27 January 2019, Manila, Philippines – A legal case is breathing new life into the controversial Tampakan Gold-Copper Project (TGCP), the largest open-pit mine in the Philippines and one of the largest open-pit mines in the world.
TGCP was suspended following the issuance of the provincial government of South Cotabato of an environmental code that banned open-pit mining in the province. Open-pit mining, a mining method that excavates the surface of a mountain to extract minerals, causes irreversible damage to the environment. According to a study by the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC), a whopping 4,000 hectares of forest land, equivalent to the size of the city of Manila, will be cleared for TGCP.
The resumption of TGCP spells disaster for the environment and indigenous peoples, according to Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), one of the solidarity groups supporting local opposition to the project.
“The Tampakan mining project will destroy ecosystems in the provinces of South Cotabato, Saranggani, Sultan Kudarat, and Davao del Sur. It will endanger the water supply of these provinces. Southern Mindanao is considered the country’s food basket; environmental hazards produced by this monster project will adversely affect the agricultural production of its provinces and consequently the country’s food security and ecological balance,” according to Atty. Ryan Roset, a spokesperson for LRC.
A case for declaratory relief was filed by Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI) against the provincial government of South Cotabato for issuing the local code banning open-pit mining. The local code, SMI argued, was a contravention of Republic Act 7942, or the 1995 Mining Act, which allows open-pit mining. But SMI is getting ahead of itself, according to Roset.
“SMI is putting the cart before the horse. It is filing a case to nullify a local environmental code, and yet it has not fully secured the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of the B’laan indigenous people for this project. The FPIC is indispensable before any commercial activity can proceed in the ancestral domain of an indigenous people, as mandated by the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA), because it is inextricably intertwined with their inherent right to self-determination. The aggressive push for development cannot do away with indigenous peoples’ rights. The local ordinance reflects the will of the people, which is supreme to the profit-centric aspirations of SMI,” said Roset.
LRC also pointed out the spate of earthquakes in Mindanao, with South Cotabato as the epicenter of one of the recent earthquakes, should concern SMI, and the government: having a mine site covering thousands of hectares of land would put residents of the province in grave peril. LRC also called on the national government to uphold the wisdom of the province of South Cotabato in enacting the environmental code. Local governments are in the best position to decide the welfare of people within their jurisdiction, as codified in the Local Government Code of 1991.
A risk-mapping assessment by the ESSC, World Resources Institute, and other organizations found that “the Tampakan project site belongs to an area of high ecological values (which comprise protected areas, primary forests, mangroves, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites), high groundwater vulnerability (very likely affecting groundwater quantity and quality), medium-high vulnerability to watershed stress, medium social vulnerability (based on functional literacy, welfare and NGO/people’s organization membership), and high seismic risk.”
The clearing of 4,000 hectares of forest lands “will remove topsoil and destroy wildlife in an area with high unique biodiversity, with over 1,000 floral species and 280 recorded fauna species, of which 30% are endemic to the Philippines, and over 50 species are already under threat of extinction. The excavation itself will break into, disrupt, de-water and degrade the aquifer in the area,” according to the same ESSC study. (This forest land is, in fact, only a small part of the total area awarded to TGCP, which is around 23,600 hectares, according to ESSC.)
This move of SMI to nullify the local code of South Cotabato also underscores the need to repeal the 1995 Mining Act. LRC, as well as other NGOs belonging to the SOS Yamang Bayan Network, is advocating for the passage of the Alternative Minerals Management Bill (AMMB), a bill filed by Congressman Lawrence Fortun in the House of Representatives and by Senator Risa Hontiveros in the Senate. The AMMB prohibits open-pit mining as well as disallows mining in important areas such as critical watersheds, prime agricultural lands, key biodiversity areas, among others. //