Pushback from clergy and communists
Nestled some 1,300 meters above sea level, the proposed mining site remains untapped in the mountains of Tampakan more than three decades after the discovery of copper and gold reserves there.
Its ownership has changed hands several times. Australian firm Western Mining Corp. (WMC) made the original discovery in 1994, before selling the mining rights to SMI. The national government approved the transfer of the FTAA from WMC to SMI in 2001. Exploration activity resumed in 2002 with investments from Indophil Resources NL, also an Australian company, and the Mindanao-based conglomerate Alsons (Alcantara and Sons) Group.
Multinational miners Xstrata Copper and Glencore Plc. later became SMI shareholders; Glencore would go on to acquire Xstrata in 2013. In 2015, Alsons Group gained control of the Tampakan project after Glencore pulled out, and by December 2017, SMI’s company structure is “100 percent Filipino,” according to the Philippine government’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).
The cancellation of the municipal agreement is the latest setback for the Tampakan project, already blocked by a ban on open-pit mining imposed by the South Cotabato provincial government since 2010.
SMI and its supporters have challenged the legality of the ban, saying the extraction method doesn’t violate national mining laws. A local court has yet to render a decision in the case.
The project faced trouble even before the ban came into force a decade ago. These include security threats from communist rebels and opposition from the local Catholic church, environmentalists and some members of the Blaan tribe.
On New Year’s Day in 2008, communist rebels stormed and burned the SMI base camp in the village of Tablu in Tampakan municipality. The rebels fled with several firearms taken from company guards. The church, meanwhile, has long rejected the mining project, citing its potential environmental hazards as well as concerns over food security and the human rights of the Indigenous peoples in the affected area.
In 2017, the late former environment secretary, Gina Lopez, canceled the Tampakan project’s environmental compliance certificate (ECC) “due to environmental and social concerns.” But in July 2020, the MGB regional office revealed that Duterte’s office had restored the ECC, a decision that was in effect as early as May 6, 2019.
In a similar move, the firm’s 25-year FTAA, which was set to expire on March 21, 2020, was extended for another 12 years in an order that was dated June 8, 2016, but only made public in January 2020. The 12-year extension will allow SMI to operate the mine until 2032, with the possibility of a renewal through 2057.
Gearing up for extraction
Prior to the termination of the municipal agreement, the firm had been gearing up for the commercial production phase. In the past two years, SMI has spent at least 103 million pesos ($2.1 million) on repairing 17.4 kilometers (10.8 miles) of roads in at least two villages in the area, according to the 2019 company report.
The company calls itself a “responsible miner,” citing the commendations it received from the Presidential Mineral Industry Environmental Awards in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Local radio advertisements have been running in recent months repeating this “responsible miner” tag and touting the economic boost that the mine would have in transforming poor communities and changing thousands of lives through job creation.
Power supply lines, a major support facility for the mining operation, have already been put in place in the mountains of Tampakan, along with canals and gabions, while exploration studies to determine the stability of the ground for other support facilities are still underway.
On a slope near the SMI base camp in Tablu village, workers were seen in January putting in place soil erosion blankets made from coconut husks.
Escobillo said that month that SMI targets to start mining operations in three years if it can acquire the needed permits from the relevant government agencies, including the ECC from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and FPIC from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).
Indigenous opposition and bloodshed
While some Indigenous leaders support the project, others oppose it. Blaan tribal leader Daguel Capion, who used to lead an armed group against the project and has admitted to killing at least three construction workers on the site in 2011, warned of chaos and more bloodshed should SMI proceed with excavating the vast mineral deposits.
In 2013, SMI scaled down its operations, retrenching about 1,000 workers as part of a revised work plan that sought, among other things, to get approval from various government levels and agencies to move the project to the commercial production stage.
“In the years leading to and during the exploration phase, the company would approach and consult with us,” Capion told Mongabay in January. “But nowadays, there are no more negotiations; the community is being kept blind. I hope the company will be more transparent to us.”
At least six of Capion’s immediate family members and relatives, including his wife, Juvy, and their two children, were killed in separate instances within the Tampakan project area. Juvy and the children were killed in October 2012 during a military operation aimed at arresting Capion, who was then facing murder charges for the deaths of three people working for a road project funded by SMI the year before.
Capion, who used to work as a community relations officer for SMI before taking up arms in opposition to the Tampakan project, was subsequently arrested in 2015 in neighboring Sarangani province but released almost a year later due to insufficient evidence.
Before his arrest, he had admitted to killing the construction workers and had been linked to several other alleged murder and attempted murder cases targeting government troops and company guards in the mine development site.
Capion, who is highly regarded by his clan and for years has been recognised by environmentalists and the local Catholic church as a legitimate community leader until his group’s disgruntlement turned violent, warned that “more lives will be lost if the large mining project will be allowed to proceed” on the Blaan ancestral land.
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.