Islanders unite to keep Norwegian miner off its 'treasures'

For nearly two decades now, an island in the Philippines has been steadfast in protecting its natural resources against large-scale mining even as the national government allows entry of foreign firms.

The people of Mindoro, an island whose name means “mine of gold” and is situated about 200 kilometres south of Manila, showed a united front on June 12 during the Philippines’ celebration of its 117th Independence Day, vowing not to allow Norwegian mining firm Intex Resources to begin large-scale mining in the island.

More than 5,000 residents, environmental groups, indigenous people, local government leaders, business groups, church leaders, the police and other politicians from the island’s two provinces - Oriental and Occidental - marched the streets of Calapan City, the capital of Oriental Mindoro province in blistering heat to oppose Intex’s decade-old attempt to mine nickel and cobalt.

In a stock exchange notice on April 7 this year, Oslo-based Intex said the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has reinstated the validity of its environmental compliance certificate (ECC). This means that the company looks set to continue its plans to develop the Mindoro Nickel Project after a six-year ban.

The firm (then known as Mindex Resources) had been given approval by the national government in 1997 to explore the island, where it found rich deposits of nickel-containing ore. But the project had been derailed after a series of company takeovers and massive opposition from NGOs and the local government.

In November 2009, DENR temporarily revoked Intex’s ECC granted in October of the same year after massive protests, including a 10-day hunger strike of mining activists. The provincial governments of Mindoro also invoked its local ordinances to stop the publicly-listed firm in its plans to operate the Mindoro Nickel Project, expected to deliver up to 300 billion tonnes of nickel in 20 years.

The DENR’s lifting of the suspension of the ECC in April paves the way for Intex to move ahead with its plans to mine in 12,000 hectares of Mindoro’s forests. The firm points out that its planned operations are in accordance with the nation’s mining laws.

The firm will operate using environment-friendly practices, including generating as much as 110 megawatts of its own power to reduce carbon footprint by using the steam from the excess heat of its acid plant; and without the use of explosives and toxic chemicals, it says on its website.

“After a long period of constructive dialogue with various national authorities and governmental bodies in the Philippines, the Company is pleased and relieved with this decision. The reinstatement of the ECC clears a major regulatory hurdle in the further development of Mindoro Nickel,” said Henno Grenness, Intex’s chief executive, in the stock exchange statement.

The protesters, led by civil society groups, however, do not believe this is what the people of the island want and need. They claim that there had been no real approval from the people of Mindoro of the project as they had protested the plans in the past and will continue to do so.

In 2002, the government of Oriental Mindoro passed a legislation which puts a 25-year moratorium on all types of mining in the province, while the government of Occidental Mindoro issued the same moratorium in 2007. The two provinces are geographically separated by mountain ranges, where the mining will take place in about 3,000 hectares in the eastern side and 9,000 hectares in the western part of the island.

However, Intex contests that these moratoria are invalid, arguing that the country’s national mining law, the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, gives DENR a role in the management of the country’s mineral resources. The firm cites a portion of the law which states that, “it is the DENR who is responsible for the proper use of the State’s mineral resources”, and thus, it cannot be undone by local ordinances and resolutions by local governments.

The people of Mindoro’s fight against mining sets an example to the Philippines and to the world…The whole world looks to us

Father Edwin Gariguez, recipient of Goldman Environmental Prize, 2012

In 2012, both provincial governments petitioned president Benigno Aquino to cancel the ECC issued to Intex and the whole project. They cited the results of a DENR investigation which validates that Intex should not be given an ECC because its project covers a critical watershed and that it has not won acceptability from the people of Mindoro. There was no clear and official response from the office of the president regarding these findings.

Father Edwin Gariguez, founding member of ALAMIN, a civil society alliance which protests against mining in Mindoro, told the protesters that there have been enough studies which prove that mining will be detrimental to the island’s ecology, considered to be the seventh most important bio-geographic zones in the world. It will damage watersheds and river systems as well as the land of several indigenous Mangyan communities living in the area, he said.

He expressed his confidence that Intex will not be able to proceed with its plans as long as the people and the government do not allow mining in the island. He told that the people of Mindoro’s fight against mining sets an example to the Philippines and to the world. “The whole world looks to us,” he added. 

Gariguez is a recipient of the United States-based Goldman Environmental Prize in 2012 for his advocacy of environmental and indigenous rights protection in the island. He is also currently the executive secretary of the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace of the Philippine Catholic Church.

Arnan Panaligan, the city mayor of Calapan, added that the island’s local governments have all the legal support to defend the people’s rights over Mindoro’s natural resources and the provinces are enshrined by the law to protect its citizens. He noted that if the river systems connected to the Calapan rivers were to be destroyed by the mining operations, the city may suffer even worse flooding as had happened in previous years. 

Meanwhile, Alfredo Ortega, the town mayor of Victoria, which will be directly affected by the mining operations said that Victoria does not need income from mining, but technological resources to help boost crop harvests in the town’s vast agricultural lands, which export tropical fruits as well as rice to neighbouring provinces.  

The provincial governments of the island also said that mining is not part of its sustainable development agenda, which is anchored on food security and eco-tourism. Occidental Mindoro congresswoman Josephine Sato emphasised that the island’s priority is its agricultural sector, which has been leading in rice production in the country.

“We love our island..we the people are determined to protect our island,” she commented.

Orlando Maliwanag, co-founder and administrator of Cybermovement to Stop Mindoro Nickel Project, one of the organisers of the protest told Eco-Business that this is the first time local leaders from both provinces have joined forces in a mass mobilisation to oppose this mining project.

He also noted that in the 18 years of the civil society groups’s campaign against mining, this is the first time that social media has played a key role in raising awareness of the issue. “New and younger faces have emerged, ensuring that this struggle will continue with the new generation of activists,” he said. 

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