MAC: Mines and Communities

2 Attempts to misrepresent local opinion or 100 ways not to hear No!

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

2 Attempts to misrepresent local opinion or 100 ways not to hear No!

Concern: That despite the efforts by the Subanen and others to present their position Rio Tinto chose to

  1. focus selectively on its small pockets of support and inflate these uncritically and
  2. it sought to use its access to expertise, resources, influence and media channels to misrepresent local views and so overwhelm its critics. 

After the 23 September 1996 meeting at which in fact the company's appeal for the right to explore was rejected Rio Tinto’ s Exploration manager in the Philippines Henry Agupitan reported to the government in a letter dated 30 September 1996 that the Pagadian meeting had been "very successful". It was this misrepresentation that led Subanen elders in Midsalip, Zamboanga del Sur to decide they would not sit down again with the company. They wrote

"We the Subaanen of Midsalip were surprised to learn that TEPI considers the gathering in Pagadian "successful"... when asked about the record of the parent company RTZ-CRA on questions of a) environmental degradation; b) desecration of sacred sites c) displacement of peoples d) human rights e) relations with indigenous peoples etc in Papua New Guinea, Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines the company representatives gave very unsatisfactory answers...

"We do not wish to enter into any further dialogue with TEPI. We do not wish TEPI to carry out exploration on our lands, we do not wish TEPI to mine our lands. We hope our position will be understood. Our land is our life given to us by God." 

Agupitan compounded his misrepresentation when, during the 30 June 97 meeting in the house of Bishop Jimenez, he claimed that while those present in the current meeting were clearly opposed to the proposed mining exploration project Subanen in the adjacent province of Zamboanga del Norte were more open to dialogue on the Rio Tinto proposals. He quoted from a letter of the Subanen Leaders Forum in Zamboanga del Norte unavailable to the others in the meeting. He read "We are not against development and progress. However we adhere to the principles of sustainable development as expressed in agenda 21, approved by President Fidel V. Ramos last September 1996....." 

I attended the meeting in Pagadian and the passage and the context in which it was presented, by Agupitan, clearly surprised and disturbed those who were present. However later when the full text was available for examination it emerged that while correctly quoted the passage cited was highly selective and seriously misrepresented the intended meaning. The passage quoted was from paragraph 4 of a 9 paragraph letter in which the opening statement asserted unequivocally

"We strongly oppose the entry of Tropical Exploration Philippines Inc (TEPI) Toronto Venture Inc .and other mining firms in the ancestral domain areas in our province"

para 8 "... any alleged transaction entered into by any Tribal leader with any mining firm in exchange for money, favor and promises of employment and infrastructure have not gone through the process of consultation with affected communities and leaders." 

This letter dated 5.2.97 is signed by 33 leaders from all over the province. 

When Survival International pressed Rio Tinto Chairman Robert Wilson on these misrepresentations he replied "it is precisely because over 300 people attended that we saw it as 'very successful' not for the result, but as the start of a dialogue with that community". Though asked Mr. Wilson offered no explanation of the misrepresentation of the SLF position. 

Repeatedly in the company statements the attempt has been made to suggest that opposition is confined to the Midsalip area of Zamboanga del Sur and to the Catholic church 

"Our early experience with a number of communities, including many that are not Catholic nor in the Midsalip area, suggest neither overwhelming support for our involvement nor overwhelming opposition." Robert Wilson to Survival 12 9.97 

" Opposition to Rio Tinto's work was centred around the Municipality of Midsalip in Zamboanga del Sur. Midsalip represents a small part of the area under application. The main opposition has come from Catholic Church groups who claim to represent the wider community." (from "The Facts" a company publication for the Rio Tinto 1998 AGM .) 

It seems Rio Tinto chose for its own purposes to ignore the true content of the SLF letter and barangay, municipal, and provincial resolutions in Zamboanga del Norte all opposing the company's entry. 

However while Subanen and other local residents were petitioning and clamoring to be heard in what was within my experienced an unparalleled and starkly clear manner the company decided that gathering Subanen opinion was a problem requiring expert input. They unilaterally decided on a policy of consulting anthropologists on what local opinions really were. An approach that has further angered and humiliated those Subanen who have spent the time to report their views to the company or sign petitions to convey them. 

"We also believe that given the social organisation and scattered nature of the Subanen it is difficult to state with authority what the communities want or do not want without a survey. We have put this in hand, involving some of the leading anthropologists in the Philippines, the UK, the US and Australia specialising in the area." Wilson to Survival International12.9.97 

In the event there was no survey and the only perceptible action was to ask Professor Charles Frake, indeed a respected American anthropologist with fieldwork experience among the Subanen in the 1960s, to visit the area as their guest. Professor Frake made the briefest of tours, for the most part guided by and in the company of Rio Tinto personnel. Professor Frake has made no large claims for his visit. According to him he submitted only the briefest notes (2 pages) from his trip and added " They (Rio Tinto) did not ask for recommendations and I offered none. They have not asked for any written elaboration of the topics I listed. Also at no time have I ever presumed to advocate a position to the Subanen on this or any other issue." letter to Fr Frank Nally 6 March 1998 

However based on this visit Rio Tinto somehow found the "validation" it has frequently repeated since. 

"An eminent anthropologist and expert on the Subanen, Professor Charles Frake, visited Mindanao on our behalf and confirmed that if approached sensitively, there was no community obstacles to our continuing exploration in the area."

Quoted from "The facts" May 1998.

"To verify our understanding of local wishes we asked an eminent anthropologist, a recognised expert on the Subanen people, to give an impartial view on the State of Subanen thinking on these issues. His view was that, while some communities were opposed, others were supportive and that provided we were to continue to exercise proper care- which we would do in line with our established policies- there was on reason why exploration should not proceed.

(JG Hughes -Rio Tinto Head of Public Relations to Fr Michael Duffy, Missionary Society of St Columban 25.2.98)

In correspondence during 1998 Rio Tinto reported that it had withdrawn from the area though subsequent inquiries brought even this into question. 

However during 1998 Rio Tinto were also able to release a letter purportedly from the Central Subanen Tribal Association CESTRIA signed by its President and apparently endorsed by many elders and members of CESTRIA appealing to Rio Tinto to return and take up their former exploration. 

to Sir Robert Wilson dated May 28 1998 

"I and all the officers of Central Subanen Tribal association Inc (CESTRIA) along with the officials in 4 Barangays including the Timu'ays (Subanen Chieftains) and its members have agreed in our meeting to send you letter expressing our desire for the exploration to begin within our Ancestral domain claims; that we may also know whether or not there are indeed plenty of gold and other minerals within our domain claims"  - Isis P. Guilingan, President. CESTRIA 

In May 1999 I visited Zamboanga del Norte. I interviewed Isis Guilingan who confirmed that the letter distributed by Rio Tinto was genuine and sent and signed by him. However in a subsequent interview with Datu Agdino Andus, the government recognised Chieftain for this area and whose signature also appears on the letter, I discovered that many (possibly all) the signatures on the letter, with the exception of Mr Guilingan, were not genuine. Officers of CESTRIA reported that the re-entry of Rio Tinto was neither discussed nor endorsed in any of their meetings. 

I include an extract from my notes of the meeting with Datu Agdino. 

"Asked Datu Agdino then about the letter signed by him requesting the return of the company. He said he had already been informed of the existence of such a letter. We showed him a copy. He was very angry. He denied ever signing or seeing the letter. He provided an example of his signature to show that "his" signature on the letter was nothing like his own (true signature). This was clearly the case. He said that he would file a legal case against Isis Guilingan for the forging of his signature. 

Datu Agdino also raised other issues. 

1. "I think this letter in English is not the work of Isis. He cannot write like this in English". Datu Agdino speculated that Isis Guilingan had been assisted by Rio Tinto staff who "visit him."

2. Agdino identified various signatures on the list who are in fact people who cannot write and normally mark their letters with a thumb print. NB most unusually (suspiciously) for a tribal ratification document signed by many elders in a largely none literate society the Cestria letter has all written signatures and has no thumb print signatures. Agdino who knows the people identified the following "signatories" as among those unable to write: Embinan Guilingan (said to be the father of Isis) Guinalomon Copiz ( I met this old lady on 29 June - in fact her name is Guinalomon Lumapay ( Copiz was her maiden name.) She confirmed in person that she had not seen or signed the letter, could not read or write, and did not understand English. She said that while the signature obviously referred to her, it was not in fact in the married name she now uses but in her long abandoned maiden name. She also said whatever the note claimed that she was, in fact, opposed to the entry of Rio Tinto. " It is not true that Titik is in favour I live near there (Bucana) and we are opposed." Agdino also identified Potong Tanglanan (Timuay barangay Titik, Leon Postigo), Endal Mardincial, Titik , Leon Postigo, Manad Guilingan (barangay Bucana Sindangan), Asa Saplid (Timuay, Bucana) , Takil Anod (Titik, Sindangan. ) as others who would in reality have thumb printed if they wished to affirm. 

I confirmed Agdino did meet with Professor Frake who came in the company of Edgar Baling, Community Relations Officer of Rio Tinto. Frake, the Datu said, did no ask or talk about the mining however Edgar did. 

Datu Agdino invited us to attend the Sindangan Tribal Council meeting on Saturday 29. 

Saturday 29 Meeting of Sindangan Tribal Council, at Rooftop Municipal Hall, Sindangan. Over 100 participants. I was introduced and later spoke. I was later asked by Datu Agdino to give information to the meeting on the impacts of mining which I had not in the first place volunteered to do because the meeting was primarily for other purposes. There were numerous questions and expressions of concern. 

Visminda Paculanan from Situ Balikbalik Sindangan told me before the meeting "We don't want this mining because we fear for the future of our children. We have a simple life but we have a culture of peace in harmony with God".

Manuel Silang attended the meeting wearing his CRA (Rio Tinto Australia) cap. He said he was Barangay Capt of Titik until 1994 (from 1971?). He reported that he got the cap because he was a worker/consultant when they first came to the area. He confirmed he is a board member of CESTRIA. However he reported He did not sign the letter. There was no meeting to discuss it. He personally does not agree with its content. He said for a long time, he has consistently said his place is not open for mining. He said if the company come back and try to mine there will be big trouble because many CESTRIA members just don't agree." 

From this it is clear that some serious misrepresentation of local views had occurred and there was some concern that this involved forgery of signatures and false statement. It is ironic that Rio Tinto was at the same time both so dubious of the validity of petitions critical of their entry yet so receptive and uncritical of those supportive of their entry. 

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