As though enjoying newfound freedom, some mining companies have aggressively expanded operations in the past several months, cutting down trees and carving roads deep into the Philippine forests, sometimes without permits from the authorities.
Riled by the reckless disregard of the law, some local folk living in protected lands have resorted to “people power” to stop mining trucks laden with minerals dead on their tracks.
In images reminiscent of the people’s revolt that toppled strongman Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986, residents of Brooke’s Point in Palawan barricaded a highway last Feb. 18 to stop trucks of Ipilan Nickel Corp. (INC) from hauling nickel ore out of the area.
Weeks earlier, on Jan. 23, residents of Sibuyan Island in Romblon barricaded the port being built in San Fernando by Altai Philippines Mining Corp. (APMC), to bar its trucks from transporting nickel ore out of the island. Things came to a head on Feb. 3, when police broke up the barricade to let the trucks through; three protesters were injured.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has since ordered APMC to halt its construction of a causeway and its transport of nickel ore out of Sibuyan.
The local folk in Sibuyan and Brooke’s Point have not abandoned the barricades and are there for the long haul. Their message to the mining companies is loud and clear: We won’t be cowed by money and power.
“There’s a certain edginess. For the last few months, the communities have been edgy and restless,” Jaybee Garganera, national coordinator of Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM), told CoverStory.ph in a Zoom interview.
The mining industry got a new lease on life when then President Rodrigo Duterte lifted the nine-year moratorium on the grant of new mining permits in April 2021, and the ban on open-pit mining for copper, gold, silver and complex ores eight months later, supposedly to help the economy recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the start of the Duterte administration in 2016, the newly appointed Environment Secretary Regina Lopez banned open-pit mines and closed more than half of the operations of the mining companies after an audit showed violations of the law. Congress rejected Lopez’s appointment as DENR chief in 2017, but Duterte backed the ban.
Until 2021, when “everything was reversed,” Garganera said. “There was shameless, blatant entry and expansion of mining inside protected areas, ancestral domain. There was quarrying and dredging,” he said, referring to Duterte’s last months in office.
“There’s massive and aggressive expansion of mining,” Garganera added. “We’ve not seen anything like this before. Look at Brooke’s Point. They’re doing it inside ancestral domain and protected area, even though they don’t have a barangay or mayor’s permit.”
Brooke’s Point, a town in southern Palawan, has a running cat-and-mouse game with INC.
In 2017, then Mayor Jean Feliciano shut down operations in the firm’s concession area following complaints that it had felled thousands of trees inside a protected forest.
As many as 7,000 trees were cut down in Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, a watershed that straddles Brooke’s Point and four other municipalities, despite a DENR order revoking the firm’s environmental compliance certificate (ECC).
In 2018, Feliciano led hundreds of residents and antimining advocates in demolishing INC’s field offices and bunkhouses.
The company haled Feliciano to court, arguing that it was still appealing the DENR order when she shut down its operations. The mayor responded that she was merely exercising her police power to save the trees.
In July 2021, the Office of the Ombudsman ordered Feliciano’s suspension for a year without pay for grave abuse of authority. (At present, she is the vice mayor of Brooke’s Point.)
Now, the tension that simmered for years has boiled over again, with INC defying Mayor Cesareo Benedito Jr. and continuing its nickel extraction despite not having its mayor’s permit renewed in January.
For Brooke’s Point officials and residents, it was the height of irresponsibility on the firm’s part.
“It’s obvious they’re not recognizing the LGU (local government unit),” Brooke’s Point Councilor Victor Colili told CoverStory.ph in the same Zoom interview. “But we’re telling them that here in the LGU, we have local autonomy and we won’t allow them to do what they’re doing to us.”
Colili said INC also skipped public consultation for the “extended application” of its expired mineral production sharing agreement (MPSA), and so far has failed to secure a certificate of precondition from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
But INC has maintained that its mining agreement did not expire and was only amended to comply with the Philippine Mining Act of 1995. It also claimed to have submitted all the documents for the renewal of its mayor’s permit.
In 1993, Celestial Nickel Mining and Exploration Corp. (CNMEC) secured a mining agreement covering 2,835 hectares of Mantalingahan in Barangays Ipilan and Maasin—a deal effective for 25 years and renewable for another 25 years. Amended in 2000, it is to expire in 2025.
Now it’s INC that operates CNMEC’s nickel laterite property. It is a subsidiary of the Philippines’ second-largest nickel producer, Global Ferronickel Holdings.
Then Environment Secretary Lopez canceled the company’s ECC in December 2016, but the authorities restored it in June 2020. And in September 2021, then Brooke’s Point Acting Mayor Georjalyn Joy Quiachon granted a mayor’s permit in September 2021.
Series of unsettling events
For the people of Sibuyan in Romblon, a series of unsettling events led to their barricade, according to resident and climate activist Rodne Galicha.
As narrated by Galicha: A public scoping for the proposed nickel project was set on Jan. 19, but the venue was changed without the residents being notified.
Then on Jan. 22, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) issued permits to APMC to explore for mineral ore and transport 50,000 tons of nickel ore. The permits were issued hours after Barangay Espana passed an ordinance imposing a 25-year moratorium on mining.
The next day, a ship and a barge dropped anchor in the company’s private port, fueling the residents’ suspicions about the transport of nickel ore out of the island. Before the day ended, dozens of locals and their supporters had massed at the firm’s port, joined by tricycle drivers who blocked the path of mining trucks with their vehicles.
“They’ve stepped on the rights of the villagers. It’s clear the village is opposed to their operation, but they’re insistent,” Galicha, executive director of Living Laudato Si Philippines movement, said in the Zoom interview.
APMC’s mining agreement, signed by then Environment Secretary Lito Atienza in December 2009, allows it to explore for and extract nickel within 1,580 hectares of Barangays Espana and Taclobo in San Fernando.
The concession area straddles several rivers and tributaries, and a watershed.
A drone shot shows a 10-meter-wide road carved by miners through the forest in Espana—a hideous scar in a sea of green. Two ports are also being built in the two barangays.
‘Galapagos of Asia’
Sibuyan has been dubbed the “Galapagos of Asia’’ for its rich flora and fauna. It is home to Mount Guiting-Guiting, site of one of the world’s densest forests and serves as a habitat for endangered and endemic plant and animal species, as well as for the Mangyan tribe.
There are 1,551 trees per hectare in its forest. According to a primer on the island, an estimated 1 million trees will be felled if APMC extracts nickel ore in half of its concession area.
The people of Sibuyan have for years been calling for a suspension of mining exploration that would disrupt the island’s ecosystem.
In September 2011, the DENR suspended APMC’s operations for lack of social acceptability. But 10 years later, it lifted the so-called cease-and-desist order on the firm. In July 2022, the MGB renewed the firm’s exploration permit for another two years.
But there’s more than meets the eye. Galicha said APMC had failed to secure permits to cut down trees and build a causeway, as well as an ECC to construct a private port. So far, he said, it has not produced a barangay clearance, a municipal business permit, a DENR foreshore lease contract, and a permit from the Philippine Ports Authority.
These are violations of the law that would warrant the revocation of its exploration permit and mining agreement, Galicha told Environment Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga in a letter dated Feb. 10.
According to Galicha, APMC is owned by Kenneth Gatchalian, the second-biggest shareholder of the Australia-based Pelican Resources Ltd. He is a brother of Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian.
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has reported that Kenneth Gatchalian is a direct beneficiary of Dynamo Atlantic Ltd., which acquired Sibuyan Nickel Properties Development Corp., a partner company of APMC.
The global demand for nickel ore is high. Since Indonesia stopped its export of nickel ore in 2020, the Philippines has become China’s biggest supplier of the mineral.
In 2021, the Philippines’ nickel output came up to 386,359 tons, 17 percent up from the previous year’s production and the highest in six years, according to a Reuters report.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s administration is banking on the mining industry to help the economy recover from the pandemic. A month into the President’s term, Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno declared that the industry “holds the greatest potential to be a key driver in our economic recovery and long-term growth.”
The MGB has identified about nine million hectares nationwide as potential mineral-rich areas, less than 3% of which are covered by mining contracts.
“The signal that we’re getting is that it’s an open house for mining even though many LGUs are opposed to it, and the resistance is obvious, and the mining projects have no social acceptability,” Garganera said.
From the barricade in Brooke’s Point, Colili urged Secretary Yulo-Loyzaga to heed the mayor’s letter and the municipal council’s resolution seeking a halt to INC operations to give way to a dialogue with the residents.
“We want to lay down, point by point, the violations of this mining company,’’ said Colili, who is also the Indigenous people’s mandatory representative. Otherwise, the barricade will stay until the mining company produces a mayor’s permit, he said.
According to Colili, mineral ores are still being extracted from Sitio Mararag and transported to the mine yard in Sitio New Panay. Both sitios are in Barangay Maasin.
In Sibuyan, the protesting residents also plan to keep the barricade until APMC’s mining agreement and exploration permit are revoked, Galicha said.
“The barricade will be there for the long term. It will become the center for livelihood training,” he said. “It isn’t just a camp, but a symbol of the residents’ opposition to mining.”
Filipinos have high expectations of Secretary Yulo-Loyzaga who has to navigate between the people’s interest and big business.
“I am hopeful that she will mobilize her background and expertise in science and evidence-based decision-making to study these things,” Garganera said, citing Yulo-Loyzaga’s work as climate scientist before her appointment as environment chief.
”Every hectare of forest that we’re able to protect from disturbance is a hectare gained, so we won’t reach the tipping point of climate emergency. And of all people, it is Secretary Yulo-Loyzaga who understands this,” he said.