Officials quash plan to develop Philippines’ biggest copper mine

The US$5.9 billion project has faced opposition since mineral reserves were discovered there in the ’90s, with pushback coming from indigenous communities, the Catholic church, environmentalists, and even communist rebels.

Sagittarius Mines, Inc's Tampakan mining operation
Site of the Sagittarius Mines, Inc's Tampakan mining operation in Mindanao, Philippines. Image: Sagittarius Mines, Inc Tampakan Facebook page/ Bonifacio Gallego

Officials in the southern Philippines have canceled a $5.9 billion project to exploit Southeast Asia’s largest known undeveloped copper and gold reserves, but have left open the possibility of the venture being revived.

The municipal council of Tampakan, home to 40,000 people in the province of South Cotabato, alleges that Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI) failed to honor its side of the agreement governing the development of the mine. That deal, the municipal principal agreement (MPA), is supposed to be reviewed and updated every four years, but this hasn’t been done since 2009. There were attempts to review the MPA, but the mayor and other municipal representatives were excluded from the negotiations, the council said.

“After scrutiny, there are provisions in the MPA that are considered vague, disadvantageous to inhabitants of Tampakan and unduly tie the hands of the local government unit [LGU] of Tampakan,” the council said in a resolution dated August 10 but made public on August 14. “As such, the LGU cannot sit and fold its arms not to intervene in any action initiated by its people if, indeed, their rights have been violated contrary to some provisions of the agreement.”

The MPA was already a done deal rather than being negotiated with the government, the resolution said.

Municipal legislators say they’re no longer interested in reviewing or updating the 2009 MPA with the company but are open to creating or formulating a new agreement, which means SMI could still pursue the mammoth Tampakan project under a new municipal agreement.

The resolution has been sent to relevant government agencies but SMI has yet to issue a statement as of the time this article was published. Mongabay sought comment from SMI officials but did not receive a response from the mining firm.

The local government unit cannot sit and fold its arms not to intervene in any action initiated by its people if, indeed, their rights have been violated contrary to some provisions of the agreement.

The municipal council of Tampakan

‘Lopsided,’ ‘no justice’

If approved, the Tampakan project would be the largest copper mine in the Philippines and among the largest in the world. The site is predicted to yield an average of 375,000 tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold in concentrate per year over a 17-year period. In 1995, the Philippine government granted the Tampakan project the contract to explore and develop the area’s mineral deposits through a financial or technical assistance agreement (FTAA).

The MPA took effect in 1997, and since then SMI has paid Tampakan municipality at least 40 million pesos ($822,370 at current rates), or an average of 2.5 million pesos ($51,400) a year as part of its financial commitments, according to a 2013 state audit. But the terms of the deal are “lopsided,” the council noted in its recent decision

Days before the council published its resolution, Tampakan Mayor Leonard Escobillo criticized the rental rate that SMI was set to pay for the ancestral lands of the Blaan, the ethnic tribal group whose mountain home will be affected by the project.

Escobillo said the mining firm was set to rent the Indigenous lands for 160,000 pesos (around $3,300) per hectare for 25 years, which works out to 6,400 pesos ($131) a year or 533.33 pesos ($11) a month.

Escobillo, who succeeded his father, Leonardo, a staunch supporter of mining during his three terms as the town’s mayor, said the land rental rate was part of the negotiations for obtaining the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the affected community — one of the major requirements for the company to proceed with the project, along with local government endorsements.

“I believe there’s no justice in that [price],” Escobillo said on Aug. 12. “You rent one hectare of land and you’ll use it for 25 years, that’s only 500 pesos a month. How will a family live with such [an amount]?”

Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM), a national advocacy group whose name translates as Alliance Against Mining, lauded the Tampakan municipal council for terminating the deal with SMI. It also urged President Rodrigo Duterte, who vocally banned open-pit mining in 2017, to order an executive review of the Tampakan contract.

“[Tampakan officials] have exercised the spirit and substance of local autonomy in ensuring the general welfare as well as ensuring a safe and sound environment of their constituents,” Jaybee Garganera of ATM said in a statement. “The people of Tampakan and the Blaan Indigenous communities affected deserve to be heard in their rejection of this massive and potentially destructive mining project.”


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