The Avengers of Didipio: Endgame for OceanaGold PH?

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Jul 30 2019 07:17 PM

Oceanagold Philippines mining site in Didipio, Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya. Inday Espina-Varona 

Oceanagold Philippines mining site in Didipio, Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya. Inday Espina-Varona 

Oceanagold Philippines mining site in Didipio, Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya. Inday Espina-Varona 

Oceanagold Philippines mining site in Didipio, Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya. Inday Espina-Varona 

Oceanagold Philippines mining site in Didipio, Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya. Inday Espina-Varona 

DIDIPIO, Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya – Anti-mining groups with the aid of the local council in this valley surrounded by three mountain ranges have manned a checkpoint round the clock since the expiration of OceanaGold Philippines’ mining permit on June 20 this year. 

Resident volunteers, mostly indigenous farmers, stand guard in shifts, sleeping during off hours in a spartan building and cooking in an outdoor shed. 

It is a curious checkpoint, where state security agents exist in peace with activist groups. A big banner with a militant slogan of rejection for the extension of OceanaGold’s Financial or Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) flaps in front of a sign announcing a military checkpoint. 

Less than 50 meters ahead, police in camouflage uniforms and bearing long arms rest beside their patrol vehicle. Nueva Vizcaya Gov. Carlos Padilla, an opponent of mining, sent them to guide a 40-person solidarity mission organized by Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) and the Alyansa ng Novo Vizcayano para sa Kalikasan (ANVIK).

The Ecumenical Bishops’ Forum (EBF) in the national capital and its northern Luzon body, and the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), are part of the mission, which includes representatives of 20 organizations of varying political persuasions.

The mission concluded with a threat to sue the Australian mining firm for just compensation to help in the immediate rehabilitation of adversely affected rivers, farmlands, and other ecosystems.

A major multi-agency and multi-school scientific investigative mission and a religious conference addressing the Didipio struggle also commence next month and in September.

LEGAL VICTORY 

The “barricade” went up two days after the lapse of OceanaGold’s FTAA, a mining license granted to the foreign-owned firm, under the Mining Act of 1995.

The Philippines mining firm is owned by OceanaGold Corporation (OceanaGold), an Australian-Canadian company. 

The United People’s Organizations of Didipio, composed of the Samahang pang Karapatan ng Katutubong Magsasaka at Manggagawa, Inc. (SAPAKKMMI) and the Didipio Earth Savers Movement Association (DESAMA) have the full backing of the barangay.

Since then, no trucks bearing ore have since gone out on this side of the 975-hectare site, which operates one of the richest gold mines in the country. The two groups also monitor, along with the provincial environment office, another checkpoint at the opposite side of the mine.

“But we hear choppers coming and going,” said Julie Simongco, a leader of SAPAKKMMI. “Since they also process gold inside, we fear the company may be smuggling out produce.”

Judge Paul Attolba Jr., of the Regional Trial Court in Bayombong, junked on July 25 the mining firm’s petition to continue operations despite the lapse of its mining license.

“There is no sufficient evidence on record to support that (OceanaGold) is indeed authorized to continue minimg operations pending the renewal by the President of the FTAA, which would establish a clear and unmistakable right warranting the issuance of an injunctive relief,” his 10-page order said.

The company filed its petition in the face of the unanimous rejection by the provincial, municipal and barangay governments of its application for extension, which it filed in March last year.

NO RIGHT TO THE LAND'S RICHES

A July 27 release by the parent firm of the mining corporation said its operations continue.

Without reference to the court decision, the statement said: “The Company received confirmation on June 20, 2019 from the regulatory authority, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (“MGB”) that the Didipio operation is permitted to continue operations pending the confirmation of the FTAA renewal by the Government. The Company is committed to operating in accordance with the law and will always comply with its responsibilities under its contract with the Philippine government.”

Anti-mining advocates met on Monday (July 29) with Gov. Padilla in Bayombong on their way back from the mission.

He reiterated his support for the resisting communities and promised to send lawyers to get testimonies from residents allegedly harassed by suspected mine security and some pro-mining leaders.

Padilla also said he will submit this week a letter asking the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) for the flight details of choppers coming from and flying into the sprawling mine site, which is 335-kilometers (kms) north of the national capital. The CAAP is the agency that monitors aircraft movement in the country. 

Gov. Carlos Padilla on mining and the challenges of convincing policy makers to protect environment

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“They no longer have the right to operate,” said Padilla. "The court clearly said that an MGB opinion is just that, an opinion. Only the President can grant them the permit of operate.”

He said Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu had told him in a recent meeting that he had not signed any papers and had merely forwarded the application for FTAA renewal to President Rodrigo Duterte.

“If they have no right to the land, then they have no right to continue enriching themselves from the land,” Padilla told the mission.

OceanaGold mined P87.2-billion worth of copper, gold and silver from 2013 to 2018. It spent P4.7 billion in salaries and social programs in the same period.

NEGATIVE IMPACT

The governor agreed with mission leaders that the damage to the environment would take a long time to overcome.

“It’s almost uncalculable,” he said. “How do you value lost mountains, lost waterways, lost fauna?”

The Didipio mine started commercial operations in 2013, though OceanaGold bought the mining rights from Arimco in 2006.

A scoping team from the Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) said they recorded 10 dried-up wells and one dried creek.

The water pumps donated by the mining firm as part of their social responsibility commitments barely come up with water. Many households now need to purchase drinking water.

DESAMA chair Lorenzo Pulido showed ABS-CBN News his dried-up rice field, blaming mining operations and tunneling for depleting water reserves. 

Didipio Earth Savers Movement Association Lorenzo Pulido on alleged dwindling crop production

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“Rice, for my family, was never for commerce. If was for us to eat,” he said. “I could harvest 50 cavans of palay from this small field. Now, I have to use income from my citrus crop to buy rice for our family.

The CEC said many other farmers had reported the same problem. Almost all of them also plant rice for sustenance.

Pulido said even his citrus produce has drastically dropped to just a third from pre-mining operation days.

“Once I could harvest 15,000 kilos from my farm. Now, I am lucky to harvest 4,000 kilos,” he told ABS-CBN News.

The mission report cited other farmers complaining of even bigger drop in crop production, to only 10 percent of pre-OceanaGold levels. Most ascribe the loss to lower water levels and to higher metallic content in waterways used for irrigation.

 

DENR Undersecretary Benny Antiporda, in an earlier interview with Failon Ngayon, said the department’s scientists did not believe the depleted water table was caused by the mine.
 
Padilla, however, told ABS-CBN News that Cimatu was most interested in his feedback about water woes. “That’s what made him really sit up,” he said. “Water is life. He knows that. Maybe it will make a difference.”

OceanaGold operates in a watershed that is vital for millions of Filipinos, all the way to Cagayan Valley, said Kalikasan national coordinator Leon Dulce.

Scientists have listed 499 animal and plant species in the expansion area of the mining firm. Of these, 110 are endemic to the Philippines and a quarter are threatened or rare species.

BENEFITS

OceanaGold Philippines’ statement cites “significant socio-economic benefits to the Barangay of Didipio, neighbouring communities, the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino and the Philippines.”

It said 1,500 workers get livelihood from the mine. Ninety-five percent are Filipinos and 50% locals, the company said. It added that it had aided “several thousand additional livelihood opportunities/indirect jobs through partnerships with cooperatives and social development organisations.”

On its website, the firm said it is working with the community to construct the P37-million Didipio Water System Project, due for completion this year, that would provide “reliable and safe potable water” to 2,400 households.

Barangay Captain Erenio Boballa, who was one of those who sold land to Arimco, snorts at that statement.

“They bought the company in 2006 and they wait for the end of their FTAA to give us potable water,” he told ABS-CBN News. 

Boballa said only around half of the conditions in the original memorandum of agreement with villagers have been met.

Padilla said the company cannot blame the residents’ cynicism as the promise to fulfill unmet pledges sounds like a bribe for an FTAA extension that would eventually cover 10,000 hectares of land.

The Didipio barangay captain said he would take his cue from Padilla, a formidable opponent who helped caused the defeat of Oceanagold’s dream of mining in El Salvador, South America in 2017.

Padilla gave power testimony to El Salvador executive and legislative departments and to universities across the country on the effects of Oceanagold’s operations in his province.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.