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May 02 1996

Christian, Muslim and indigenous Filipinos in the southern Philippines have intensified protests against an Australian firm´s mining operation, citing a recent mine spill disaster in the north.

The Western Mining Corporation (WMC) is the first foreign firm to secure a Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA), which allows exploration, development and utilization of the country´s mineral resources for 25 years.

The agreement with the Australian firm covers an area of 99,400 hectares including parts of 4 provinces -- North Cotabato, South Cotabato, Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat -- on Mindanao, the main southern Philippine island.

Farmers fear that the rivers essential to the agriculture on which many of the region´s people depend will be polluted with waste once full-scale mining operations are underway, citing the recent spill on Marinduque Island.

In late March, an underground pipeline broke and leaked toxic waste from mining operations on the island 160 kilometers southeast of Manila into the Boac River for five days, causing illness among the local population.

During a meeting April 19, Mayor Clemente Bermudez of Columbio, Sultan Kudarat, 970 kilometers southeast of Manila, appealed for support for WMC on the basis of job opportunities and structural improvements for the community.

A statement of Columbio residents issued after the meeting, however, protested WMC´s disregard for indigenous people´s ancestral land rights.

About 17,000 tribal B´laan people could be displaced by mining operations.

According to the statement, the people of Columbio doubt the capability of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to monitor WMC activities, citing DENR´s negligence regarding the activities of the Marinduque Copper Mining Corporation.

Though WMC representatives proposed the creation of a "Multisectoral Monitoring Committee," opponents point to the fact that the firm cannot guarantee protection of the people, their cultures and the environment.

Damages can only be "minimized" and adverse impact on cultural values avoided "to the maximum extent possible," according to WMC representatives.

WMC opponents also criticized the government for placing 5 million hectares, mostly in southern Mindanao and northern Luzon, under FTAA consideration.

"The government should be caretakers of the environment and not instruments of its destruction," declared the Columbio residents´ statement.

Initiatives against WMC include a signature drive of Kidapawan diocese, to which the parish of Columbio belongs. Seven thousand signatures were collected during the Lenten season.

Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions priest Father Peter Geremia, director of the diocese´s Tribal Filipino Program, is coordinating the Church groups opposing WMC.

Marbel diocese in South Cotabato has issued a "Statement of Concern," quoting the prophet Isaiah as saying: "Woe to those who rob the poor of their rights and deprive my people of justice."

Three municipalities from the other affected provinces have also passed resolutions against the WMC operations in southern Mindanao.