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Mining ban stays, says S. Cotabato governor

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KORONADAL CITY—South Cotabato Gov. Arthur Pingoy Jr. on Wednesday downplayed the issuance of an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) to mining giant Xstrata’s Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI), saying the provincial government ban on open-pit mining stays.

Pingoy, speaking to the Inquirer by phone, said the ECC would not exempt SMI from the ban and the provincial government would pursue charges against the company if it committed violations.

“(The ban) is still legal,” he said.

The governor said unless the ban was declared unconstitutional by the courts, SMI could not operate its proposed open-pit mine in Tampakan town, even if it hurdled other obstacles for a final mining permit.

Pingoy, however, said the provincial government was not keen on amending the provincial environment code, which outlawed open-pit and other destructive mining practices in South Cotabato.

“If the government will cause the nullification of our environmental code, I am going to gather the people and those who are supporting it and I will get their views on what to do next,” he said.

The Church-based Philippine-Misereor Partnership Inc. (PMPI) has lambasted the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for granting an ECC to SMI.

Mario Maderazo, PMPI advocacy and legal officer, said the “clearance is the beginning of wanton environmental destruction and human rights violations in Tampakan.”

“Still fresh in the minds of the Filipino people are the mining disasters in Padcal and Semirara, and both these operations were given ECCs. If such destructive and deadly disasters will not stop the DENR, we wonder what will make them think rationally,” Maderazo said.

“Five workers of Semirara Mining Corp. in Antique were found dead while another five are still missing after being buried by tons of soil when a portion of the open-mine pit collapsed a few days ago,” he added.

Destructive practices

Maderazo also said that other mining companies granted ECCs had committed destructive practices, such as the pollution of Balog Creek in Benguet province by Philex Mining Corp. and the Agno River in Pangasinan province.

“In our view, the project in Tampakan is even more dangerous than those two sites. First, even before the operations begin, human rights violations are already rampant in the area highlighted by the killings of a mother and her two children in October last year,” he said, referring to last year’s military operations that led to the deaths of the wife and two sons of B’laan tribal leader Daguil Capion.

Capion has been at the forefront of an armed struggle by B’laan natives against SMI.

Maderazo said even SMI had admitted that its operation would destroy a large area—about 3,900 hectares of forests.

‘Very sad’

“This is very sad because the DENR twice denied the issuance of an ECC to SMI. But Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa intervened and signed a Palace document that says SMI has fully complied with the requirement of the environment impact statement (EIS) system. Such arm-twisting forced the DENR to process and eventually grant an ECC. This begs the question, is this the straight path? Or rather, in the straight path, should mountains be leveled?” Roldan Gonzales, PMIP co-convenor for Mindanao, said.

Environment Secretary Ramon Paje told Manila reporters on Tuesday that the denial of the ECC to SMI in the past was in deference to the South Cotabato environmental code.

However, the DENR decided to issue one to the company following the strong endorsement from the government-led Mining Industry Coordinating Council.

Paje said the Department of Justice also issued an opinion that SMI’s operation would not violate the Mining Act of 1995 and that the South Cotabato ban on open-pit mining was unlawful.

The environment secretary said the granting of the ECC to SMI was “subject to certain conditions,” and the company’s failure to comply with these conditions could result in its revocation.

More challenges

He said before a final permit would be issued, the DENR would make sure that SMI had secured several requirements, including the consent of the locals, and expressed willingness “to assume continuing liability” over any environmental damage.

A source from the provincial office of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples in South Cotabato said the SMI might be able to easily secure the other required requirements toward a full mining operation.

But the source, who requested anonymity for lack of authority, said securing the consent of the B’laan communities might prove to be difficult for the company because of opposition, including those expressed by Capion’s group and other sectors.

“It would be a long process,” the source said.

Dialogue with IPs

John Arnaldo, SMI communications officer, said the company was not deterred by the opposition, including that of the South Cotabato government.

“We will continue to engage in a dialogue with the South Cotabato provincial board in resolving their concerns. Another priority this year is to seek the consent of the IPs (indigenous peoples) through extensive consultations and dialogue,” he told the Inquirer by text message.

SMI, largely owned by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth-largest copper producer, eyes full operation in 2019.

Its proposed mine area—which was expected to produce an average annual yield of 375,000 metric tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold—covers some 9,605 hectares in the provinces of South Cotabato, Davao del Sur and Sarangani.

On the sidelines of a campaign sortie in Pampanga, UNA senatorial candidate Juan Miguel Zubiri said the Tampakan project may bring in an economic windfall to the country, but at a very steep price for the environment.

“I am saddened that they did not respect the provincial ordinance or resolution which bans open-pit mining,” Zubiri told reporters.

He said the province’s rich biodiversity would hang in the balance if the project would proceed.

“Tampakan is a biodiversity-rich area. I am sad because that’s the only remaining old growth forest in South Cotabato. If that will be destroyed, the farmers and fisherfolk would suffer,” he said.—With a report from Leila B. Salaverria

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Tags: Arthur Pingoy Jr. , Business , Environmental Issues , local government , Mining and quarrying , open-pit mining ban , Philippines , Politics , South Cotabato

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