As anti-mining protests heighten in the Philippines, industry observers call for ‘prudence’ in police intervention

Video footage appears to show protestors, who were demonstrating against mining operations, being dragged away by police near Ipilan Nickel Mine in Brooke’s Point, Palawan. Mining insiders are calling for maximum tolerance in similar standoffs.

Brookes Point human barricade

At around six o’clock in the morning of 14 April, about two hundred police and security forces dismantled the barricades put up by demonstrators in front of Ipilan Nickel Mining Corp (INC) in Brooke’s Point, Palawan in the Philippines.

Residents assembled makeshift structures two months ago to prevent trucks from transporting minerals to the mining site, as a form of protest against operations of the subsidiary of the country’s second-largest nickel producer, Global Ferronickel Holdings.

They feared that the nickel extracted from their mountains will destroy their area known for its “high floral and faunal diversity”.

In the afternoon of the same day, residents gathered at the site of the barricades to protest the demolition, leading to a commotion. INC security guards began grabbing the residents in an attempt to disperse the crowd, taking hold of six locals, whom they arrested and turned over to the police. A number of rallyists were injured, including senior citizens, according to anti-mining non-profit Alyansa Tigil Mina. 

Two weeks before the human barricade at Brooke’s Point, residents of Sibuyan Island in Romblon had a similar clash with police, as they attempted to thwart the mining operations of nickel firm Altai Philippines Mining Corporation. 

“The videos of these events are disturbing particularly due to the force and violence with which the peaceful protesters were dispersed by the police while they were simply exercising their rights,” said Gregorio Bueta, an environmental lawyer who teaches natural resources and environmental law and international environment and climate change law at the Ateneo School of Law. 

The rights of protesters include freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and their environmental right to a “balanced and healthful ecology” under the 1987 constitution, Bueta added.  

The videos of these events are disturbing particularly due to the force and violence with which the peaceful protesters were dispersed by the police while they were simply exercising their rights.

Gregorio Bueta, professor, natural resources and environmental law and international environment and climate change law, Ateneo School of Law

Companies like mining firms have the right to call on the police and government authorities when there is a need to “repel or prevent an actual or threatened unlawful physical invasion or usurpation of his property,” according to the civil code

But the concerned persons in these protests were merely voicing their opposition to a mining project and its impacts on the environment, Bueta told Eco-Business. 

“The police and government authorities could have taken a more prudent stand by acting as a sort of mediator to allow both parties to peacefully talk and discuss while on the ground,” he said. “Maximum tolerance could have been stretched a bit more, so as not to give the impression that government is siding with the miners.”

Mining companies should engage in “peaceful dialogue” with protesting communities like Brooke’s Point and Sibuyan Island, said Christian Arranz, professor at the department of mining, metallurgical, and materials engineering at the University of the Philippines.

“The use of force should only be a last resort, and should only be done in accordance with the law and with proper consideration for the safety and well-being of all parties involved,” Arranz told Eco-Business. “It is crucial for mining companies to work closely with local authorities to ensure that any actions taken are lawful and do not violate the rights of protesters.”

During the term of former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, a nine-year moratorium on granting new mining permits was lifted in 2021, which the government claimed would revive the local economy amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The change in policy was met with opposition, which led locals in South Cotabato, a municipality in Mindanao, to rally against the Sagittarius Mines Inc.’s (SMI) Tampakan Mining Project, an open-pit mine site that is set to be the largest open-pit gold-copper mine in the country.

There were already demonstrations before the ban was removed, including one against the reopening of the OceanaGold copper-gold mine in 2019, which allegedly committed human rights violations against indigenous people in the mined area.

Mining is a contentious issue in the Philippines, which is largely underexplored, following past examples of environmental mismanagement. For instance, a tailings leak, or the unintentional release of mining waste or tailings from a containment area or storage facility, at Canadian-owned Marcopper Mining Corp’s copper mine in Marinduque, contaminated rivers in 1996.

The sector contributed less than one percent to the economy, according to the latest government data, with only three percent of the nine million hectares identified by the state as having high mineral reserves being mined.

The incumbent president Ferdinand Marcos, Jr and his economic team, composed of officials who also served under Duterte, are continuing the past administration’s switch to mining.

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