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Philippine government flips local officials’ entry ban for mining ship

Nairb.Idi9 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

  • The central government in the Philippines has overturned a decision by local authorities to ban a foreign ship from docking and taking on chromite ore on the island of Homonhon.
  • Local community officials had imposed the block as part of efforts to lock down the province in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The central government, through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, initially supported the move by suspending the export permit of miner Techiron Resources Inc., but later overturned its own decision and allowed the company to continue operations.
  • The incident should push mining industries to suspend operations amid the pandemic, an anti-mining group says, as it endangers locals.

HOMONHON ISLAND, Philippines — The Philippine government has allowed a ship to dock on the island of Homonhon to take on a cargo of chromite ore, overriding local authorities who had earlier denied the vessel entry amid a province-wide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Residents of Homonhon, in the central Philippine archipelago of Visayas, had received reports in March that the MV VW Peace, a general cargo ship listed in Panama and with a crew of Chinese and Myanmar nationals, planned to dock at the island’s Cantilado Pier. It was reportedly due to collect 7,000 tonnes of chromite and other mineral ore with an estimated value of $1.2 million from Techiron Resources Inc.’s 1,500-hectare (3,700-acre) mining site.

The ship, with a carrying capacity of 9,423 t DWT (deadweight tonnage), sailed from Macau and docked in Davao City for a few days before locals confirmed that it was headed straight for Homonhon Island on April 4 or 5, before returning to China.

Local village chiefs, known as village captains, immediately imposed an existing joint resolution, passed March 6, that blocks the entry of foreigners to the island amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The move was supplemented by a March 22 provincial directive that banned foreign vessels and non-residents from entering Eastern Samar province, where Homonhon is located.

That directive, passed by Eastern Samar Governor Ben Evardone, places the whole province under a “general community quarantine” and mandates concerned local agencies to “refuse the entry of any vessel attempting to dock and enter the province through the coastlines” to protect residents from the virus.

The stringent measures came before the Eastern Visayas region, which includes Eastern Samar, reported its first cases of local transmissions of the coronavirus on April 7. The Philippines has 4,932 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 315 deaths as of April 13.

“Despite many concerns due to the broadening of COVID-19 infection, we are forever vigilant,” says Wenifredo Gapate Jr., one of the village captains who signed the resolution barring non-residents from Homonhon. “We will continue to monitor the movements of these mining companies. We intend to boot them out of the island because they are destroying our home and are robbing our children of their future.”

The community block was also supported by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which initially suspended the company’s export permit. But that didn’t last long: by April 11, the DENR overturned its decision and allowed the company to continue its operations.

Residents and environmental groups have expressed dismay over the decision by the central government, calling it “irresponsible.” They say that allowing the mining company to continue its operations amid the lockdown endangers the locals’ health and threatens the island’s fragile water supply.

“The only industries who are allowed to operate during the lockdown are basic industries,” Yoly Esguerra of the Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc. (PMPI), a church-based NGO, tells Mongabay. “Mining is not a basic industry so effectively, they shouldn’t operate.”

In addition to 4,800 residents, Homonhon is one of the few remaining habitats of the critically endangered Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia).

The entire province of Eastern Samar is covered by a 2005 provincial ordinance that prohibits large-scale mining activity following a series of open-pit mining operations in the early 2000s that left the islands of Homonhon and Manicani polluted. Large-scale mining operation permits in the Philippines generally cover 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres) and are granted through a Financial or Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA).

Techiron is the last chromite miner still operating on the island after former environment secretary Gina Lopez suspended two other mining firms in 2017.  In 2016, Swiss mining firm Solway Investment Group joined with Techiron in its Homonhon Chromite Project; the venture operates two mining sites on the island.

China is the company’s major market, according to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB). The site has 56 million tonnes of chromite deposits;  according to disclosed 2016 data, the company had exported 28,100 tonnes of chromite and other minerals worth $3.6 million.

Techiron has been embroiled in a profit-sharing disagreement with Cambayas Mining Corporation, the original operator and permit holder of the Homonhon chromite site. The disagreement escalated in 2019, when Cambayas president Yan Ming brought 50 police personnel into the community to implement a court order and threatened to take over the site. Ming has since been banned from the island following the incident.

In the same year, the company was invested in developing a 7,000-hectare (17,300-acre) banana plantation in the southern Mindanao region. But the plan was reportedly shelved after the company’s representative, Robert Gaspar, was linked to a series of money-laundering and fraud cases in Spain.

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Banner image of Homonhon Island in Eastern Samar. Image by Nairb.Idi9 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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