DENR show that around 80% of small-scale mines around the Philippines operate without permits. These illegally operated small-scale mines bleed the coffers of the national government with lost revenues and damage rivers and mountain ridges with unsophisticated and irresponsible mining techniques.
Okinlay’s assassination by NPA rebels last week points however to a largely unexamined threat that also comes from small-scale mining: across Northern Mindanao and the Caraga region, NPA rebels are either operating small-scale mines of their own or receiving extortion money (in the form of so-called “revolutionary taxes”) from both legal and illegal small-scale mining operators.
Mining for Maoists
In areas where government security forces are weak or absent, even local government units such as towns and villages that have been able to acquire small-scale mining permits have no choice but to pay up. Those who refuse or those who take opportunities to operate small-scale mines away from the NPA, such as Mayor Okinlay, are for the rebels, fair targets of liquidation.
But before Okinlay was Carlito Pentecostes Jr., who was mayor of Gonzaga town in Cagayan province in Northern Luzon when NPA rebels assassinated him during a flag raising ceremony on April 21. Police authorities indicated that an illegal black sand mining deal that turned sour between Pentecostes and the rebels motivated the assassination.
For those who pay up and pay their dues consistently, the NPA guarantees not only attack-free operations but also protection from government security forces and officials pursuing illegally operated small-scale mines.
The tactic is typical of communist rebels in the Philippines who also use it to intimidate other businesses operating in remote areas. In May this year, NPA rebels burned the heavy equipment and raided the weapons of the private security in two separate attacks that targeted large-scale mining operations in Davao del Sur and Sultan Kudarat provinces. The companies have repeatedly rejected extortion demands by the NPA rebels.
But small-scale mining operations are not just potential extortion targets for the NPA. They are also a rich field for: one, cultivating and harvesting rebel recruits; and two, providing employment opportunities for NPA rebels.
NPA forces across Mindanao are known to shuttle their rebels from one province to another transporting them to small-scale mines operated by willing or coerced supporters. Agitated and indoctrinated small-scale miners are also typically deployed as warm bodies for mass protests organized by NPA legal front civil society groups that regularly denounce large scale mining operations.
While NPA rebels are making it hard for responsible and legitimate large-scale explorations to mine the country’s mineral rich mountains, it seems that it is much harder to mine precious gems of idealism and a sense of justice among NPA rebels these days.
Revisiting the ban on large-scale mining
The vociferous war waged by environmentalists, nationalists, and religious groups such as the influential Catholic Church against large-scale (especially foreign) mining mutes, however, the security threat sneaking from the NPA’s implication in small-scale mining operations.
If the intent of those who oppose large-scale mining – including provincial governments with ordinances against large scale mining that run contrary to a national government policy supporting it – is to protect the environment and the national interest, then clearly, support for or at least, blindness to the adverse effects of small-scale mining is not helping them reach their lofty goals.
If at all, provincial wide bans on large-scale mining are abetting Asia’s longest running communist insurgency.
Meanwhile, investors that have already poured money in exploration, infrastructure, and corporate social responsibility initiatives are packing up or downsizing their operations.
Last week, the government announced a new tax regime that large-scale mining investors have said they would oppose. Industry leaders complain that policymaking on mining under the present administration has been less consultative.
Until authorities are able to resolve disputes on who prevails between national and provincial policy making bodies in the issuance of mining permits, or until the national government wields a more decisive and unequivocal support for industry, investor interest may decline. And so will sources of government revenues and mass employment.
Groups opposed to large scale mining, including President Benigno Aquino III who has only weakly endorsed the sector should be careful: if qualified investors leave, NPA rebels sure wouldn’t mind calling those estimated US$1.4 trillion in mineral reserves, "mine." – Rappler.com
RR Rañeses is an Instructor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. On academic leave this semester, he is presently a Senior Research Analyst for an Asia-wide business intelligence and risk reduction company. He blogs at http://rrraneses.wordpress.com