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Indigenous groups continue fight against newly-revived Philippine mine

A permit to establish the Tampakan mining project, the largest copper mine in the Philippines, was to have expired on March 12 this year, but will instead remain valid for another 12 years, thanks to an 'under-the-radar' extension granted by the government in 2016.

For more than two decades, anti-mining groups and indigenous communities in the southern Philippines have opposed a massive mining project there, blocking it both in the courts and on the ground. The permit was set to end on March 12 this year — but before the detractors could rejoice, they learned it had won a 12-year extension, issued three years ago but only made public last October.

“It was done under the radar of the community, there was no public consultation,” Macki Maderazo of the Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc. (PMPI), a church-based network of civil society organisations, told Mongabay. “Presumably, the ones who would know first are the civil society groups … but nobody heard about the extension or of the application for the extension until last year.”

Known as the Tampakan project, the 23,571-hectare (58,245-acre) site lies at the intersection of the provinces of South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and Davao del Sur. It holds an estimated 12.8 million metric tonnes of copper and 15.2 million ounces of gold, potentially yielding an average of 375,000 metric tonnes of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold in concentrate per year.

Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI), the company that holds the 25-year mining permit, estimates that it will take 70 years to excavate all the deposits in Tampakan. Once mining begins, it will become the largest copper mine in the Philippines; but as it stands idle, Tampakan remains the largest undeveloped copper-gold site in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.

It’s also the second large-scale mining project whose permit has lapsed since the passage of the Philippines’ Mining Act of 1995, but the first to be granted an extension, which will keep it running until March 12, 2032, when it will become eligible for another extension.

The initial extension was signed in 2016, under the administration of then-President Benigno Aquino III, on the grounds that the miner hadn’t been able to develop the site due to “acts or circumstances beyond the reasonable control of the contractor.”

Opposed from the get-go

Tampakan’s sheer scale birthed major opposition from the beginning. The mine falls within the ancestral domain of the Blaan tribespeople, an estimated 4,000 of whom will be displaced once the excavation begins.

The effects will extend far beyond these 4,000 community members, according to Rene Pamplona of the Convergence of Initiatives for Environmental Justice (CIEJ). “The Tampakan project will affect the biodiversity and territorial integrity of the Blaans’ Ancestral Domain that may lead to the demise of its culture and Indigenous way of life,” he said in a statement.

SMI has highlighted its efforts to provide social services to the community as part of its obligations under the agreement. The company says it invested 36.7 million pesos ($724,000) in 2018 alone on education, health care, and community infrastructure to provide water and electricity to host communities, among others.

Despite this, opponents say they still fear the mine’s adverse impacts not just on the community but also on the environment. Anti-mining groups say the project will pollute the surrounding area’s water sources and irrigation, given its proximity to the watersheds of the Catisah Allah, Marbel and Padada rivers. The Tampakan’s mine tailings facility will also be constructed near one of the tributaries of the Mal River, one of the biggest river systems on the island of Mindanao. According to a report by the coalition Climate Change Congress of the Philippines, the facility could cause siltation and pollution for farmlands downstream, affecting around 10,000 farmers.

Locals are also wary of mine tailings reaching Lake Buluan and Liguasan Marsh, an 8,000-ha (19,800-acre) key biodiversity wetland.

On top of that, the mining operation’s open-pit method will clear around 3,935 ha (9,726 acres) of natural-growth forests and arable lands. This method of mining is allowed under a Financial or Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) entered into by the Philippine government with Tampakan’s contractors in 1995, as long as it adheres to the country’s forestry laws.

Delayed by legal, armed disputes

In issuing the 12-year extension to SMI in 2016, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) cited “force majeure” factors that included “rebellion, insurrection, civil disturbance, blockade, sabotage, any dispute with surface owners, and adverse action.”

The initial permit for Tampakan was granted to Australian company Western Mining Corp. (WMC), and was at the center of a major legal battle that reached the Supreme Court in 1997. Anti-mining groups said issuing the permit to a foreign entity breached sovereignty issues under the Philippine Constitution.

As the case dragged on, WMC in 2000 transferred its permit to SMI, a joint venture between Mindanao-based Alsons Prime Investments Corporation, which held a 34 per cent stake, and two foreign mining companies. Alsons later bought out the stakes of the other two, and by 2017 the Tampakan mining company is “100 per cent Filipino,” according to a factsheet from the MGB. By then, the Supreme Court had upheld the legality of the Tampakan mining permit, although it had yet to resolve the fiscal sharing scheme of the project, Maderazo said.

Opposition to the mine didn’t manifest just in court. The site has seen numerous armed clashes between the military, deployed to the area in 2008 at the request of both tribal councils and local governments, and protesters. By 2013, civil unrest on the ground had resulted in a series of deaths, among them of tribal council leader Anteng Freay of the Bong Mal community. From 2010 to 2015, 10 people were killed, including an Italian missionary.

SMI, however, characterized the clashes as being part of the “long and complex history of conflict in Mindanao associated with tribal customs, clan rivalries and religious and political insurgencies that predate the involvement of SMI in this region,” according to a letter dated September 2013.

Legal quandary

SMI’s study of the site found that open-pit mining is the most feasible method of extracting its deposits. It’s also among the strongest reasons why it’s being opposed. To date, the company is at odds with the provincial government of South Cotabato, which in 2010 passed an environmental code banning open-pit mining.

The company questioned the code and filed a legal challenge in 2012 that remains pending in regional court. “SMI claims that the province implemented the open-pit mining ban to impede their operations but the environment code doesn’t ban mining — it’s just not allowing open-pit mining,” Maderazo said. “Legally, the code has the presumption of validity. It’s up to SMI to prove that the provincial ordinance is unconstitutional.”

Mongabay reached out to SMI for comment, but the company did not respond by the time of publication.

The ongoing saga at Tampakan highlights a recurring legal quandary vexing the Philippine mining industry and its 25-year-old mining law: the legitimacy of open-pit mining. While it’s a method allowed under the mining law, President Rodrigo Duterte has vehemently opposed this method of extraction since he took office in 2016; in 2017 he imposed a nationwide ban on the practice.

Yet despite the ban, the fate of open-pit mining remains unclear, Maderazo said, as there have been no supporting mechanisms to uphold the ban, leaving the debate to play out in the courts.

Similarly, it’s hard to gauge the administration’s position on mining. SMI’s Tampakan project was among those suspended in 2017 for alleged environmental violations, yet Duterte’s office lifted the suspension late last year and SMI has since expressed plans to begin excavation.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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