The project faced trouble even before the ban came into force a decade ago. These include security threats from communist rebels and opposition from the local Catholic church, environmentalists and some members of the Blaan tribe.

On New Year’s Day in 2008, communist rebels stormed and burned the SMI base camp in the village of Tablu in Tampakan municipality. The rebels fled with several firearms taken from company guards. The church, meanwhile, has long rejected the mining project, citing its potential environmental hazards as well as concerns over food security and the human rights of the Indigenous peoples in the affected area.

In 2017, the late former environment secretary, Gina Lopez, canceled the Tampakan project’s environmental compliance certificate (ECC) “due to environmental and social concerns.” But in July 2020, the MGB regional office revealed that Duterte’s office had restored the ECC, a decision that was in effect as early as May 6, 2019.

In a similar move, the firm’s 25-year FTAA, which was set to expire on March 21, 2020, was extended for another 12 years in an order that was dated June 8, 2016, but only made public in January 2020. The 12-year extension will allow SMI to operate the mine until 2032, with the possibility of a renewal through 2057.

Gearing up for extraction

Prior to the termination of the municipal agreement, the firm had been gearing up for the commercial production phase. In the past two years, SMI has spent at least 103 million pesos ($2.1 million) on repairing 17.4 kilometers (10.8 miles) of roads in at least two villages in the area, according to the 2019 company report.

The company calls itself a “responsible miner,” citing the commendations it received from the Presidential Mineral Industry Environmental Awards in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Local radio advertisements have been running in recent months repeating this “responsible miner” tag and touting the economic boost that the mine would have in transforming poor communities and changing thousands of lives through job creation.

The controversial Tampakan project straddles scattered communities mostly belonging to the Blaan ethnic tribe. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento

Power supply lines, a major support facility for the mining operation, have already been put in place in the mountains of Tampakan, along with canals and gabions, while exploration studies to determine the stability of the ground for other support facilities are still underway.

On a slope near the SMI base camp in Tablu village, workers were seen in January putting in place soil erosion blankets made from coconut husks.

Escobillo said that month that SMI targets to start mining operations in three years if it can acquire the needed permits from the relevant government agencies, including the ECC from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and FPIC from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

Indigenous opposition and bloodshed

While some Indigenous leaders support the project, others oppose it. Blaan tribal leader Daguel Capion, who used to lead an armed group against the project and has admitted to killing at least three construction workers on the site in 2011, warned of chaos and more bloodshed should SMI proceed with excavating the vast mineral deposits.

In 2013, SMI scaled down its operations, retrenching about 1,000 workers as part of a revised work plan that sought, among other things, to get approval from various government levels and agencies to move the project to the commercial production stage.

“In the years leading to and during the exploration phase, the company would approach and consult with us,” Capion told Mongabay in January. “But nowadays, there are no more negotiations; the community is being kept blind. I hope the company will be more transparent to us.”

Daguel Capion speaks to this journalist in 2012 within the Tampakan mines development site. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento

At least six of Capion’s immediate family members and relatives, including his wife, Juvy, and their two children, were killed in separate instances within the Tampakan project area. Juvy and the children were killed in October 2012 during a military operation aimed at arresting Capion, who was then facing murder charges for the deaths of three people working for a road project funded by SMI the year before.

Capion, who used to work as a community relations officer for SMI before taking up arms in opposition to the Tampakan project, was subsequently arrested in 2015 in neighboring Sarangani province but released almost a year later due to insufficient evidence.

Before his arrest, he had admitted to killing the construction workers and had been linked to several other alleged murder and attempted murder cases targeting government troops and company guards in the mine development site.

Capion, who is highly regarded by his clan and for years has been recognized by environmentalists and the local Catholic church as a legitimate community leader until his group’s disgruntlement turned violent, warned that “more lives will be lost if the large mining project will be allowed to proceed” on the Blaan ancestral land.

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Banner image of SMI’s Tampakan mining basecamp in South Cotabato, Philippines. Image by Bong Sarmiento

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