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Through the thickets of mistrust

Are miners and their opponents even listening to one another?

The camp that will grow into a township for workers on the site of the Tampakan gold and copper project <i>Photograph ©Michael Coyne</i> The camp that will grow into a township for workers on the site of the Tampakan gold and copper project Photograph ©Michael Coyne
  • Bill Condie, General Santos
  • Philippines
  • April 11, 2011
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In the third and final part of our investigation into Xstrata's southern Philippines' copper and gold project, we look at whether there is any room for compromise between Church activists and foreign mining companies. The first part can be read here and the second here

Despite the uncompromising opposition to mining by many in the Church, some are still prepared to give the big foreign mining companies a break if they do the right thing.

Father Rey Carvyn Ondap, a Passionist priest in General Santos City, is campaigning hard against Xstrata’s Tampakan copper and gold project.

Only in his second year in the priesthood, he says he faces hostility for his position from many who would benefit from the mine.

"The first five years of your priesthood are supposed to be the honeymoon but they have put me in hell," he says.

“But I am not opposed to mining per se. If they followed the so-called responsible mining program then there would be no problem. We are not just fighting against the Tampakan mine, we are looking for a solution."

But there remains a gulf between foreigners with their experience of successful environmental and rehabilitation practices in their home countries and the dismal record of many projects in the Philippines.

“The problem for Xstrata is they got rid of Paul Dominguez, a man who knew mining and knew Mindanao, and then shoved all these Australians into the frontline,” says Jesuit Pedro Walpole, who has worked in the Philippines for decades.

“It’s little wonder they can’t communicate with the locals.

“With no Filipino in the company to tell the community what is happening in the company and with the project, it is just a black box.”

But the big mining companies’ supporters say opponents of the industry aren’t interested in finding out the truth about mining.

Manila-based environmental scientist, Australian Keith Halford, works as a consultant to mining companies on their impact.

“Mining companies have no chance to defend themselves. Opponents can say anything they like about the miners in the press -- any libelous or and completely wrong statements they want.

“From my experience we say ‘please come and have a look about how we perform’ but no one comes and takes up the invitation.”

Halford says that the cards are stacked against the big mining companies in the PR war.

“Sure, I’ve seen bad mining. I’m not pro-mining but pro-performance. I would like to see a reduction in the small-scale mining and the unproductive operators driven out. I am not saying all but the least responsible ones.

“The big guys at least have standards which they have to defend to their shareholders,” he says.

“There is a need to fund government departments and officials to get better people involved.

“If [opponents] are serious about the environment and welfare of the people it would be better to sit at the table and get an involvement in the process. That way you get some good for the country.”

Walpole says it is not that simple.

“It is easy to get a meeting with the big companies, but what we need is a responsible structure not a one-off.

“We did that with the World Bank review some years ago but then let the local chamber railroad the process and it basically was a dead end for future engagement,” he says.

Where he does agree with Halford -- a rare glimmer of any meeting of minds -- is the need to improve the quality of officialdom overseeing the industry.

“There are some very good people but there is just not the technical capacity to check on all these mines.

“The Philippines government is just not there to manage anything to do with mines.

“There is no competence to do the research needed,” he says.

Walpole says the experience of mining in the Philippines -- national or international -- is very poor.

“The disasters, understatements and lies have been massive, yet there have been mines, few certainly that have not been a source of disaster and have built local communities especially where government has been absent.

“But the Government should not use their absence to justify a mining company's presence in social development.

The role of the Church is critical, he believes, to protect local communities in an absence of a development program that paves the way for social development.

“We have had a history of human rights abuses in the country, it takes NGOs and the Church to hold out for justice and in this light as communities subjected to mining with no socio-cultural cohesion are destroyed -- today destroyed with money and bought out of it because we must mine now.”

Next in our look at mining operations and their impact on people’s lives turns to the massive coal mining projects in the India’s tribal area of Jharkhand.

PM13936.1649

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