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All quiet on the southern front

Activists and miners size each other up in Mindanao

All quiet on the southern front
Heavy earthmoving equipment on site at the Tampakan project site Photograph
Bill Condie, General Santos City

April 8, 2011

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The second of a three part series looking at the issues surrounding Xstrata's Philippines copper and gold project. The first part can be read here South Cotabato governor Arthur “Dodo” Pingoy inherited a ban on open pit mining signed by his predecessor the day before Pingoy took office. “I say I am lucky, though, because there is no ban to implement as there are no open pits yet,” he says in his office in Koronadal in the southern Philippines. The ban was aimed at stopping the giant Tampakan copper and gold project controlled by London-listed miner Xstrata through its local affiliate Sagittarius Mines Inc (SMI). But, despite widespread opposition from Church and other activists, it could soon be reviewed by provincial board members. “They have had initial meetings with the petitioners and those who are against any review of the ban,” Pingoy says. “We’re not against mining. Not at all. But we are just waiting for the Environmental Impact Study to be released.” He says he is frustrated by what he believes is foot-dragging by the company and even with his politician’s instincts, it is hard to judge whether pro- or anti-mining groups have the numbers yet. “I am getting mixed signals,” he says. “Some are in favor of the operations because they see the economic benefits but others are asking about the environmental effects. “The Church is opposed of course. And there is definitely not a positive feeling about mining generally. Quite a few mines started operations after the mining act [of 1995] and there have been lots of problems.”
Governor Arthur Pingoy. “We’re not against mining. Not at all.” Photograph ©Michael Coyne
Pingoy echoes the widespread mistrust of foreign mining companies among many local people. “The way these companies act when they want approval for a project is a bit like courting a girlfriend. “Of course you will offer the sun and the moon to get what you want but then after you are married maybe you don’t even talk to each other.” A visit to the site of the proposed mine, which will include an open pit some 3km long, 2.5km wide and 800m deep, proves impossible. The SMI employee in charge of security talks rapidly into his cellphone. “No sir. There is a roadblock on the way to the base camp. I would not advise going that way for now. In fact I would advise very strongly against,” he says. Instead we must make do with a tour of the core farm about 10km west of the edge of the planned mine where the rock samples, or “cores”, from years of drilling are kept. Next to the storage area is a nursery where seedlings are raised for replanting on the mine site and elsewhere in the country. Some 600 hectares of forest is to be cut down to make way for the mine and the head gardener says that that will be replaced with 30 varieties of native trees. But the rehabilitation plans are far from the minds of activists in nearby Tampakan town. Councillor Fe Mumanta says the fall-out from the project has already begun. “There are already problems with mine workers coming down from the mountains and making trouble,” she says. “They are being bought with large sums of money. We are already seeing the beginning of prostitution and other social problems here.”
Veteran campaigner Father Peter Geremia Navales
Veteran anti-mine campaigner Father Peter Geremia says that the company is taking too little notice of local voices while the company’s provision of scholarships and other social spending amount to “bribes” to gain support for the project. “If the EIA process is to be fair, the company should also give importance to common people’s views - farmers, local youth and women - not just NGOs and others that are all part of the one system of bribes,” he says. The dirt road along the southern edges of the Tampakan project twists upwards into the mountains towards Mt Magolo, skirting the southern edge of the proposed mine site. The mountains are lush and green but heavily scarred by decades of logging and slash and burn agriculture. Many mountainsides are severely eroded. Despite the security fears of SMI, our convoy of SUVs led by Passionist Father Edwin Flor encounters no resistance. Past the town of Misiyong, where SMI is believed to be planning to site a depot, the roadworks begin. Trees lining the road are numbered for felling and periodic drill rigs have been set up to ensure the ground is solid enough for the big mining vehicles the route will have to accommodate.
The road to Mount Matobo is being widened and paved. "In our hearts we don’t want it but we can’t do anything about it," says a local Navales
In a small town about 5km from Mt Magolo, there is a bamboo boom gate. It is open and around it stand graders and bulldozers, idled in the action that had alarmed the SMI security man the day before. Local B’laan tribal chieftain John Nalon Collado explains. The road was barricaded and work forced to halt because money promised to landowners as compensation had not been paid, he says. The company says it paid the money to the sub-contractors who should have passed it on to the tribespeople. Unfortunately for SMI, the locals do not see it that way. “Everything was covered by an MOU,” says Collado. “It was agreed that the company would pay everything but they haven’t. If it pays the money, the project will go ahead again,” he says. Otherwise Collado is generally a supporter.
"If [the company] pays the money, the project will go ahead again,” says John Nalon Collado Photograph ©Michael Coyne
“It helps us through the scholarships, health insurance and livelihood assistance, a water system - even tribal festivals are sponsored by the company,” he says. “SMI is trying to help and has started some activities here. But sometimes you can’t avoid problems when landowners won’t give right of way for the road building.” Other townspeople are not so sanguine. At the local shop an elderly woman airs her misgivings but doesn't give her name. She said the road widening began without any consultation with townspeople. “We don’t know what the policies of the company are but we know this mine is going to have a big effect on our lives,” she says. A man seated nearby chimes in. “The priests say the project will have a big effect on the Boyen River but we don’t know anything. No one has spoken to us about it. “We have not been briefed and not informed. The company said there was to be a new road and so there is a road. “In our hearts we don’t want it but we can’t do anything about it. Our barangay officials agreed to it so what can we do?” On Monday we conclude our series on the Tampakan Copper and gold project, analyzing the options for a way forward. PM13900.1648
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