‘If the mountain is destroyed, what’s left?’
Pedro Sagad has lived off the bounty of Mt. Mantalingahan in Palawan all his life. He tills the soil for rice or corn to feed his family. He harvests resin from baltik trees to sell for P10 per pack when cash is running low.
The father of seven also takes to the forest whenever a loved one falls ill, gathering roots to make a healing tonic. At 65, Sagad, a leader of a tribe also known as Palawan, knows he doesn’t have much, but whatever he lacks the mountain can provide.
That’s why during harvest time, his grateful tribe prepares rice cakes and the rice wine tapuy as offerings to a deity addressed as Panginoon, whom they implore for continued blessings.
Yet his tribe’s ancient way of life may now be in peril, said Sagad, a panglima or chief in Barangay Ipilan, home to some 20,000 villagers in Brooke’s Point town, one of Palawan’s 33 watershed areas.
His main cause of worry: A planned nickel mining project, covering over a thousand hectares, which Sagad fears would spell the beginning of the end for Mantalingahan’s gifts to his people.
“The mine may provide money and jobs to some of us. But if the mountain is destroyed, what will we have left? We have nowhere to go,” Sagad said in Filipino.
The mining firm, MacroAsia Corp., maintains that the project, as required by law, has earned the consent of the local indigenous peoples (IPs) in the area, groups already recognized by a government body to be genuine residents of the area.
Still, Sagad and eight other tribesmen faced reporters in Manila on Wednesday to gather support for his group’s campaign against the project.
At a press conference organized by the Save Palawan Movement led by Gina Lopez, managing director of the ABS-CBN Foundation, and Aldaw Indigenous Network, the group claimed that MacroAsia had tapped up to 30 “fake” tribesmen to convince the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to approve the project.
The group called on the NCIP to deny the issuance of a certificate of precondition to MacroAsia, a document that would serve as proof that local residents approve of mining activities on their land.
The NCIP is set to meet en banc on June 15-17 to decide whether to issue the certificate, which, in turn, would enable MacroAsia to secure a strategic environmental plan clearance from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).
“These so-called tribal chieftains showed support for MacroAsia despite opposite views from the majority of indigenous people from Brooke’s Point,” Sagad’s group said in a statement.
Reached for comment, MacroAsia vice president for mining operations Ramon Santos said his company would leave the group’s concerns to the NCIP, but he noted that it was the commission itself that “gave us the list of tribal leaders to talk to.”
“They (tribal leaders) claim that they are the genuine IPs. They may indeed be IPs, but the question is, who would the NCIP recognize as the … actual dwellers in the impact area?” Santos said in a phone interview.
He maintained that the process for obtaining the free and prior informed consent of the local residents in connection with the project was carried out rigidly in full coordination with the NCIP, he said.
“They validated which IPs occupy the project area and they gave us the list of tribal leaders to talk to,” the company official stressed.
MacroAsia has forged a memorandum of agreement with the concerned IPs referred by the NCIP, Santos said.
Consent of IPs
Under the agreement, the IPs gave their consent to the project while the company agreed to extend certain benefits to the community, such as a 1-percent royalty out of the gross value of production, and other forms of assistance such as scholarships.
As a token of good faith, Santos said, the company has already started providing scholarships to 122 youths, of whom a hundred are from IP families and 22 are other residents recommended by the local government.
The scholarships have been granted even if the mining project has not yet started, he noted.
Santos denied allegations that some 30 tribal leaders had been paid to lobby for the company’s application at the NCIP.
“The project has not started and we are already done exploring the area so we don’t have an activity for which we can carve out a budget to fund the scholarships. The tribal leaders were concerned (about the coming) school year; they asked for help on following up the project. We simply provided them assistance,” he said.
Not against all mining
At the press conference, Lopez stressed: “I want to make this clear: Save Palawan Movement is not against all mining.”
“We’re just against mining in a natural forest. We’re against mining in key biodiversity areas because this is important for the planet and our country to provide. We’re against mining in island ecosystems where there are coral reefs and mangroves and farmlands,” she said.
Mantalingahan, Lopez said, is a 2,400-hectare old-growth forest, meaning it was “not planted by man (but) sprang out because of ecology. It’s there because nature put it there. It has amazing biodiversity.”
Lopez recalled that a two-year study was commissioned by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the PCSD to assess the economic benefits of mining the area and of keeping it untouched.
Leave mountain alone
“At the end of the two years, this was the conclusion: If you leave Mt. Mantalingahan alone, the value to the country in terms of water, carbon credits, agricultural land, watershed areas, is worth P94 billion. Even if you make it conservative, it’s worth at least P70 billion,” she said.
“Then they counted the revenues that will come from mining. They estimated P15 billion. At the end of the study, in very clear terms, they said ‘do not mine in Mt. Mantalingahan.’ The value to the country is much more than if you would mine it,” Lopez said.
According to its website, MacroAsia holds two mineral production sharing agreements (MPSAs) with the government following the renewal of mining leases that the company held from its start-up years in the 1970s.
The company described the nickel project in Brooke’s Point as one of its “more advanced” ventures.
With a total land area of about 1,114 ha, the project site was actually host to an old mine that produced ore shipments to Japan in the 1970s and is now being restarted for operations “upon full compliance with statutory requirements,” the company said.
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