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Tampakan Mining Project: Prelude to a Disaster?

Rog Amon

The Center for Environmental Concerns spearheaded an environmental investigative mission (EIM) on the Xtstrata-SMI mining operations in Davao del Sur and Sultan Kudarat to get a first hand assessment of the initial and potential impacts of the Tampakan Copper-Gold Mining Project of foreign transnational corporation Xstrata and Philippine-based affiliate Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI). The EIM was held from August 26 to 28, 2010 and capped by a press conference held in Digos City on August 28, 2010.

The EIM is a participatory research approach to understanding environmental issues affecting communities. The mission aimed to determine present and future impacts of the large-scale mining project on the communities and the environment, particularly in the municipalities of Columbio, Sultan Kudarat (where part of the open pit area would be located) and Malalag, Davao del Sur where the port, filter and power plant facilities are to be constructed.

The EIM was launched in cooperation with Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas, ICON-SP, SocCSkSarGenDs-AGENDA (Alliance for Genuine Development Inc.), Social Action-Diocese of Marbel, Tampakan Parish, Columbio Multi-Sectoral Ecology Movement (CMEM), Columbio Parish, Tingog ug Gugma Alang sa Kinaiyahan, Save Taplan River Movement, Panalipdan Youth, Save Malaglag Bay Movement, and MASIPAG.

The Tampakan FTAA and the Philippine Mining Act of 1995

Eighteen years have passed since giant mining companies explored the quadri-boundaries of SoCSKSARGENDS in 1992, while fifteen years have passed since the Republic Act 7942 or the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 was enacted into law. Surprisingly, Western Mining Corporation had acquired the Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) for , a type of mineral concession, for Tampakan prior to the implementation of RA 7942. An FTAA allows 100% foreign ownership and capital investment of mining projects and incentives and auxilliary rights, such as the right to timber and water in their concession areas.

CMEM says that the granting of FTAA to WMC by the government and the rapid transfer of mining rights to different mining companies to the present SMI-XSTRATA grossly violated and sold out the rights of the people, especially the indigenous peoples and their ancestral domains.

In February 1997, the La Bugal organization of Columbio, Sultan Kurat, challenged the constitutionality of RA 7942. After seven years, in 2004, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled favoring the petitioners. However, the same year, the SC reversed its decision due with the intervention and influence of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a known proponent of mining liberalization and the author of RA 7942.

Xstrata-SMI’s Tampakan Mining Project

The Tampakan project is a 2.4 billion metric ton deposit with 13.5 million metric tons of copper and 15.8 million ounces of gold at a 0.3% cut-off grade. It ranks as the fifth largest known undeveloped copper-gold deposit worldwide and is expected to be the largest single foreign investment in the Philippines at around $5.2 billion. Additional investments are expected once the project commences commercial production from 2015 to 2033.

From company reports, SMI said that the project has the potential to become an economic driver for Mindanao, projecting a contribution of at $37 billion to the Philippine economy over the life of the mine (first 17 years) at an average contribution of one percent to gross domestic product yearly.

However, still to be fully determined is the entire range of ecological, socio-economic, and cultural impacts of the Tampakan concession, one of the biggest mining projects to be conducted on Philippine soil. The EIM hopes to contribute to building a more complete scenario of the full impacts of the mining operations.

Salient Findings of the EIM

Below are the EIM's major findings, based on the EIM team’s interviews, focus group discussions (FGD) and field visits. FGD’s were conducted with the sectors vulnerable to the impacts of mining operations in Columbio municipality: peasants, irrigators, fisherfolk, women, residents and indigenous peoples, particularly the B’laan tribe. Interviews were also conducted with some key local officials.

a. Faultlines in Tampakan pose risks to the stability of the mine

The proposed mining site is traversed by numerous fault lines particularly where the tailings pond is planned to be located. A geological survey of the area reveals that Mindanao Island is traversed by the Philippine Fault and the Cotabato Fault. The deposit lies within the Cotabato Fault Zone, a west-northwest trending strike slip fault zone. The tailings pond that is to be constructed in Kiblawan lies on an area cut by a strike slip fault. This poses a big risk to the stability of the pond that will be built.

Figure 1 shows the proposed layout of the Tampakan project. The tailings pond is a reservoir used to store tailings, slurry of spent ore, contaminated with high amounts of heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and copper and other toxic elements. If the dam fails, there is a high risk that heavy metals and toxic elements will flow to the Mal River which supports the agricultural and domestic needs of the people in Malalag, Hagonoy and Kiblawan in Davao del Sur.

Figure 2 shows a detailed map of the faults traversing through the proposed mine site. The blue line delineates the proposed tenement area. The map suggests that the area is cut with numerous faults. The point where the tailings pond will be located is cut by a strike slip fault. This poses a big risk to the stability of the pond that will be built.

b.Threat to food security

Agriculture is the dominant economic activity in Davao del Sur and Columbio. Various phases of open-pit mining would create massive disturbance to the environmental ecosystem. Failure of the tailings dam is projected to severely damage watershed and irrigation infrastructures that support Mindanao’s food basket.

The construction of a coal-fired power plant to supply the mine's electrical needs in Malalag Bay, Davao del Sur endangers fish productivity and the bay's health. Malalag Bay is a rich area for coastal biodiversity, where a fish sanctuary has been set up by the local government. Most coastal communities in Davao del Sur also depend on these fishing grounds for food and livelihood. The government’s approval of the power plant is thus a risk to the aquaculture and fishing activities in Malalag Bay.

c.False promise of employment and income opportunities

Xstrata-SMI is wafting a sweet promise of development in communities thirsting for economic support from the government and even basic social services. The company boasts of generating employment and creating 9,000 jobs in host communities.

But SocCSkSarGenDs-AGENDA stated that close to 40,000 people (mostly farmers, fishermen, and indigenous people) will lose their source of livelihood to large-scale mining. “The 9,000 contractual or seasonal jobs promised are nothing compared to the irreversible loss of our resources, the degradation of the environment and the tampering of our patrimony; as well as the health hazards for the workers and local residents who have to contend with the dirtiest industry in the world,” the group said in a statement.

Precedents of dubious economic gains have already been noted in other large-scale mining areas. Arturo C. Boquiren, an economics professor of UP Baguio who has conducted studies on mining-affected communities in Benguet where mining has persisted for close to 100 years, observed that “poverty rates are higher in mining communities and local government units hosting corporate mining do not earn incomes significantly higher than municipalities who do not host mining.”

d.Militarization and Human Rights Violations

According to SOCCSKSARGENDS Agenda, among of the most militarized areas in south central Mindanao today are the communities within and surrounding the mining site of Xstrata-SMI-Hillcrest On the pretext of “clearing the areas of subversive elements”, the Philippine Armed Forces, particularly the 27th IB, the 39th IB, Task Force Kitaco and the CAFGUs have continuously launched a military campaign of terror and harassment on civilians, mostly members of the B’laan tribe.

On March 9, 2009, Eliezer Billanes, SOCCSKSARGENDS Agenda chairperson and known as a staunch critic of Xstrata-SMI Mining, was gunned down in the Koronadal City, about 50 meters from a police station. Felix Espanola, who served as deputy chairman of Agenda, was forced to go into hiding after receiving death threats similar to what Billanes received before he was killed.

e.Displacement of IP communities

Thousands of IPs stand to be displaced from their ancestral lands. Several B’laan communities have already been eased out. From the company’s active campaign for the entry of the mines, the B’laan were told that their communities would not be negatively affected by mine operations. On the other hand, the company promised to provide scholarships and livelihood programs.

Residents admitted that as long as their ancestral lands would not be affected, they are willing to support the mining company as it provides incentives that the communities need but lack. However, such offers on the part of the company and their failure to disclose the possible negative impacts and other information about their operation violate the principles of the Free, Informed and Prior Consent, prior to the start of any project.

Currently, SMI-Xstrata, is aggressively completing its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the most crucial stage before they can acquire the Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC). As stated by the acting director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, the entry of a Filipino company, San Miguel Corporation (SMC), in the Tampakan project will appease the dissent against the project.

Glaring poverty, backward agriculture and degraded lands would be further aggravated once mining operations commence. The Tampakan project will not be the solution to the underdevelopment and poverty of the affected areas and will in fact worsen the degradation of the environment and communities as proven by the experiences of other mining areas in the country.
CEC volunteer experts conduct soil sampling activities in the Dalul river.