Philippines mining during COVID: Protest and concern under quarantinePublished by MAC on 2020-05-24
Source: Mongabay, Reuters
Rights defenders under threat for protesting a militaristic response to the virus
Mining has long been contentious in the Philippines, and the advent of COVID-19 has continued - and in some cases accentuated - that situation. (See recent post on MAC: Philippines: Civil society and UN experts call for rights to be respected at Didipio)
Enviromental rights defenders have already been under threat for protesting on mining, and the militaristic response to the virus has raised further concerns.
Being an archipelago some Philippines islands have been quarantining themselves against COVID-19, and there have been serious concerns that vessels exporting ore are carrying the pandemic with them.
Miners have now been allowed to operate at full capacity as the country begins to relax coronavirus-containment measures. What that means for local communities will only become clear later.
Deaths, arrests and protests as Philippines re-emerges from lockdown
21 May 2020
- Environmental defenders have come under sustained threats during the Philippines’ COVID-19 lockdown, which saw one activist shot and killed by unknown assailants and at least 10 environmental and land defenders arrested.
- The most recent arrest is that of six farmers who opposed coal power projects and land-grabbing cases, while the fatality recorded during this period is an environmental and political activist who was gunned down in his home on April 30.
- President Rodrigo Duterte’s two-month lockdown mobilized the country’s police forces to man checkpoints, where they arrested 120,000 people for violations of quarantine guidelines, human rights activists say.
- Groups have denounced Duterte’s “militaristic approach” as an excuse to crack down on activists, members of the opposition, and land and environmental defenders amid the pandemic.
MANILA — The Philippines’ COVID-19 lockdown has exacerbated threats to activists fighting for their lands and their environment, with least 10 land defenders swept up in a series of arrests by security forces during the two-month lockdown period. Another defender, who was providing relief aid, was shot and killed by unknown assailants.
The country was under lockdown, known as an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), from March 17 to May 15 to contain the spread of COVID-19 infections, and is now transitioning into more relaxed quarantine measures in most areas.
During the ECQ period, government security forces manned checkpoints, apprehending and arresting around 120,000 for violating lockdown guidelines, which prohibit mass gatherings, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.
The lockdown justified arrests and assaults on defenders in the guise of enforcing COVID-19 measures, Leon Dulce of the progressive environmental group Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) told Mongabay. “Both the infectious virus spread and the draconian government response pose challenges to environmental defenders,” he said. “Defenders need more protection from both the contagion and from repression.”
The lockdown saw the killing of an environmental and political activist in the Philippines, labeled the most dangerous country for land and environmental defenders by the international watchdog Global Witness in a report last year.
Jose Reynaldo “Jory” Porquia was gunned down in Iloilo City in the central Philippines by unidentified assailants on April 30. Porquia was one of the founding members of Bayan Muna, a left-leaning organization that currently holds congressional seats in the Philippines’ party-list system, in which underrepresented or single-issue parties receive a quota of congressional seats. He was shot nine times by four assailants in his rented home after providing relief assistance to urban poor communities.
Porquia was a well-known community organizer in the province and the driving force behind the Madia-as Ecological Movement, the biggest environmental organization in the Panay region. Porquia campaigned against large-scale mining, coal power plants, and mega-dam projects in Iloilo and nearby Capiz province. He also helped provide relief, livelihood and shelter assistance to victims of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
On May 2, Porquia’s daughter, Krisma Niña Porquia, and 41 other colleagues and friends were arrested while on their way to light candles and lay wreaths at the site of the murder. Among those arrested were Marco Sulayao, an activist priest of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente and a known opponent of large-scale mining in the islands of Panay and Guimaras; and lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen of the National Union of People’s Lawyers-Panay, who led legal actions for the rehabilitation of Boracay Island. They have since been released on bail.
A few days into the lockdown, on March 19, indigenous people leader Gloria Tomalon was arrested in her home in the province of Surigao del Sur in Mindanao. The police identified Tomalon as a leader of the outlawed New People’s Army (NPA). She is the sister of Bayan Muna representative Eufemia Cullamat.
Tomalon is the chair of KATRIBUMMU, an indigenous peoples’ organization in Mindanao, which has been blocking the attempts of five large-scale mining companies to enter and operate in their ancestral lands and forests in the Andap Valley Complex. The area is the site of armed clashes that triggered the displacement of some 1,600 indigenous people in 2018.
The most recent wave of arrests includes that of six farmers in the province of Batangas, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Manila. The group was arrested in their homes on May 11 by a contingent of personnel that arrived in at least 17 government vehicles and two military trucks, according to reports from residents.
Peasant group leader head Virgilio Vidal was arrested with his brother, Marcelo Vidal; village councilors Leovino Julongbayan and Doroteo Bautista; July Julongbayan; and Roilan Tenorio. The arrests came a day after members of the group received cash aid from the government’s stimulus package. Julongbayan and Bautista were also involved in administering cash aid as village officials.
The group is part of the Samahan ng mga Magsasaka sa Coral ni Lopez (Samacolo), which has been fighting against land-grabbing cases since the 1980s and is opposed to the 900-megawatt coal-fired power plant in their municipality in Calaca.
Governance and policy experts as well as human rights groups earlier raised concerns over President Rodrigo Duterte’s “militaristic approach” when dealing with the pandemic.
“A militaristic approach is successful in a pandemic if the security forces are wearing PPE [personal protective equipment],” environmental lawyer and policy expert Antonio La Viña said in an online briefing last month. “With what we’ve seen in the Philippines, this is not the case. Our soldiers are not trained in biological warfare.”
Adding to the bottleneck is the national government’s centralized approach in providing relief goods and aid, La Viña said, which obliges groups to register first with the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
Without a permit, groups were arrested for violating lockdown protocols, which prohibit mass gatherings. This resulted in numerous arrests, including members of civil society organizations providing aid during the lockdown.
“The repression amidst the militaristic lockdown begs the question of the sincerity of the government in providing people with much-needed relief,” Lia Alonzo of the Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines (CECP) said in a statement. “It is a matter of concern that the COVID-19 pandemic related executive order and policies were being used to block humanitarian aid and silence rights workers.”
Global human rights groups have also denounced the arrests during the lockdown, which they say are being done as a means of implementing a “de facto martial law throughout the country,” according to Patricia Fox, a nun and spokeswoman from the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP).
The group launched protests against Duterte in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Washington D.C., Portland, San Francisco, New York, New Jersey, Honolulu, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Seoul, Hong Kong, Sydney and Manila.
“Filipino organizations who have been extending relief to those affected by the lockdown are being targeted, arrested and red-tagged by authorities,” said ICHRP chair Peter Murphy. “The utter disregard for life and attacks against civilians doing humanitarian work merits international condemnation.”
At least 51 political prisoners are currently incarcerated for defending their land and environment in the Philippines. Environmental groups and individuals have also been tagged as alleged fronts of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines through online means or through public statements. These groups include the Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC Phils), Climate Change Network for Community-based Initiatives (CCNCI), Citizens’ Disaster Response Center (CDRC), and the Philippine Network for Food Security Programs (PNFSP).
A Philippine island locked down, but its mine didn’t — and infections mounted
by Jun N. Aguirre
18 May 2020
- Activists, clergy and politicians have demanded an investigation into the continued coal-mining activity on the Philippine island of Semirara while the region was supposed to be under strict quarantine.
- The first case on the island, and in the province of Antique, came from mine operator SMPC’s hospital and was confirmed on April 7; as of May 12, there are nine cases believed to have come from Semirara.
- Between the first case and May 15, when Semirara was under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and mining activity was therefore not permitted, SMPC reportedly continued operating, including loading a foreign vessel with coal for export.
- The company says it acted in accordance with the government’s COVID-19 protocols and in coordination with the relevant agencies.
ANTIQUE, Philippines — Calls are mounting for an investigation into ongoing coal-mining activity on Semirara Island in the central Philippines, amid a series of confirmed COVID-19 cases originating from the site.
Reports from the regional health department indicate that Antique province, where the island is located, registered its first COVID-19 case on April 7, with the patient coming from Semirara, a remote island accessible only by charter plane or motorboat.
Provincial health officer Ric Noel Nacionayo said the 74-year-old male patient was originally from Metro Manila and arrived at the Semirara Mining and Power Corporation (SMPC) mine on March 4. He sought treatment at the SMPC hospital on March 19 for COVID-19-like symptoms and was immediately tested before being confirmed as having the infectious disease on April 7.
Since then, local authorities in Semirara imposed an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) to contain the spread of the virus. Under an ECQ, only necessary businesses can operate. This doesn’t include mining. The ECQ remained in place until May 15, after which it was downgraded to a general community quarantine (GCQ), which does allow for mining activity.
But in the time that the ECQ was in force, and when mining was ostensibly on hold, two more cases were recorded from Semirara, where SMPC has since 1999 operated one of the biggest open-pit coal mines in Asia. Confirmed on April 17, both patients were co-workers of the first patient.
On April 20, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Antique reached nine: four from the municipality of Caluya, which includes Semirara, and five from the municipality of Pandan on the Antique mainland. The Pandan cases reportedly originated from Semirara. Throughout the ECQ period, groups reported private planes, motorboats and vessels loading coal for export to China continuing to ply the mine.
As of May 12, Antique province had 17 confirmed coronavirus cases, nine of them from Semirara. Contact tracing is underway, according to the provincial health office.
“I believe the COVID-19 cases were the result of the unhampered operation of the SMPC,” said Virgilio “Bong” Sanchez, president of the Save Antique Movement (SAM). “There are few health officers on the island monitoring the health protocol of the workers. Crews from the boats fetching the coal were not being examined.”
Edione Febrero, priest director of the Diocesan Social Action Center, said his organization had sent a letter, dated April 24, to the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), asking them to look into the ongoing coal mining operation in Semirara.
“It is most grievous that the COVID-19 pandemic befalls us now,” Febrero said. “In view of this, the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Jose de Antique strongly appeals to the DOE, DENR, the provincial government and the local government of Caluya to stop the coal mining and shipment operations in Semirara and to order all foreign ships to immediately return to their ports of origin until no new infections are recorded from the island and from ports of origin mentioned, confirmed patients have fully recovered, and all confirmed cases are closed.”
The Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMJC) also joined the mounting calls to investigate the operations, saying SMPC violated the Philippines’ “Bayanihan We Heal as One Act” by not enforcing physical distancing in the workplace. PMCJ said the shipping of mining materials and goods by a foreign vessel for export constituted a non-essential service in the time of COVID-19. Allowing foreign vessels during a period of nationwide lockdown defeats the purpose of the Bayanihan Act, it added.
Loren Legarda, a congresswoman representing Antique, has also called for an investigation into the operations of the SMPC mine. “I want a full blown investigation into semirara coal mining, the entry of Chinese vessels, previous deaths caused by unsafe mine operations, possible violations of health protocols during covid, transparency in using national wealth funds,” she tweeted on April 19. She also called for the island to be on lockdown.
Antique Governor Rhodora Cadiao said her government does not have a hand in SMPC’s operation during the ECQ. “Our role is to only monitor the environmental standards of their operation,” she said. “In case of a complaint filed for alleged violations, we refer it directly to the DENR.”
In a statement, SMPC said the docking and continuing operation of foreign vessels on the island are in accordance with the government’s COVID-19 protocols and carried out in coordination with concerned agencies. It said it had since February prohibited crew members of foreign vessels from disembarking, in compliance with the “no disembarkation” policy enforced by local authorities. All those involved in operations follow health guidelines, including social distancing, wearing of masks and hazardous material suits, SMPC said.
But Sanchez said residents are afraid to complain against SMPC. “They are afraid they will be reprimanded by the local government,” he said.
Philippine miners can fully operate, but quarantine rules set
13 May 2020
MANILA - Miners in the Philippines, one of the world’s top nickel ore suppliers, are allowed to operate at full capacity as the country begins to relax coronavirus-containment measures, but they must follow strict safety protocols, the government said.
The Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) has released guidelines for the resumption of mining and mineral processing operations ahead of the May 16 easing of coronavirus-related restrictions across most of the country now deemed at low risk.
“A workforce anywhere between 50% up to full operational capacity at the mine/plant site shall be allowed, without prejudice to work-from-home or other alternative work arrangements,” MGB Director Wilfredo Moncano said on Wednesday in an order.
Miners, however, will have to provide medical equipment and supplies such as thermal scanners, face masks, hand gloves, and hand sanitizers, and transportation to and from mine and plant sites, to protect their workers against infection, he said.
The Philippines’ top nickel miners have restarted mining and shipping operations this month in the main ore-producing region of Caraga in the south, following shutdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But they said the resumption would be gradual.
A “no face mask, no entry” policy and physical distancing shall be strictly implemented at work areas, which shall also be regularly disinfected, Moncano said.
Cargo vessels shipping minerals shall observe a 14-day quarantine starting from their departure at the last port of call, Moncano said. No vessel crew, however, shall be allowed to disembark.
The local mining industry is complying with the health and safety protocols while adjusting to the “new normal”, assured Dante Bravo, president of the Philippine Nickel Industry Association.