Mammoth Tampakan project hits snag as local court upholds ban on open-pit mining
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Tampakan, South Cotabato.
A local court has thrown out a motion to invalidate a local environmental code that bans open-pit mining in the province of South Cotabato, in southern Philippines.
In a court ruling issued recently, Judge Vicente Peña upheld the legality of the code, citing provisions in the Constitution, the Local Government Code, and an administrative order of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
This decision has implications for the controversial Tampakan Gold-Copper Project (TGCP), an open-pit mining project that straddles four provinces in the island of Mindanao, including South Cotabato. TGCP is operated by Sagittarius Mines, Incorporated (SMI), and is one of the largest open-pit mine projects in Asia.
“This court ruling is an answered prayer. The decision comes at a propitious time when our natural resources need the most protection, when the natural environment is threatened by human actions. The Church is currently celebrating the ‘season of creation,’ which invites Christians across the world to pray and care for nature. The Church remains steadfast in its mission to safeguard nature and to oppose projects which desecrate what God created,” said Fr. Jerome Millan, of the Tampakan Forum, a coalition of solidarity groups opposing the TGCP.
“The court decision affirms the autonomy of local governments over the stewardship and protection of the environment as enshrined in law,” said Maya Quirino, advocacy coordinator of the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC) - Friends of the Earth Philippines. LRC works with a group of indigenous people that is against the Tampakan project.
“At a time when there are contentious national policies that threaten to further exploit our natural resources and erode people’s right to a balanced and healthful ecology, this decision is heartening and gives courage to other local governments to follow suit. This mammoth project threatens a critical biodiversity area and could displace communities,” she said.
The local court decision was issued on the heels of the termination of the Memorandum of Agreement between the Municipality of Tampakan and SMI. In a resolution signed on 10 August 2020, the municipality said that the agreement was “disadvantageous to the residents of Tampakan and unduly ties the hands of the local government of Tampakan as parens patriae [a principle that political authority carries with it the responsibility for protection of citizens] to protect its people and the environment.”
Rene Pamplona, who heads the Convergence of Initiative for Environmental Justice, similarly welcomed the decision of the local court. “It is reassuring to know that a local court has sided with local communities. We oppose the Tampakan mining project because it poses a threat to our way of life, our food and water sources, and our livelihoods. This court ruling, and the recent decision of the local government to terminate its agreement with SMI, give us hope that the project will be finally stopped,” he said.
High ecological values
A risk-mapping assessment by the Environmental Science for Social Change and World Resources Institute found that TGCP “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.”[i]
TGCP covers an area of around 10,000 hectares, of which portion includes rainforest and agricultural land that will be cleared for the project. This, according to the same ESSC study, “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.”
Meanwhile, in July 2020, the Office of the President had restored the environmental compliance certificate (ECC) of TGCP.[ii] The ECC for TGCP had been cancelled by then environment secretary Gina Lopez due to numerous violations. The Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) No. 02-95-XI issued by the National Government in favor of SMI on March 22, 1995 expired on March 21, 2020. Meanwhile, the DENR has issued a statement that mining will be pursued as an economic recovery strategy from the COVID-19 pandemic.[iii]
An alternative mining bill
The local court decision, as well as the environmental code of South Cotabato, could receive further legal protection with the Alternative Minerals Management Bill, still pending in Congress.
“A local government choosing to close off an area to mining must be enshrined in a national law. The Alternative Minerals Management Bill provides for declaring a list of ‘no-go mining zones’, or areas where mining is disallowed. Ordinances which prohibit mining in local areas is part of this list. A local court affirming the jurisdiction of a local government in the care of the environment is an encouraging sign for local governments across the country who wish to pass a similar measure,” said Quirino, who also coordinates the SOS Yamang Bayan Network, a multi-sectoral alliance of non-governmental organizations, indigenous peoples, faith-based groups, youth, and artists pushing for the AMMB.
[i] See Opening the Tampakan Box. Environment Studies for Social Change. https://essc.org.ph/content/view/605/153/ [ii] See report on the restoration of TGCP’s ECC here: https://mb.com.ph/2020/07/13/op-restores-ecc-for-5-9-b-tampakan-project/ [iii] See statement of the DENR on mining as an economic recovery strategy here: https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/742025/denr-eyes-mining-river-dredging-to-spur-economic-recovery-amid-covid-19/story/