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Open-pit mining ban lifted in Philippine province, clearing way for copper project

Power lines supply electricity to residents within the Tampakan project

Power lines supply electricity to residents within the Tampakan project. January , 2020. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.

  • Located in the southern Philippine province of South Cotabato, the Tampakan project is touted as the largest undeveloped copper-gold minefield in Southeast Asia and among the biggest of its kind in the world.
  • Since the 1990s, the mine has faced stiff resistance from civil society, the church, and some traditional landowners.
  • In December 2021, officials in Manila overturned a nationwide ban on open-pit mining, leaving a provincial ban in South Cotabato as the last major obstacle facing the mine. That ban was overturned on May 16.
  • Local activists have vowed to continue fighting the mining project, and called on the provincial governor to veto the decision.

MINDANAO, Philippines – Legislators in the southern Philippine province of South Cotabato moved this week to overturn a 12-year-old provincial ban on open-pit mining that has for years stalled the development of a $5.9 billion copper and gold mine.

The May 16 decision to lift the ban came five months after the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) rescinded a nationwide prohibition on open-pit mining put in place in 2017.

Eleven members of the South Cotabato provincial board unanimously approved the lifting of the provincial ban on open-pit mining, exactly a week after the May 9 national and local elections. (Four board members were absent for the vote.)

The proposal to amend the landmark environmental code of South Cotabato, including the removal of the open-pit mining ban, breezed through easily without the board members even explaining their votes.

Bishop Cerilo Casicas, who heads the Catholic Diocese of Marbel where the Tampakan project is located, said the lifting of the ban marked a sad day for South Cotabato. “The amendment allows all forms of mining, including open-pit, in the province. And the future of the province was decided in less than 15 minutes,” he said in a statement.

“The saddest tragedy hitting our province is that only [11 people] decided for the fate of almost a million people of South Cotabato, not counting the future generation,” he added.

South Cotabato Governor Reynaldo Tamayo Jr. can still reverse the decision of the provincial board by vetoing it. But if he signs the decision, or fails to take any action within 15 days, it will pass into law.

Casicas, who called on parishioners to join a solidarity march scheduled for May 19, appealed to the governor to veto the decision. If Tamayo were to veto the measure, the provincial board could override it by a two-thirds vote of the board members.

The crowd, including Church members and Indigenous peoples, inside the South Cotabato  Gymnasium and Cultural Center for the public hearing on the lifting of the controversial open-pit mining ban on February 24, 2022, in Koronadal City. Image by Bong Sarmiento.

The Tampakan mine

The Tampakan project is touted as the largest undeveloped copper-gold minefield in Southeast Asia and among the biggest of its kind in the world. It has the potential to yield an average of 375,000 metric tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold in concentrate per annum in the expected 17-year life of the mine.

Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI), operator of the Tampakan project, has long pushed for the removal of the prohibition on open-pit mining, which it says is the most viable method to extract the massive deposits in its tenement. It has vowed to conduct “responsible mining” for the venture.

For years, Indigenous communities who are the traditional owners of the mining concession were at the center of campaigns to resist the mine. With promises of financial and social benefits, and pressure from within divided communities, many leaders have now signaled their support for the project, but resistance remains strong across the province.

In February, following a public consultation on the proposal to lift the ban, an informal online survey by the office of the vice governor showed the results heavily against the lifting of the measure: 12,137 voting for the ban to remain, compared to only 499 who want it removed.

Nearly 100,000 signatures were also earlier gathered by the local Catholic Church urging the provincial board to retain the ban on open-pit mining.

The Diocese of Marbel, which staunchly opposes the Tampakan project due to concerns over the environment, food security and human rights, vowed to continue protesting against open-pit mining.

“We will not take this sitting down. We will not take this silently,” Casicas said.

The nonprofit Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC) described the decade-long open-pit mining ban in South Cotabato as a model for other local government units in integrating environmental conservation into their development program.

“It is tragic that the provision banning open-pit mining in their landmark ordinance has been lifted,” the LRC said in a statement. “The province changed its stance from protecting the environment and ensuring sustainability for generations of its constituents to supporting the profit-driven exploitation of the environment.”

The end of the ban could bring negative impacts for decades to come, the group said. “Scientists project droughts in Mindanao because of climate change; this mining project puts local water supply to communities and for agricultural livelihoods in grave danger.”

Rey Carvyn Ondap, a priest with the faith-based NGO Passionists International, described the board members who approved the lifting of the ban as “like thieves in the night.”

He said it shows “how low the priorities of elected officials are vis-à-vis the environment.”

“The lifting of the ban on open-pit mining is the death certificate of the [local] people and its neighboring regions,” Ondap said.

Banner image: Power lines supply electricity to residents within the Tampakan project. January, 2020. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.

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