Indigenous groups ask Aquino to allow Philex full operations

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BAGUIO CITY—Ibaloi and Kalanguya peoples living in Benguet and the province’s boundary with Pangasinan have asked President Benigno Aquino III to grant Philex Mining Corp. a permanent clearance to operate its Padcal mine, saying their livelihood depended on the mine’s nonstop operations.

“We ask for your direct intervention to allow Philex to [operate] permanently and ensure that the penalty of P1 billion that was paid by Philex [for the Aug. 1, 2012, tailings dam accident] to really go to the cleanup of the affected areas and livelihood assistance of the directly affected communities,” indigenous peoples organizations said in a June 21 letter to the President.

“Your ‘being your boss’ [statement] is herein challenged to address our socioeconomic plight,” they said, citing their role as stakeholders of Philex Mines in the towns of Tuba and Itogon in Benguet, and San Manuel and San Nicolas in Pangasinan. Tuba and Itogon host Philex’s Padcal mine while San Manuel and San Nicolas host San Roque Multipurpose Dam.

Last week, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) allowed Philex to continue operating the Padcal mine after its four-month temporary permit to operate lapsed on July 6.

By operating the mine, Philex can generate mine tailings, which are dumped into a hole in Tailings Storage Facility No. 3.

The hole was created when mine wastes leaked toward Balog Creek last year, said Constancia Fernandez, an indigenous leader in Tuba and signatory to a royalty deal with Philex, which benefits members of the the Indigenous Peoples Organization of Alang, Pokis, Sabian, Sta. Fe, Olibba and Loakan.

Fernandez said the latest reprieve from the MGB was open-ended because it did not provide a duration for operating Padcal. “It is still temporary and could be lifted anytime.”

Leaders of indigenous peoples’ organizations started the letter campaign on their own and were not being prodded by Philex, she said. The groups have also been sending letters to MGB Director Leo Jasareno.

Two weeks ago, Philex chair Manuel V. Pangilinan visited Padcal, but Fernandez said the tycoon did not meet with representatives of outlying communities.

A June 17 letter to Jasareno, written in Kalanguya, said: “We barely understand. We do not know why Philex has been allowed to open only temporarily even after it finished repairs on the tailings dam and after cleaning the waterways.”

“While government officials, nongovernment organizations, university professors and scientists, as well as priests and all social workers, regularly get their salaries, we are left with no assurance that our respective communities would continue our livelihood,” it said.

Fernandez sent the Inquirer a copy of a separate government petition signed by 1,143 indigenous peoples organizations members in Benguet.

It said: “Our primary interest is to protect, safeguard and secure our socioeconomic survival that is dependent on the operations of Philex… It is our obligation and privilege to support Philex, which has significantly contributed to the upliftment of our lives, families and communities in the Cordillera.”

Fernandez said the Ibaloi and Kalanguya groups banded together to offer an independent testimony that Philex had cleaned up most of the sections of Balog Creek and Agno River, concerned about fears raised in various Pangasinan towns about the accident’s lasting effects.

Mayor Belen Fernandez of Dagupan City has formed a team to study the impact of the accident on Pangasinan waters, where Agno River discharges.

The National Power Corp. is also pursuing damage claims for Padcal mine sediments that were contained by San Roque Dam.

“Before we sent out letters to the President and [Jasareno], we followed the creeks and waterways to determine for ourselves that the tailings had been cleared,” Fernandez said. Vincent Cabreza, Inquirer Northern Luzon

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