Filipino court upholds open-pit mining ban in Mindanao

  • A court upheld the ban on surface mining in the Philippine province of South Cotabato, home to the largest known untapped deposits of copper and gold in Southeast Asia.
  • The move is the latest setback for Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI), which holds the mining license, after the municipality where the deposits are located abandoned its development license in August.
  • SMI supporters filed a petition in January 2019 seeking an injunction against the mining ban in place since 2010.
  • But the court ruled the ban was in line with applicable laws and regulations, including the Philippine Constitution, in a decision widely hailed by environmental, religious and indigenous rights advocates.

SOUTH COTABATO, Philippines – A Philippine court has inflicted yet another setback on the company seeking to mine Southeast Asia’s largest untapped copper and gold deposits, ruling to uphold the ban on type of mining destructive proposed.

In its October 12 ruling, the South Cotabato provincial court dismissed an injunction against the surface mining ban that has been in place in the province for 10 years. Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI), the developer of the planned mine in the town of South Cotabato in Tampakan, was not a petitioner in this case.

The move comes two months after councilors in Tampakan, where the depots are located, terminated the city’s Municipal Master Agreement (MPA) with SMI. The agreement, governing development of the proposed mine, set out rental rates for land under indigenous Blaan communities, among the company’s other financial and social obligations.

In its August 10 resolution, the city council announced that it was no longer interested in revising or updating the 2009 GPA with the company, but was still open to creating or formulating a new deal, which meant that SMI could still pursue the $ 5.9 billion Tampakan project. under a new municipal agreement.

But the recent court ruling makes that prospect less likely. It follows a petition filed in January 2019 by pro-mining groups seeking to overturn the ban on surface mining in South Cotabato’s environmental code since 2010. SMI had recognized before that the Only the most viable way to gain access to Tampakan’s copper and gold reserves would be to operate a surface mine. Despite obtaining its license in 1995, the company never started operations.

Power lines provide electricity to residents of the Tampakan Project in this photo taken on January 16, 2020. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento

The denied petition was filed by the early 1980s Tampakan dealers, SouthCot Mining Corp. and Tampakan Mining Corp., as well as by government-recognized “indigenous cultural communities” of Bongmal, Danlag and Fulo Bato. These are not necessarily the formal leadership structures as recognized by indigenous communities. Another petitioner is Kiblawan CADT-26, the holder of an ancestral domain certificate for part of the land that the project would occupy.

The Tampakan project has the potential to produce an average of 375,000 tonnes of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold in concentrate per year over the proposed 17-year mine life. The site straddles the provinces of South Cotabato, where most of the deposits are located, and Sultan Kudarat and Davao del Sur, all located on the southern island of Mindanao.

In the 31-page South Cotabato court decision, a copy of which Mongabay obtained on October 16, Judge Vicente Peña ruled that the provincial ban on surface mining “is not invalid,” as l ‘had supported the petitioners, and in fact complies with higher laws and regulations, including the Philippine Constitution. He added that this was also in line with a 2017 order from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, “Ban on surface mining method for copper, gold, silver and complex minerals in the country”.

Peña noted that the ban is also part of “a global trend, with governments around the world claiming that national environmental regimes are blocking or halting surface mining.”

In Central America, Costa Rica and El Salvador have imposed restrictions on future mining in their territories, the former imposing a nationwide ban on surface gold mining while the latter was the first country to impose a general ban on all forms of metal mining. , wrote Peña.

The history of mining in the Philippines “shows that most, if not all, surface mines ended up becoming perpetual liabilities, causing negative impacts on the environment,” the judge added, “in particularly due to the generation of acidic and / or heavy metals – laden water, erosion of mining waste landfills and / or vulnerability of waste rock dikes to geological hazards.

Map of the Tampakan mining concession and watersheds. Image courtesy of CCCP

He also criticized the applicants for not having submitted certified copies of the documents and other exhibits during the hearing. In his final decision, he denied the petitioners’ request for an injunction against the ban.

The decision comes days after the relaunch of the Tampakan Forum, a coalition of various organizations, including the local diocese of the Catholic Church, which fiercely oppose the mining project. Bishop Cirilo Casicas, who heads the diocese of Marbel, said the coalition had been revived to “trigger systematic and sustained opposition” to the project.

SMI has not issued a response to the court ruling or to the relaunch of the Tampakan Forum. He also did not respond to the termination of his MPA by the Tampakan City Council. Bae Dalena Samling, head of the Danlag Tribal Council, which supports the SMI business, said they were puzzled to learn that the court had rejected their request.

“We are talking with our lawyers to appeal the case,” she told Mongabay by phone.

Jérôme Millan, director of the Center for Social Action of the diocese, hailed the court’s decision as “an answered prayer”.

“The decision comes at a propitious time when our natural resources are most in need of protection, when the natural environment is threatened by human actions,” he said, adding that the decision coincides with the “harvest season”. creation ”of the Catholic Church, in which Pope Francis called the faithful around the world to pray and take care of nature.

“The Church remains steadfast in her mission to save nature and oppose projects that desecrate what God has created,” said Millan.

Maya Quirino, advocacy coordinator for the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center – Friends of the Earth Philippines, said the decision “is encouraging and gives courage to other local governments to do the same.”

“The court ruling affirms the autonomy of local governments in matters of environmental management and protection, as enshrined in law,” she said.

SMI’s Tampakan mining site in Mindanao. Image courtesy of SMI

According to Quirino, the Tampakan project “threatens a critical area for biodiversity and could displace communities”.

The Philippine Misereor Partnership, Inc. (PMPI), a network of some 250 civil society organizations advocating for the protection of the rights of people, especially in small communities, and the rights of nature, also welcomed the decision. PMPI said in a statement that South Cotabato’s surface mining ban “has for many years protected the community from total looting by SMI.”

He added that “this victory will contribute to efforts to safeguard Mindanao’s biodiversity of land and water resources, the very source of life and culture for the Blaan ethnic tribe, Muslims and Christians, and the source of livelihood for them. farmers and fishermen in southern Cotabato. “

A risk mapping assessment carried out by the Jesuit Institute of Environmental Sciences for Social Change (ESSC) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that the Tampakan project site “belongs to an area of ​​high ecological values, high vulnerability of groundwater, medium to high vulnerability to watershed stress, medium social vulnerability and high seismic risk.

He said the mining project, which would cover approximately 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres), “will remove topsoil and destroy wildlife in a unique high biodiversity area, with more than 1,000 floral species and 280 recorded wildlife species. , of which 30% are endemic to the Philippines, and more than 50 species are already threatened with extinction. The excavation itself will penetrate, disturb, drain and degrade the region’s aquifer.

Related stories:

Banner image of the controversial Tampakan project, which straddles dispersed communities belonging primarily to the ethnic Blaan tribe, January 16, 2020. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.

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About William J. Harris

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