MAC: Mines and Communities

"protect Mt. Hamiguitan Or We Die"

Published by MAC on 2004-07-30
Source: MindaNews ()

"Protect Mt. Hamiguitan or we die”

Written by Froilan Gallardo

MACAMBOL, Mati, Davao Oriental (MindaNews/22 April) -- Higaonon Datu Manaon Victor Aying shuffled his feet as he rose to face the small gathering of Macambol residents intently listening to him.

Raising his voice slightly, the tribal leader said, “we will protect Mt. Hamiguitan and Pujada Bay or we will die.”

Everyone nodded approval as the Datu explained why they have to oppose the plan by BHP-Billiton Limited to open a nickel-copper mining project in Mt. Hamiguitan.

There is a gathering storm of opposition against the mining project here and residents are voicing their protests through small meetings like this.

The Datu said they are concerned the project will destroy the rich natural habitat of the Hamiguitan mountain range, the major source of nutrients for the bountiful fish found in Pujada Bay.

The rivers of Mt. Hamiguitan empty into Pujada Bay, which was declared a Protected Seascape and Landscape Area by President Fidel V. Ramos’ Proclamation 431 in July 1994.

Ten years later, on July 30, 2004, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed Republic Act 9303 declaring Mt. Hamiguitan range “and its vicinities” as protected area under the category of wildlife sanctuary “and its peripheral areas as buffer zone.”

The Philippine Eagle finds a nesting place in Mt. Hamiguitan. The mountain range is also a known habitat for the endangered Philippine Civet Cat and Philippine Boar and is home to thousands of hectares of Pygmy Forests, a rare natural phenomenon found only in parts of Southern California, Mexico and Central America.

Pujada Bay hosts endangered species such as dugong or sea cow, sea turtles, stingrays and is the major source of livelihood for Macambol’s 3,000 residents, many of whom are fisherfolk.

The Datu said they were surprised why the government gave BHP-Billiton the approval to mine nickel and copper in this delicate natural habitat. “We depend on the mountain for our food, water and wood. Mt. Hamiguitan has been good to us,” he said.

A year after President Arroyo declared Mt. Hamiguitan a protected wildlife sanctuary, then Environment Secretary Michael Defensor approved the applications of three companies “to explore and develop” nickel deposits in Mt. Hamiguitan. Defensor followed the actions of former Environment Secretary Elizea Gozun, who on June 8, 2004, approved the mining applications of four other companies on Mt. Hamiguitan.

The companies were given by the DENR 25 years of mining rights, renewable for another 25 years even as the area had been declared a protected landscape and seascape by Ramos as early as 1994 and even as a law, Republic Act 9303, had declared it a protected area and President Arroyo signed it into law on July 30, 2004.

Still, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, through its secretaries, approved mining in an area of 17,572 hectares on Mt. Hamiguitan, straddling the municipalities of Mati, San Isidro and Governor Generoso in Davao Oriental.

The seven companies -- Galactica Mining and Development Corporation, Mt. Peak Mining and Development Corporation; Oregon Mining and Development Corporation; Hopewell Mining Corporation; P.L. Goldman Mining and Development Corporation; Blue Ridge Minerals and Development Corporation and St. Patrick Mining and Development Corporation -- later formed Asiaticus Management Corporation or Amcor.

Amcor was able to get the financial backing of Australian firm BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company with interests in Africa and South America.

Last Feb. 24, Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes said BHP Billiton, in partnership with Filipino firms, Hallmark Mining Corporation and AustralAsia Link Mining Corporation, may invest $1.5 billion for its nickel mining project in Pujada Bay.

“It could be anywhere from $800 million to $1.5 billion. That is the cost of setting up this operation and also the processing plant,” Reyes told reporters.

He said BHP Billiton could start construction in 2010 of a processing plant with an annual capacity of 50,000 tons of nickel. Current estimates of Hamiguitan’s nickel deposits are about 50 million metric tons at a grade of 1.3 percent nickel.

The Philippine government welcomed BHP Billiton’s investment, hoping it would boost investments in the mining sector. The government has had little success in attracting big mining firms because of legal uncertainties, political risks and opposition from powerful religious leaders and environmentalists. The government wants to attract $6.5 billion in foreign mining investments but last year received only $109 million.

This is no comfort for residents in Sitio Supsopon where BHP Billiton plans to build its processing site from out of the village’s fishponds and beaches. Fermin Remontigue, 68, wakes up at dawn, and as is his usual wont, goes to the kitchen to heat a pot of Arabica beans, a variety of native coffee. Sipping the tin cup of hot coffee, Remontigue gets his hunting rifle and carefully cleans it.

But the old man will not go hunting this morning. Instead, he will attend a gathering of Macambol residents who are opposed to the mining project. “I have been hunting wild boars, Civet cats and bats in that mountain for many years. I do not know if I can hunt again if that mining firm will start to operate,” Remontigue said.

He said the mining firm has sealed off some areas in the mountain where they are conducting tests drills. For an individual who loves open spaces, Remontigue finds the idea of sealing off a mountain “very revolting.”

Remontigue’s passion for hunting is being replaced by seething rage that a foreign firm is out to mine nickel in Mt. Hamiguitan. And he has replaced his hunting rifle, at least for now, with a digital still and video camera.

He has become the “eyes and ears” of the anti-mining movement here. “He is our eyes and ears. He reports what the company is doing up there. No one knows the mountain than “Lolo Fermin,” said community organizer Roger Billote.

Billote said the old man keeps supplying them with pictures and video of the company operations in Mt. Hamiguitan even as some areas had been “sealed.” “The company guards cannot prevent me from climbing that mountain. I know its secrets,” Remontigue said.

Remontigue likes to keep his silence during the meetings. But after the meeting in Sitio Supsopon, he returned to the mountain to take more pictures and video. In its website, www.minesandcommunites.org , the London-based anti-mining group reported that BHP chair Don Argus belied there was a growing opposition to their nickel mining project in Pujada Bay during an interview in Oct. 20, 2005.

“We were made aware of your concerns and sent one of our guys to check it out. They met with the community and we can confirm that what you say about community opposition isn’t correct. There is widespread support for the project,” the group quoted Argus as saying.

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