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A Philippine community fights a lonely battle against the mine in its midst

Julie of SAPAKKMMI overlooking the open-pit mine. Image by Kalikasan PNE

  • A tribal community in the Philippines has since July maintained a blockade of a controversial gold mine whose permit has expired but whose operator insists is allowed to continue working pending a renewal.
  • The expiration in June of the permit held by OceanaGold Philippines Inc. (OGPI) for the Didipio mine has sparked a policy tangle, given that it’s the first permit of its kind in the Philippines to end, with no precedent for how the renewal application should proceed.
  • The provincial government supports the end of mining operations, but has been largely bypassed in the permit renewal process, which existing laws place under the authority of the national government.
  • President Rodrigo Duterte, who has criticized destructive mining practices in the past, omitted to do so in his latest state of the nation address, but has thrown the community a lifeline by requiring that OGPI seek free, prior and informed consent for its renewal application.

MANILA — Tribal leader Celia Bahag no longer remembers what Mount Dinkidi looked like before the wave of mining activities washed over her barangay, or village, of Didipio in the Philippine province of Nueva Vizcaya. Beckoned by untapped gold and copper deposits, Arimco Mining Corporation made the area the center of its Philippine operations in the 1990s, bulldozing the high peak into steps of tilled land for a large-scale open-pit mine.

Bahag only knows the mountain from a vicarious memory: a single black-and-white photograph unearthed with the help of nongovernmental organizations. But like her, the Ifugao community that calls Didipio home knows by heart the decades of struggle against the mining giant.

Over the past two decades, the mining activities have gone from open pit to underground, and the operating permit, the Financial or Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA), has been transferred from Arimco to Climax-Arimco Mining Corporation to Australasian Philippine Mining Inc., which since 2007 has been known as OceanaGold Philippines Inc. (OGPI).

The 27,000-hectare (66,700-acres) Didipio mine straddles the border between the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino, some 270 kilometers (170 miles) northeast of Manila. It’s believed to hold 1.41 million ounces of gold and 169,400 tons of copper, enough to keep it running for at least another 20 years. And keeping it running seems to be the operator’s plan — despite the fact that the FTAA, signed in 1994, expired this past June.

Bahag, like most residents of the barangays affected by the mining operations, had hoped the expiration signaled the end — a reckoning of sorts for the Australia-based miner that demolished 187 houses here in 2008 and imposed a climate of impunity in the once sleepy town.

Instead, the expiration of the country’s first mining FTAA has become a complicated tangle as the community and OGPI engage in a battle both on the streets and in the courts, revealing inherent gray areas in the agreement, the mining law itself, and the lack of standards on renewals and expirations for large-scale mining contracts.

‘People’s barricade’

OGPI began the process of applying for a renewal in October 2018, seeking to extend its contract for another 25 years “under the same terms and conditions.” But the renewal process dragged on until the contract expired on June 20 this year.

The provincial government, headed by Governor Carlos Padilla, a staunch opponent of mining in general and OGPI in particular, issued a directive that same day. He urged local officials in the barangays of Didipio and Alimit, which host the mine, “to restrain any operations of OceanaGold upon the expiration” of the FTAA.

OGPI rebuked this, saying that the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), an arm of the environment department that handles mining contracts, had allowed it to continue operating pending a contract extension.

Residents from three communities created a makeshift barricade to stop the entry and exit of trucks in the Didipio mines in Nueva Vizcaya. Image by Alyansa Novo Vizcayano para sa Kalikasan (ANVIK)

“Whilst the renewal is being processed, OGPI has the right to continue the Didipio Mine despite the initial term of FTAA,” OGPI general manager David Way said in a letter.

On June 25, Padilla issued a provincial order to stop the mine’s operations. By July 1, community members in Didipio and two nearby barangays had turned two abandoned police checkpoints into a barricade to stop trucks and service vehicles from entering or exiting the site. Armed police officers with patrol vehicles were stationed near the checkpoints, sent by the governor to support the communities.

Three months on, the blockade remains, manned by locals working in shifts.

“We all know that their FTAA is expired yet they insist that they have the right to continue,” Bahag says. “We’ve been fighting for 25 years because we believe that if we allow this foreign corporation to continue, there will be no environment left for the future generation.”

OGPI said it was carrying out preventive maintenance to avoid skirmishes and on Oct. 15, formally suspended its operations while the renewal process is ongoing. In a letter to Mongabay, OceanaGold states that the barricade “have impeded access to and from the mine site in response to an unlawful directive from the Governor.”

The resistance has snowballed into a province-wide protest, gathering support from peasant groups, farmers, indigenous peoples’ groups, and provincial organizations. Even the Catholic Diocese of Bayombong in Nueva Vizcaya called for a street demonstration on Oct. 9 against the renewal of the contract.

The stuggle has also reached beyond Philippine shores. Last August, global indigenous peoples alongside national and international organizations held simultaneous rallies in Australia, El Salvador and Canada to call for the non-renewal of OGPI’s FTAA in Nueva Vizcaya.

“We filed as many the petitions that we can — from the Office of the President, to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources [DENR], the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, the municipal, the provincial — but nothing changes,” Bahag says.

“That’s why we believe it’s time to do extralegal measures and set up a barricade … and we intend to continue this until OceanaGold leaves.”

The open pit gold and copper mine in Didipio has been transformed into an underground mine in 2015 by OceanaGold Philippines Inc. (OGPI). Image by Keith Schneider

Evading a cul-de-sac

The community isn’t the only side digging in for battle. OGPI has filed five legal challenges to the blockade in the past three months. A regional court has junked two of those petitions on the grounds that the FTAA had expired. As such, the court ruled, “the right from which OGPI derives its authority to conduct mining operations ceases to exist.”

The mining company, in a press release, said the provincial government has no authority over the fate of the Didipio mine and has appealed the ruling.

The standoff stems from the fact that OGPI’s request for an FTAA extension is unprecedented in the Philippines.

“It’s the first time that a mining contract applies for renewal so there’s no precedence,” Leon Dulce, from the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), an NGO, tells Mongabay. “It’s not clear in the IRR [implementing rules and regulations] of the mining act how the renewal process goes.”

He adds that the national government’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau only has a checklist of documents as basis for renewal but “doesn’t include existing complaints and violations.”

To address the current stalemate, the MGB is eyeing issuing an “interim renewal,” which would allow the company to legally continue its operations for two years while the renewal process is ongoing.

The curious case of ‘FTAA 001’ and a process veiled in secrecy

OceanaGold’s Didipio contract is the first in the country to expire under the oversight of the Mining Act of 1995. The FTAA, however, was signed a year before the promulgation of the act and five years before the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997.

As such, the FTAA issued to Arimco Mining Corporation in 1994 made little mention of rehabilitation and clustered it under “Work Programs,” which also includes exploration and extraction activities.

“Compared to the regulations stipulated in the Mining Act, OceanaGold’s FTAA is far from the bar set by the mining act,” Dulce says. “That’s why OceanaGold has free rein over their operations.”

But even the mining act itself is “fundamentally flawed,” Dulce adds, explaining that it conflicts with numerous other laws. For one, the act gives the national government the sole power to approve large-scale mining operations, which in effect snubs out the jurisdiction of local governments.

Indigenous peoples groups, farmers peasant movements and environmental groups during a solidarity mission against OceanaGold’s Didipio operations. Image by Kalikasan PNE

To that extent, OGPI’s ongoing renewal process has largely bypassed the provincial government, which was not furnished with copies of the MGB letter the company claims allow it to continue its operations after the expiration of its FTAA. Nor was it informed that the environment department had endorsed a renewal to the office of the president.

Residents have similarly been overlooked for consultation during the renewal process. “It did not inform the local governments about its application and has not secured the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the affected indigenous peoples,” Alyansa Tigil Mina, an anti-mining coalition, says in a statement.

The position of the president’s office was the same: It returned the renewal application and mandated the company to comply with the process of obtaining FPIC from the community, a requirement by the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP), the MGB said.

Bad blood, escalating tensions on the ground

The ongoing blockade is the second time for residents. In 2016, it hosted its first standoff against a 400-meter (1,300-foot) drilling operation. They succeeded: OGPI halted its operations and then-environment secretary Gina Lopez vowed to suspend the mining giant’s operations in the province.

By 2017, the DENR under Lopez suspended five mining corporations including OceanaGold in a massive nationwide crackdown. The suspension was revoked before Lopez stepped down in the same year, and the Didipio mine was set for an assessment that didn’t go through because the FTAA expired this year.

The mine, however, has long seen violence.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) found that in 2011, OGPI was responsible for the violent evictions of residents and demolition of hundreds of community homes in 2008 through a “demolish now, pay later” scheme.

However, no legal cases were filed against OceanaGold for the events of 2008, nor was its presence investigated for human rights abuses that could lead to the withdrawal of its FTAA despite the CHR’s recommendations.

After the recent string of legal victories, supporters conducted a solidarity mission in July but while the mood was celebratory, the tension on the ground was palpable, Dulce says. “The rumormongering that these farmers are members of the New People’s Army resurfaced. Even personnel who work at the mines observed that they’re being tailed.”

Unlike other cases of communities against mining, the local provincial government fully supports the barricade. Image by Kalikasan PNE

When the president goes quiet over mining

Bahag traveled for more than eight hours to Manila last June, wearing the ancestral loincloths of the Ifugao-Tuwali, the indigenous tribe that lives in the northern border of Nueva Vizcaya, to seek support for an anti-mining petition and to rally in Mendiola, a famed site for street protests.

The tribe, headhunters in centuries past, was displaced by a hydro project and a mining operation in Ifugao. They struck a blood pact with the Bungkalot, the original inhabitants in the area, and today constitute the majority of residents in the affected mining communities.

Bahag felt she had good reason to go: President Rodrigo Duterte has always spoken out against destructive mining practices in his three state of the nation addresses (SONA) and upheld a ban on open-pit mining introduced in 2017.

But at this year’s SONA, Bahag was left disappointed: Duterte made no statement on mining in general, and has said nothing about the standoff over OGPI’s expired FTAA.

“Duterte had all the opportunities to cancel the renewal if he’s true to his word against destructive mining practices and open-pit mining,” Dulce says. “Yet he didn’t and there’s zero mention of mining in the last SONA … Instead, they became technical. That’s alarming for us because it’s possible for the president to change his tune on mining.”

Despite the current atmosphere, the community is adamant about maintaining the blockade. Its fate, however, will depend on the president, whose signature will either extend the mining operation or end it for good. It’s also a decision that will reverberate far beyond the Didipio mine, groups say, as it could set the template for how existing mining permits are dealt with upon expiration.

“OceanaGold is a litmus test,” Dulce says. “We’ll see if he’s going to hold this company accountable or if he’s going to reward them despite the violations and of course, the strong local resistance.”

This article was updated on Oct. 16 to note that OGPI formally suspended its mining operations in the Didipio mine on Oct. 15.

Banner image of a member of the Samahang pang Karapatan ng mga Katutubong Magsasaka at Manggagawa (SAPAKKMMI) overlooking the open-pit Didipio mine in the province of Nueva Vizcaya. Most members of SAPAKKMMI initially embraced the mining operations in the 1990s but unmet promises led them to become one of its biggest opposition. Image by Kalikasan PNE

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