The Battle of Sibuyan

By Stanley Palisada, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 18 2011 01:42 PM | Updated as of Feb 24 2011 09:55 AM

(Photo by Rodne Rodino Galicha)
MANILA, Philippines - Its monicker, “Galapagos of Asia” alludes to its natural sanctuaries where migratory birds rest and nest. The island of Sibuyan in central Philippines is “an Important Bird Area (IBA)” to conservation group Haribon Foundation.

Sibuyan is oppulently gifted than many of the country’s islands. It cradles flora and fauna uniquely its own with over half of its tree species found nowhere else on earth.

Biodiversity and endemism rates in Sibuyan are among the world’s highest with 131 species of birds, 10 species of fruit bats, and 123 species of trees considering it home. Species of mammals, rodents and reptiles thrive incognito, deep in the forests of Mount Guiting-Guiting, waiting to be named by some conscientious discoverer.

(Photo by Rodne Rodino Galicha)

Sibuyan’s “exceptionally clean” inland waters nurture forests and crops that, in turn, sustain its inhabitants abundantly. The sea surrounding this crescent-shaped island is a bustling marine metropolis.

But behind this picture-perfect paradise, a war rages on.

Irresistible Sibuyan

Immense treasures lie beneath Sibuyan’s bossom. Nickel, gold, manganese, limestone and silica quartz have lured fortune-seeking mining companies that by 2009, a total of 24 mining applications have been submitted, encouraged by the country’s liberal mining policy cast in stone by the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.

These applications encompass 42% of the entire island. Before any large-scale mining activity could begin, mining companies need to level hectares upon hectares of Sibuyan’s forests—its prized endemic species facing untimely demise.

(Photo by Rodne Rodino Galicha)
Pro-environment group Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan-PNE) pegs total mining investments in the country at $ 2.8 Billion from 2003 to 2009, and Sibuyan is to contribute greatly to gains from these ventures.

Mercury rising

Increasing mercury levels have been detected in Sibuyan’s air and water. Pro-environment group Ban Toxics had released this month, the disconcerting results of its mercury vapor tests on the island.

Mercury, which is used by small-scale miners to process gold from ore, is a highly toxic chemical that can cause organ failure or harm the nervous system, and waste water containing mercury can harm wildlife and the communities near the mining sites.

(Photo by Rodne Rodino Galicha)
Among these is the Mangyan indigenous peoples. The group holds an ancestral domain certificate for at least 20% of the entire island. In the age of climate change, these communities also bear the brunt of future flashfloods from the balding of Sibuyan.

A lonely battle

Residents take it upon themselves to guard their treasures well when threatened. But the war against mining was not without wages. Among its casualties is anti-mining advocate Armin Marin, who, in 2007, was gunned down by a mine guard.

Marin, a former councilor and employee of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) led a peaceful anti-mining rally when he was shot at close range in the mouth—an ominous message that those vocal against mining will be silenced.

The people of Sibuyan had fought mining through rallies, position papers, signature drives and alliances with pro-environment groups. Local government has sided with the people—in stark contrast to national government’s over enthusiasm for mining.

Tug of war in mining policy

The government is aware of the staggering costs of mining to the environment but made no consideration. With its Mining Revitalization Program, the entire country is even opened to indiscriminate mining.

Within the last decade, late Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes approved a plan of mining companies to cut some 70,000 trees in San Fernando, Sibuyan to pave the way for exploration. In 2009, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources under then Secretary Lito Atienza received flack for granting a permit to Canadian firm Altai Resources, through its subsidiary Altai Philippines Mining Corporation, to mine nickel in over 1,800 hectares of Sibuyan Island. These were met with strong opposition from residents.

(Photo by Rodne Rodino Galicha)
Local government, on the other hand, supported anti-mining causes. Governor Eduardo Firmalino released Executive Order No. 1 series of 2011, enforcing an indefinite moratorium on metallic mining in the province, as a result of alarming mercury levels in Romblon's air and water.

The ban on exploration, excavation, extraction, and utilization of metallic minerals in the province of Romblon shall be in effect until all issues, fears and concerns raised by the different sectors, organizations, associations and local communities are addressed substantially.

Demanding climate justice

In the month of December, residents of San Fernando Sibuyan hold their annual “Pag-alad Festival,”which reinforces the people’s committment to defend the environment, whatever the costs. During the festival, the people of San Fernando Sibuyan pray to their patroness, Our Lady Of Immaculate Conception, whom they believe will intercede for those who protect life and the environment.

Sibuyan’s war against mining may not be a success story just yet as the struggle persists. But it is all the more dire and tragic if the island falls and fails, for doing nothing.