Bishops urge gov’t to stop Chinese mining firm from destroying rice fieldBy Jocelyn R. Uy, Kristine Alave
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines — The head of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ social arm has urged the government to assert its right not only over the disputed (Scarborough) Shoal but also over some of the country’s vast rice fields that have been converted into mining sites by Chinese and other foreign firms.
In a recent forum, Fr. Edu Gariguez, executive secretary of the CBCP National Secretariat for Social Action, highlighted the sorry state of Lake Bito in MacArthur, Leyte, where mining operations and sand dredging by the Chinese firm Nicua Mining Corp. destroyed the rice fields and twice caused fish kills in the lake.
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje acknowledged the Lake Bito problem and confirmed that the company had been investigated and fined for its lapses. But he said his “hands were tied” because the company had been granted a Mineral Processing Sharing Agreement by the previous administration in 2008. He said a new mining policy would be the solution to the problem.
Gariguez, who was awarded in April the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco, California, for his advocacy against mining, went on a two-day solidarity mission together with newly installed Palo Archbishop John Du and some priests to the Lake Bito area some two weeks ago.
Following the visit, the priest reported that the water supply in the vast agricultural land in the area and the nearby village had dried up due to the non-stop extraction of magnetite sand for export to China.
Magnetite, or magnetic iron ore crystals, are used in electronic parts and other products.
“While the government is busy fighting for our sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal, the Chinese are gradually claiming our lands bigger than the shoal,” the priest told reporters in an interview.
“The government should also protect our rice fields from these foreign mining companies,” said Gariguez.
Gariguez noted no immediate rehabilitation was taking place in the mining area, which had been “illegally converted from ricefields.”
He urged the DENR to investigate the situation at Lake Bito.
From March to May, at least two fish kills occurred at the lake. He said the Chinese firm was fined by the DENR a measly P50,000 after it was found to have contaminated the lake.
Fishpen operators in Leyte are not content with the DENR’s action, demanding that the company pay them for their lost fish harvests when mine wastes slipped into the lake on May 12 and 15.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer tried but was unable to contact engineer Elmer Ragas, Nicua project manager.
Paje said the DENR could not revoke the company’s contract granted by the Arroyo administration. It could only charge it with environmental violations.
He said he would be amenable to an investigation of the Lake Bito mining site. “I agree with that,” he said, although he admitted he was not familiar with the complaints against the mining firm.
Paje also admitted that the mining activity has been affecting “prime agricultural land.” The National Irrigation Authority had made investments in the area affected by the Nicua mining company, he added.
“The cure for this is the new mining policy,” he said.
Under the Aquino administration’s proposed mining directive, extractive operations are barred from eco-tourism areas and prime crop lands. The Chinese firm would also be mandated to follow strict international standards on mining safety and environmental protection.
President Aquino was supposed to sign the new mining policy, which sets new regulations for the mining industry, two weeks ago. But the signing has been delayed over opposition from local government executives who are asserting their own power to grant mining permits and penalize violators.
According to Reynaldo Barra, officer in charge of the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) pollution and control division, Nicua paid its fine on June 13.
Barra said an investigation conducted by his office showed that “there was indeed a back flow of waste water coming from them (Nicua), which entered Lake Bito.”
Jesus Cabias, head of the Lake Bito Fisherfolk Association, said their group was dissatisfied with the penalty.
“It was only the EMB that received the fine. What about us fishermen affected by their operations? We are also seeking compensation from them,” he said in a text message.
Ragas responded earlier this month, saying the firm paid the fine in compliance with the country’s environment regulations. “We’re just following an order from EMB,” he had said.