PH activists slam govt push for coal

Inday Espina-Varona, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Nov 29 2015 12:54 PM

New coal mining operations started in the Andap Valley complex, Surigao del Sur, while Lumad communities took shelter in evacuation centers after paramilitary attacks. Photo by Caraga Watch

MANILA -- The battle for indigenous people's lands is the elephant in the room whenever the Philippine government discusses climate change mitigation programs.

Environmental watchdog Caraga Watch told ABS-CBN News that coal-mining on Lumad lands and the current frenzy for coal-fired power plants belie a government pledge for 70% reduction in Philippine carbon emissions by 2030.

President Benigno Aquino III's development thrust will also worsen the country's disaster record, Caraga Watch officer Jovy Alamban warned, as environmental groups prepared to join Sunday's climate change protest led by Roman Catholic bishops.

Caraga Watch, which monitors investments in one of the country’s most impoverished but mineral-rich regions, linked coal-mine projects to a spate of murders targeting Lumad leaders in the 60,000-hectare Andap Valley complex in Surigao del Sur.

The valley holds the world’s largest coal block reserve. It is home to 3,000 Lumad who fled Lianga town for the provincial capital after the September 1 militia killings of a school head and two IP leaders.

“Paramilitary forces threatened hundreds of witnesses with new massacres if they did not immediately leave their community,” Alamban said. “Now, soldiers have taken over Lumad schools and communities. Meanwhile, Abacus Coal Exploration and Mining Corporation has brought in coal-mining machinery into the Andap Valley."

Lumad from Lianga, Surigao del Sur, were forced to abandon their farms after the September 1 killings of a school head and two Lumad leaders. Several mining firms have applied to mine for coal in their ancestral lands. Photo by Caraga Watch

The valley sprawls across nine towns. Mineral production-sharing agreements under Philex Gold Philippines Inc. and Rosario Mining Development Co., Rosario Consolidated Mining Corporation and Sta. Irene Mining Corporation cover more than 6,200 hectares in Lianga alone.

Other mining firms gearing for operations in the Andap Valley are Great Wall Mining and Power Corporation, PNOC Exploration, ASK Mining Exploration Corporation and Benguet Corporation, whose coal contract includes the towns of Lianga, Marihatag and San Miguel, where militia killed another Lumad this month.

COP21 ‘poster boy’

Mr. Aquino is expected to urge increased climate mitigation funding at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Philippines is chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 20 nations most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

The event is also an opportunity for the Philippine president to tout his administration’s achievements in sustainable development, which includes a massive re-greening program.

Senator Loren Legarda is all praises for Mr. Aquino's move to extend the National Greening Program's (NGP) lifespan from 2016 to 2028. The government has planted trees on more than a million hectares of that target 7-million hectares.

Legarda, however, said the push for coal jeopardizes the country’s commitments to ease climate change.

Coal now dominates the country‘s energy mix, accounting for 42.5% of power generated, Legarda said. The government’s blueprint calls for a 30-30-30 energy mix with natural gas, coal and renewables each accounting for 30% with 10% reserved for alternative technologies.

Coal projects would account for 56% of the mix by 2020, with 23 new power plans starting operations in the next five years, said the senator.

“Barring any intervention, this will further increase to 75% by 2030— the highest share of coal among countries in Asia,” she added.

Protests

The Philippines’ coal expansion drive undermines the country’s role in any international agreements to tackle climate change, according to Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

“By embracing coal, the Philippines loses its credibility in fighting for a good climate change treaty,” the group said.

Activist groups launched an anti-coal caravan from Semirara island, site of a recent coal-mine disaster, to the national capital region.

Coal is acknowledged as one of the biggest sources of man-made CO2 emissions.

“From mining to combustion, coal is the most polluting of all fossil fuels. A third of all carbon dioxide emissions come from burning coal,” Greenpeace said. “Coal releases more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel and coal mining is responsible for 8-10% of human-made methane emissions globally.”

Expansion

The Department of Energy's 2015 third-quarter report said five coal-fired power plants account for 1,745 megawatts (MW) of the 1,870-MW committed energy capacity in Mindanao.

San Miguel Corporation has confirmed the start of operations in 2016 of a 300-MW power plant in Malita, Davao del Sur and aims to eventually double the plant's output.

The conglomerate bought three coal mines in South Cotabato to help fuel a six-year, 3,000-MW energy portfolio, but a local government ban on open pit mining shelved a power plant project in General Santos City.

The Alson’s Power Group will start early next year commercial operations of the Sarangani Energy Corp’s (SEC) 210-MW coal-fired plant in Maasim.

Local folk fear the plant on the shores of Sarangani Bay could affect marine life in one of the country’s richest fishing grounds, said Primo Morillo, anti-mining campaign advocacy officer for the Philippine-Misereor Partnership Inc. (PMPI).

Alsons insists its power plant uses low sulfur coal and “the latest clean technology.”

Its corporate news website also cites the country’s “largest carbon offset program," with trees already planted on more than 1,000 hectares of a 7,500-hectare watershed under stewardship of 350 families from local Lumad called the B’laan.

Alsons sarangani bay bigger photo. Caption: Alsons' coal-fired power plant on the shore of Sarangani Bay will start operations January next year. Photo from Alsons' energy news website.

Environmentalists charge that Alsons' coal plant will provide energy for the controversial Tampakan copper mine, which Mr. Aquino’s government approved despite South Cotabato’s ban on open-pit mining.

The power firm has denied this, saying the plant’s first section will provide power to 3 million residents from the provinces of Sarangani, Compostela Valley, Agusan del Norte, and Agusan del Sur; the cities of General Santos, Iligan, Bayugan, Butuan, Samal, and Tagum, and key municipalities in Davao del Norte and South Cotabato.

The Alcantara conglomerate recently bought Australian shares to acquire control of Indophil, which will operate Tampakan. The mining project is infamous for the killings of at least 10 people, including an Italian missionary priest. The conflict, which also displaced thousands of families, is expected to worsen in the coming years.

(READ: Tampakan minesproject still a go despite activist deaths, UN concern)

‘Coal is not cheap’

Legarda does not advocate closure of existing plants but worries about the numbers of projects in the pipeline.

“The Philippines needs more power, but it cannot be ‘we need power at all costs and we will develop at all costs’,” the senator said.

“They say that coal is cheap. I say, coal is not cheap. Coal affects our health, kills biodiversity and the environment, affects our waters and pollutes the air we breathe,” Legarda stressed.

Caraga Watch slammed Malacanang’s efforts to present “Mr. Aquino as the poster boy of COP 21," calling it a big insult to the Lumad.

The President approved the creation of privately funded “investment defense forces” or militia for mining firms, Alamban pointed out.

Michelle Campos, who lost her father, Dionel, in the Lianga massacre, told ABS-CBN News every sortie by soldiers and militia included demands for the Lumad to stop opposing mining.

She told ABS-CBN News Lumad resist mining because "when we protect our ancestral lands we also protect all Filipinos, especially Mindanaoans, from environmental devastation and food insecurity."

Lumad of the Andap Valley, which holds the world's largest coal block reserve, fear the destructive immediate and long-term effects of coal-mining operations on their ancestral lands. Photo by Caraga watch

Campos said another environmental danger is the expansion of oil-palm plantations, blamed for the Indonesian toxic haze that wafts annually across Southeast Asia. Palm-oil plantation coverage in the Philippines doubled in the last 10 years, government data show.

Mr. Aquino has said his plans will provide peace and progress for 14 million, mostly poor Lumad.

The 2014 Philippine Extractive Industries Transparency Report values the country's mineral reserves at US$1.387 trillion — five times the country’s 2013 gross domestic product. The think tank Ibon Philippines, however, says the mining industry's actual contribution to the economy is "miniscule," with large mining firms the main beneficiaries.

For Campos, the Lumad orphan, the equation is simpler. Mines and plantations and the attendant military and para-military operations represent “the peace of the graveyard” for her people.