Sibuyan Island in the province of Romblon, central Philippines, is too fragile for invasive activities like mining, according to researchers who have studied the land’s ecology.
On 3 February, police forcibly dispersed anti-mining protesters in the municipality of San Fernando, who formed a barricade to stop trucks carrying nickel ore from leaving the island, leaving two injured.
Locals have been resisting the operations of Altai Philippines Mining Company (APMC), saying that extractive activities have no place in a small island ecosystem, which is home to a biodiverse area known as Mount Guiting-Guiting. They fear mining activities, if allowed to continue, will damage the island’s intact forests and river systems.
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“Compared to other areas that have been locations of open surface mining in the Philippines, Sibuyan Island is so small that the diversity of the ecosystems in it is too intricate, closely-linked and delicate to be disturbed,” said Rasmiah Mayo Malixi, an environmental planner who authored a 2005 World Bank-led research paper that focused on protected areas in the Philippines.
Dubbed the “Galápagos of Asia”, for its isolation from the rest of the archipelago, the island has 47 endemic species, including new discoveries of rare forest geckos which were found in a 2021 survey of Mt Guiting-Guiting.
“Being one of the few places in the country to have uninterrupted forest cover from ridge to reef, as well as having new discoveries of amphibians and reptiles species, makes it a high priority for research and conservation,” Camila Meneses, the study’s lead author and current doctorate student for ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, told Eco-Business.
“Unfortunately, there is no habitat to survey when forests are levelled off and wildlife habitats are gone, which extractive activities can bring about. Even worse, degraded forests increase the risk of low-lying and coastal communities to natural calamities,” added Meneses, a former extension associate of the University of the Philippines Los Baños’ Museum of Natural History.
Aside from Mt. Guiting-Guiting, other protected areas in Sibuyan Island include a mangrove swamp forest reserve, and ancestral domains of the Sibuyan Mangyan Tagabukid.
Mining in Sibuyan: then and now
Sibuyan Island has a total land area of 44,000 hectares (ha), roughly the size of 24,000 football fields but only about a third of this is protected from mining after it was declared a natural park almost three decades ago.
Even if illegal logging was considered a more pressing issue on the island eight years ago, mining was already emerging as a serious threat, said Roven Tumaneng, lead author of a report on monitoring deforestation in the Philippines.
At that time, there were 25 mining permit applications, four small-scale mining permits issued and three pending mineral production sharing agreements (MPSA), which gives the right to mine within a contracted area, noted the study.
Today, there are two additional mining permit applications, one approved MPSA under APMC which covers 1,580 ha, according to December 2022 data from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau. There are also seven pending exploration permits which seek to mine all of Romblon province, almost 6,000 ha of which is in Sibuyan.
The department of environment and natural resources (DENR) issued a cease and desist order against the company at the height of the protests, after it was found to have contaminated water resources. DENR ruled that the company had not secured a foreshore lease agreement for a pier and certification that the project would not negatively impact the environment, and for cutting down several trees without a permit.
But APMC on Sunday denied allegations that it is operating illegally on the island, saying it has obtained permits to explore, transport and ship ore samples from the DENR. It even published a paid advertisement in a national newspaper to clarify that it holds a valid and subsisting MPSA.
Tumaneg said: “While Altai Corp and other companies or individuals with approved permits may have the legal right to operate, and even if their mining claims do not overlap with protected areas, their direct impact on the environment will inevitably affect local communities and forests, leading to adverse, irreversible, and widespread impacts on Sibuyan Island.”