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People power guards Agusan mountain

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AUTHORITIES dismantle mining shacks that were put up inside the Mt. Magdiwata watershed. CHRIS V. PANGANIBAN

SAN FRANCISCO, Agusan del Sur—Mt. Magdiwata, the only source of water in households here and a natural barrier against storms, is under threat again by the same people who abused it in 2010.

Residents sounded the alarm on the resurgence of illegal logging and illegal mining inside and near the watershed early this month after learning that poachers have become bolder.

In November 2010, some 4,000 residents went on a caravan to the foot of the mountain to call for a stop to illegal mining activities involving local businessmen in partnership with Chinese financiers within the buffer zone of the watershed in the guise of sand and gravel operations.

The protest actions came as illegal mining continued to be conducted with impunity by small-scale mining operator Judito Pintado in Sitio Sumogbong in Alegria and East Coast Mineral Resources in Barangay Mati which continued to operate despite an order to cease from the government.

The same areas are still being subjected to illegal mining involving Pintado and Chinese criminals who were caught in the act of illegal mining during separate raids by authorities this month.

Pintado is facing  cases of illegal mining and illegal logging in a local court filed by the San Francisco Water District (SFWD).

Mt. Magdiwata, a 1,658-hectare watershed with a height of 633 meters above sea level, was declared a permanent watershed by Presidential Proclamation No. 282 on Oct. 23, 1993.

It was the SFWD that exposed the resurgence of illegal logging and mining after its forest guards had reported seeing natural-grown falcatta trees felled inside the mountain and near  Sumogbong River.

Illegal mining also started to spread like a plague with 50 operations detected inside the watershed.

Prompted by mounting pressure for a call to action, a massive crackdown led by the local environment office and the police arrested nine illegal loggers caught in the act of cutting down trees and six Chinese miners involved in an illegal gold-mining operation using backhoes that destroyed the riverbanks of remote Mati village.

But the sincerity of authorities to enforce laws to protect the watershed is still under a cloud of doubt.

“How far can they go? Can they really catch the big fish?” asked a parishioner after listening to a warning from Fr. Artemio Jusayan at the end of Mass.

Jusayan has called on the faithful to be more vigilant in protecting the watershed. The priest expressed alarm when village officials in Alegria had passed a resolution allowing mining operations by Philsaga Mining Corp., two weeks before illegal loggers were arrested in Sitio Sumogbong.

“The people of this town must know. They should be consulted,” said Jusayan, adding that a disaster similar to the landslide that hit New Bataan in Compostela Valley during the onslaught of Typhoon “Pablo” is not a remote possibility.

A week after the priest’s concern was relayed to churchgoers, the village chair of Alegria, Solomon Rufila, issued a certification that logs believed to have been from illegally cut trees belonged to Pintado.

“We were caught by surprise,” said SFWD general manager Elmer Luzon.

The SFWD, with the help of police, soldiers and personnel from the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office, was transporting the seized logs for custody when it learned about the decision of Rufila to hold the logs in favor of Pintado.

The incident has drawn suspicion on the village official’s sincerity to be part of the continuing campaign to protect the mountain from poaching.

Rufila also agreed to the mining operations in exchange for a road.

The village council of Alegria is a member of Mt. Magdiwata Multi-Sectoral Task Force, which was organized by Mayor Jenny de Asis in 2010 in the wake of calls to protect the watershed.

A big part of Alegria’s area is covered by Philsaga’s 6,000-ha mineral production sharing agreement approved by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau.

This came about when, early this year, the SFWD board of directors had passed a resolution strongly opposing mining operations and calling for the immediate cancellation of exploration and mining permits.

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