A mountainside in the province of Nueva Vizcaya used to be rice terraces built by the Ifugao tribes in the northern Philippines. Large parcels of land in the province are now mined by a foreign-funded mining corporation. (Photo by Romy Mariano)
Three mountains once loomed on the other side of a cove on the border of Surigao del Sur and Surigao del Norte provinces in the southern Philippines. Now, only one remains.
"I am jarred by how fast the mountains disappear," said Velvet, a researcher for anti-mining alliance Caraga Watch who travels around the southern Mindanao region several times a year.
"One year there, the next year, gone. They ship earth to be processed in other countries," she said.
At the foot of a bare mountain, she pointed to straggly patches of green and a river gliding on the last leg of its journey from peak to sea.
"This used to be the largest spawning area for fish but the mangroves are almost gone."
"Most of this," Velvet said, waving her arms as she turned full circle, "is the ancestral land of the lumad."
The indigenous people of Mindanao region in the southern Philippines are collectively known as lumad.
The battle for indigenous peoples’ lands is the elephant in the room whenever the Philippine government discusses efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Over two administrations, sustainable development programs have kept pace with anti-insurgency campaigns, snuffing out lives of tribal people and destroying their environment.
More than 60 lumad have been killed in the past six years. Military operations against communist guerrillas have forced at least 7,000 people to evacuate.
Mudslides have killed thousands on once pristine lands. Laterite runoff from nickel mines has choked marine life to death.
Now the battle is over coal and palm oil plantations.
An open-pit mine in Didipio town in Nueva Vizcaya province. (Photo by Romy Mariano)
'A green blanket'
In Tandag City in Surigao del Sur province, more than 3,000 displaced lumad spend nights reciting elegies to ancestral lands.
"A green blanket once covered our mountains, flowing down from cloud-covered peaks to the sea," declared 14-year old Amelyn.
She whispered as she covers her eyes. "There are only craters and choking dust, the color of dried blood, swirling through the land."
Amelyn and her people come from the mineral-rich Andap Valley complex in Surigao del Sur. Their crime: They belong to a lumad community resisting the fate of neighbors who were displaced by a planned mining operation.
The government has approved mining applications in Amelyn’s village, including one by a mining company responsible for the country’s highest mining death toll.
New mining operations have already started since the villagers fled starting Sept. 1.
The lumad of the Andap Valley are guardians of the world’s biggest coal reserve, of the highest grade.
Aside from approving coal mine applications, the government is pushing construction of coal-fired power plants in Surigao del Sur and nearby provinces.
Officials say four plants will connect early next year to the Mindanao grid.
But coal plants are the biggest source of man-made carbon dioxide emissions linked to climate change, according to Greenpeace International.
The organization calls coal "the single greatest threat facing our climate" for the irreparable damage it brings to the environment, people’s health and communities.
Residents around the mining site in Didipio town in Nueva Vizcaya province complain of inhaling what they describe as toxic fumes. (Photo by Romy Mariano)
Resistance turns deadly
The Philippines’ original energy blueprint was a mix of one-third coal, one-third natural gas and one-third renewable sources. But coal plants are overtaking the other sectors, according to Francis Giles Puno, an executive of a private power firm.
"That means we’ll have a more carbonizing energy program," he said.
Lumad of the Andap Valley have long resisted the entry of mining. The stakes recently turned deadly.
A local tribal organization recorded one murder of an anti-mining leader last year. Pro-government militia have killed four men in the last three months, including the head teacher at Amelyn’s school.
The tribal people claimed the attack was punishment for rebellion. Civilian officials say all the victims were civilians and known community mediators. A mayor identified the last victim, killed this month, as an employee of his local government unit.
United Nations experts, the clergy, the governor, senators, and the head of the government human rights body have called for the disbandment of the rampaging militia gunmen and the arrest of the killers. The national government ignored the pleas. The attacks continue.
In recent years, approved and pending applications to start mining operations could double the half-million hectares in Mindanao already covered with mines, with 80 percent targeting lumad lands.
Commercial plantations, which now account for 12 percent of Mindanao’s land area, also threaten tribal communities. Rubber and palm oil, the chief cause of Indonesia’s deadly haze, figure prominently in the government’s 1.6 million-hectare expansion plan.
In the last ten years, oil palm plantations almost doubled their reach in Mindanao from about 23,000 hectares to almost 43,000 hectares.
Militia leaders told journalists in October that they have been promised new lands and financing for palm oil farms. Mining firms are also part of the government’s plan to replant 100,000 hectares of denuded forests and mangrove areas.
"They tell us not to worry because they will re-plant. But they’re cutting more forests for new mines," said Velvet. "They’re killing the land faster than anyone can say reforestation."
By the time the new trees attain maturity, the lumad may have perished, either to the gun, or to flight because poisoned land and waters can no longer sustain them.
Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.