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In the trenches at Tampakan

Battle lines drawn over Xstrata's Mindanao copper mine

A guard stands duty at the Tampakan copper and gold project in the southern Philippines <i> Photograph ©Michael Coyne</i> A guard stands duty at the Tampakan copper and gold project in the southern Philippines Photograph ©Michael Coyne
  • Bill Condie, General Santos
  • Philippines
  • April 5, 2011
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Southeast Asia’s largest known unexploited copper and gold deposit lies in a remote mountain area just east of Tampakan, about 60km north of General Santos, the Philippines’ southernmost city.

London-listed Xstrata, the fourth-largest copper producer in the world, through its local affiliate Sagittarius Mines Inc (SMI), hopes Tampakan will produce an average of 340,000 metric tons of copper and 350,000 ounces of gold every year for 20 years from an open pit 3km long, 2.5km wide and eventually 800m deep.

Xstrata says this would add one percentage point to the Philippines’ GDP.
But to get to that point Xstrata must first deal with a complex mosaic of local politics, tribal and village interests, landowners and farmers, opposition from the Church, NGOs, as well as a violent local culture where gunslinging is commonplace.
Opponents say that the mine will destroy the ecosystem, endanger agriculture and irreparably damage the lives of thousands of people - indigenous people especially.
Ban on open pits
But given the scale of the resource - 13.5 million metric tons of copper and 15.8 million ounces of gold worth a collective US$150 billion at today’s prices - the chances of it staying in the ground appear slim.

Anecdotal evidence suggests locals, impressed by the largesse that already flows from the SMI coffers, are swinging behind the idea although even local politicians are saying they are getting mixed signals on the levels of support.

On the face of it, the Church and other NGO opponents currently have the upper hand in the battle, with a province-wide ban on open-pit mining in place since last year.

The catch for them is that infrastructure work not covered by the ban is already under way.

Roads are being widened and trees felled while the company wages a PR war to convince locals the mine will make them rich and educate their children.

At the same time skeptics are being told that the environmental damage will be negligible and rehabilitation plans effective.
'Cultural genocide'
Sister Susan Bolanio, a former social action director of the Marbel diocese who runs a dispensary for the poor in downtown General Santos, is having none of that.
To her Tampakan is “cultural genocide” for the tribal people it will uproot and a disaster for the local watershed.
“We’ve never seen any benefits from mining in the Philippines despite the assurances we always get from the foreign companies.

“How can they replace the mountain they dig away? If they rebuild it as they say they will, the rains will just come and wash it away.”

The company doesn’t argue with her on that point at least.

“We are not replacing any mountains. That would be an impossible engineering feat. We have never said we would do that,” an Australian mining executive says when tackled over the nun’s misgivings.

But Sister Bolanio is not alone her mistrust of global mining companies based on past experience.

“Mining has a terrible reputation in the Philippines and the problem in Tampakan is that the community is so misinformed,” says Pedro Walpole, a priest who has worked in the Philippines for decades.

“There are questions that still need answering.

“Here’s two: ‘where does the rubble really go?’ and ‘how many hundreds of thousands of trucks carrying arsenic are going to be traveling through the area?’“

Local opponents are equally as tough-minded.

In a sweltering concrete meeting hall behind the Sto Nino Parish church in Tampakan town, about 30 local community and Church anti-mining activists gather to discuss strategy.

Father Romeo Buenaobra, the social action commissioner for Marbel diocese, chairs the meeting. He speaks fast with a obviously often-practiced script.
Power and cash
“We do not believe the benefits will outweigh the negatives. In fact our studies show the negatives outweigh any benefits many times over. The environmental damage will be just too great,” he says.

Buenaobra knows the weight of power and cash is against him but says he has no doubts he can withstand it.

“I know there are very great pressures from national government and the business sector on the provincial government to cave in. But we keep telling the provincial government ‘we put you in there’.

“In the end we hope to unite the whole country against open pit mining.”

He says it is vital that SMI release the results of its its long-awaited Environmental Impact Assessment that was due last September but has yet to be presented despite two subsequent deadlines.

“Why are they not being transparent? They have commissioned so many studies but we have never seen them. We want to see these and show them to our technical people.

“Instead they just keep stalling on the date of release of the EIS. This is very deceptive and designed to create chaos in the community.”
Fortified compound
Chaos is also on the company’s mind. SMI facilities have been attacked in the past and contractors killed. The company’s local headquarters is a fortified compound in the center of General Santos City.

Before we can even talk about the mine, there are two compulsory security briefings. Both cover much the same issues: keep a low profile, don’t go out after dark, don’t go out alone, keep in touch with the security control room - and wear your seatbelt.

They are most insistent. Especially on the seatbelt.

“Not that we are saying that this area is chaotic,” says the briefer.

Security issues take up half the morning, leaving an hour or so to run through the project.

The mine will add US$27 billion to the Philippine economy, deliver US$5 billion in taxes and US$300 million in royalties to local indigenous people, the company says.

It will create 8,000 jobs, while community programs are already providing thousands of educational scholarships and health facilities.

The company has planted more than 500,000 seedlings since 2005 to replace some of the trees that will be removed.
Hurdles to jump
The company still has some hurdles to jump before it can get the mine up and running. It must win the endorsements of the national government, at least two of the three local government authorities and the company’s own shareholders. None of that is possible without the delayed environmental impact study.

“The EIA will be released by the middle of the year,” says John Arnaldo, SMI’s communications director.

He acknowledges that the company has its work cut out to convince detractors the project will not do more harm than good. But he insists it is making headway and that operations are still due to start on schedule in 2016.

“We are looking for a positive collaboration with our stakeholders,” says Arnaldo.

Mostly that means money - and quite a lot of it - for the more than 900 households that must be moved from the mine area, scholarships for local children and health facilities for all.

“This is not about money,” says Pedro Walpole.

“It’s about people who have had no chance to develop the cultural and social coherence by which to engage with a broader society - one that previously gave them nothing and one in which they had no basis to participate.

“Now they have to find a way to live with these new dynamics.

“Mining cannot wait a generation for this understanding to form and so the cultural and social fiber falls apart.

“This is not about keeping things the way they are but allowing an integration and social uplifting that is not just material.

“Who benefits? Some local government officials and the national treasury, perhaps?”

And so the battle lines are drawn.

This is first of three ucanews.com reports on the conflict between mining and local people's lives in Mindanao
Next: All quiet on the southern front

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