IN 1994, Mindoro experienced its worst flooding in years. Heavy flash floods left many people dead, thousands were rendered homeless, and around P1.2 billion worth of goods and properties were damaged.
Mindoreños blamed the disaster on logging activities on the island. At that time, residents already raised fears over the island’s fast diminishing forest cover and the damage it will cause in the future.
True enough, when a series of flash floods hit Oriental Mindoro late last year, many of the villages were flooded. Again, thousands of people were displaced and P150-million worth of agricultural products were wasted. The massive flooding was partly due to the collapse of a dike in the town of Naujan, which consequently affected nearby towns; but the damage brought by the heavy rains would have been mitigated had the island’s forest and soils been better preserved.
In the 1950s, Mindoro had 967,400 hectares of forest. Today, the forest cover has diminished to 50,000 hectares, or a huge forest loss of 95 percent, according to the Alliance Against Mining (ALAMIN), a broad coalition of Mindoreños opposed to mining.
ALAMIN, along with other civic groups, Church leaders and the local government of Oriental Mindoro, are now waging a serious campaign against the entry of large-scale mining companies in their province.
Mining, they say, will further destroy their island, which is already “severely deforested” due to past logging and slash-and-burn practices.
“Because of deforestation, the farmers have already experienced droughts in summer and destructive floods in the rainy season. There is fear that the siltation of rivers, and consequently, flooding, would be made worse by strip mining, and that any floods would carry mine wastes into lowland communities,” the London-based Philippine Indigenous Peoples Links said in a report on Mindoro.
Just last month, ALAMIN sent a team on a lobbying mission across Europe. They spoke to members of the UK Parliament, investors, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations, discussing their opposition to mining, and in particular, the entry into Mindoro of a UK-based mining company.
“Considering the critical condition of Mindoro’s environment, the prospect of an environmental disaster in the island is not difficult to imagine,” ALAMIN said. “The deluge of large-scale mining applications in the province is very alarming.”
Mining is one of the top causes of massive deforestation, according to environment experts. In the Philippines, the Haribon Foundation has reported that “the largest and most direct causes of deforestation” are mining, large-scale logging, and land conversions.
The destruction of the country’s forests has also been described as the “most rapid and most massive in the world.”
As of last year, 35 national conservation priority areas are being threatened by mining tenements, and 32 other protected areas overlap with existing mining tenements, Haribon said.
It is estimated that the country’s forests will be reduced to 320,000 hectares of primary forest by 2010, if the present rate of deforestation continues.
Following the passage of the Philippine Mining Act in 1995, Mindoro saw a deluge of mining applications. The applications covered 367,796 hectares or 36% of the island territory; mostly in the ancestral lands of the Mangyans, where critical watershed areas and wildlife habitat are located.
This is precisely why the local government, along with several sectoral groups, have been campaigning against the entry of Crew Gold Corp.
Crew, through the locally registered Aglubang Mining Corp. Inc., intends to develop a large-scale nickel-cobalt mining project in an area straddling the Oriental and Occidental Mindoro.
The current concession area consists of 9,720 hectares and mining activities will mainly be concentrated in the town of Victoria.
Called the Mindoro Nickel project, it is listed among the government’s 24 priority mining projects. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines also sees the project as “one of the country’s five potentially major international-class mines,” and is expected “to produce amongst the cheapest nickel in the world.”
But for the people of Mindoro, the estimated $1-billion worth of potential investments the project will bring will not compensate for the destruction of their forests, the loss of biodiversity, diminished agricultural productivity, sedimentation of river waterways, and the flooding and erosion.
“The Mindoro Nickel Project is incompatible with the sustainable development agenda of the provincial government which is anchored on food security, eco-tourism and agro-industrial development,” the local government said in a resolution.
“Mining corporations should refrain from imposing their profit-driven agenda and in manipulating the national government’s bureaucracy, which have become too accommodating in promoting the plunder of our environment in exchange for investments,” it added.
It also doesn’t help that Crew proposes to dump its tailings on the sea bed through a process called submarine mine tailings disposal or STD. This is said to be a highly controversial process and is “effectively banned in Canada and the USA.”
The original exploration permit for the Mindoro project was issued in 1997 and renewed in 1999. It was said to be the first permit to be renewed in the Philippines under the mining law.
In 2000, the Aglubang Mining Corp. obtained its Minerals Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) for a certain portion of the concession area. The MPSA secured them rights “to develop and exploit the resource” over a 25-year period.
There were petitions, letters of protests, rallies and demonstrations, and at least 25,000 signatures were collected against the mining project. In 2001, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, through Secretary Heherson Alvarez, revoked the MPSA. On November that year, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo upheld the department’s decision.
The local government of Mindoro and the Mangyans considered this a victory. The provincial board of Oriental Mindoro even passed in 2002 a 25-year Mining Moratorium. This prohibited any person or business entity from engaging in “land clearing, prospecting, exploration, drilling, excavation, mining, transport of mineral ores,” in the area.
But in 2004, Arroyo revoked the order of cancellation and reinstated the MPSA. Arroyo, at that time, announced what she called her “10-point legacy agenda,” which, among others, promises the creation of 10 million jobs before she steps down in 2010. The revitalization of the mining industry, she said, will allow her to achieve this target.
Following the three consecutive floods that hit Oriental Mindoro in December 2005, the Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan issued a pastoral statement calling on Arroyo to respect “the overwhelming opposition of the people of Oriental Mindoro against the proposed mining operation.”
“The large-scale mining will result to more floods and disasters,” the letter reiterated, and warned that legal actions will be taken should Crew Gold continue with its operations. Crew has so far managed to complete 1,200 drill holes and test pits in Victoria, as part of the exploration stage of the project.
Crew, according to ALAMIN, has temporarily vacated the area following a large protest rally in January. Fr. Edwin Gariguez of ALAMIN says the company will definitely come back, as Crew fully intends to proceed with its operations in Mindoro.
But the local communities will not allow this to happen, and that is why both local and international groups are stepping up their campaigns against Crew, and all large-scale mining activities, in general.
Meanwhile, the Mangyan communities in Victoria are continuing their reforestation program. Banana and rambutan trees now cover a portion of the mining area and lanzones seedlings are now being planted.