CA allows large-scale open-pit mining in South Cotabato
KORONADAL CITY — The Court of Appeals (CA) has dealt a blow to the campaign against open-pit mining in South Cotabato, but activists are undaunted and vowed to sustain their opposition to this mining method which they say is destructive to the environment.
In a decision dated Aug. 22, 2022, parts of which circulated around the province only this week, the CA declared that the ban on open-pit mining in the province was valid, but the prohibition applied only to small-scale miners.
“Further, it is clarified that the ban on open-pit mining does not apply to large-scale mining operations of the said province, particularly the Tampakan Project,” the CA’s 23rd Division based in Cagayan de Oro stated.
The controversial project in South Cotabato’s Tampakan town, touted as the largest untapped copper and gold minefield in Southeast Asia, is being developed by Sagittarius Mines Inc.. The company says that open-pit mining is the most viable method to extract shallow minerals.
B’laan community petition
The province’s ban has been considered as the remaining hurdle to the operation of the $5.9-billion (about P295-billion) Tampakan project.
The CA 23rd Division ruling was on the petition filed by some members of the B’laan indigenous cultural community, whose lands would be mined by Sagittarius, against the provincial government’s ban.
The petitioners questioned the October 2020 decision by Regional Trial Court Branch 24 Judge Vicente Peña, which upheld the prohibition on open-pit mining in the province’s environment code.
“Section 22 (b), which bans open-pit mining in the province of South Cotabato is not invalid, but rather legal and consistent with DAO (Department Administrative Order) 2017-10 (issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources), the Local Government Code (of the Philippines) and above all the Constitution,” the judge had ruled.
Bishop seeks dialogue
Bishop Cerilo Casicas of the Diocese of Marbel blew the whistle on the CA’s decision on Thursday and urged South Cotabato Gov. Reynaldo Tamayo Jr. to hold a public dialogue on the ruling.
The bishop wrote Tamayo on March 17 expressing concerns about the implication of the ruling on communities potentially affected by the Tampakan project. He asked the governor to continue the legal battle to defend the province’s environment code.
“Notwithstanding the pronouncement of the Court of Appeals, we remain firm with our stand that open-pit mining operations in South Cotabato pose a great risk to the integrity of the environment of our province and its neighbors. At stake are the health and livelihoods of many,” Casicas said in a statement on Thursday.
“We trust that the governor shall exert his best efforts to defend the rights of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology. It is of vital importance that the true meaning and heart of the ordinance is not in any way compromised or defeated,” the prelate added.
Casicas stressed that open-pit mining, especially large-scale operations, encroached on closed and open canopy forests, some of which are considered integral woodlands.
He said large-scale open-pit mining “will erase vast areas of agricultural lands, destroy the remaining watershed, and will cause massive and destructive flooding in Mindanao.”
Casicas urged Tamayo to join the 30 parishes, the clergy and the laypeople in “the moral imperative to act together decisively in order to save our common home.”
Neither Tamayo nor the provincial government disclosed the CA decision to their constituents before the governor confirmed the court’s ruling in a radio interview early this week.
Speaking in the vernacular on local radio, Tamayo said the CA “did not invalidate the open-pit mining ban in South Cotabato but limited its scope to small-scale mining operations.”
Based on the same CA decision, he added that large-scale open-pit mining operations are vested in the national government under Republic Act No. 7942, or the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.
According to the governor, the provincial government could no longer question RA 7942 in the Supreme Court because it had already affirmed its validity.
On May 16, 2022, the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of South Cotabato approved a proposal to lift the ban on open-pit mining, causing public outrage and triggering protests in this city.
Two weeks later, Tamayo vetoed the controversial measure, saying that it was hastily decided and included questionable provisions.
He noted that there were no protests in the province when former Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu ordered in December 2021 the lifting of the nationwide ban on open-pit mining imposed by the late Environment Secretary Gina Lopez.
Open-pit or surface mining has been contentious. Miners say that it is a globally accepted mining method, but environmental advocates insist that this technique has caused extensive environmental damage.
In December 2021, during the Duterte administration, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) lifted the ban on the open-pit method of mining for copper, gold, silver and complex ores in the country.
The ban, imposed in April 2017, was one of the high-impact measures taken by Lopez, who was known for her green advocacies before she led the DENR.
The governor said he would try to meet with Environment Secretary Ma. Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga to discuss her position on open-pit mining.
The Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), which works with communities threatened by the risks of open-pit mining projects, said the provincial government could still appeal the CA decision.
“This is not the end of the line for the open-pit mining ban,” said LRC legal services coordinator Rolly Peoro.
“Certainly, the provincial government on behalf of their constituencies has the duty to appeal the CA decision precisely as the decision recognizes their police powers,” he said.
The regulatory role of local governments is “very much part” of the national mineral and resource governance laws and “cannot be limited to just small-scale mining projects,” Peoro said.
He noted that Tamayo “is in a prime position to push back against this curtailment of the autonomy granted by the Local Government Code to local chief executives defending their constituents’ right to a balanced and healthful ecology.”
—WITH A REPORT FROM INQUIRER RESEARCH
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