Site icon Conservation news

Ousted anti-mining mayor heads back to Philippine city hall after landslide win

A rally on May 5 in front of the municipal hall.

A rally on May 5 in front of the municipal hall. Image courtesy of Job Lagrada

  • In July 2021, Mary Jean Feliciano, mayor of Brooke’s Point in the Philippine province of Palawan, was suspended from her post without pay after the country’s Ombudsman’s office ruled she had overstepped her authority in her actions against a nickel mining firm operating in the municipality.
  • While still under suspension as mayor, Feliciano launched a successful vice-mayoral campaign, winning a landslide victory in the May 9 elections.
  • Feliciano’s running mate also won over the pro-mining interim mayor.
  • Feliciano says the vice-mayoral post will allow her to resume her fight against attempts to change local land use policies, which currently have not zoned any of the municipality to allow for mining.

After being stripped of her post for vigorously opposing mining in her community, a local official in the Philippine province of Palawan is heading back to City Hall following a landslide victory in the country’s May 9 elections.

Mary Jean Feliciano, who since July 2021 has been suspended without pay from her post as mayor of the municipality of Brooke’s Point, has found vindication in a successful vice-mayoral run.

Feliciano was proclaimed vice mayor on May 10 after garnering 21,681 votes against her rival, interim vice mayor Rogelio Badua, who won 14,448 votes. Her running mate, Cesario Benedito Jr., won the contest for mayor, defeating interim mayor Georjalyn Joy Quiachon by just 516 votes. (In the Philippines, votes for executive office are tallied separately for the candidates and their running mates.)

Mary Jean Feliciano, who since July 2021 has been suspended without pay from her post as mayor of the municipality of Brooke’s Point, has found vindication in a successful vice-mayoral run. Image courtesy of MMPL Office.

Suspended

In 2017, Brooke’s Point residents reported to Feliciano that Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC) was clearing forests in its concession, which falls within the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, a protected area that serves as the town’s watershed.

In response, Feliciano used her powers as mayor to issue and enforce cease-and-desist, closure, and demolition orders in 2018 against the firm, a subsidiary of the country’s second-largest nickel producer, Global Ferronickel Holdings.

INC, however, contends that it held the requisite permits for tree cutting and was acting legally. In a previous statement to Mongabay, INC said the proclamation declaring Mantalingahan a protected landscape in 2009 respects prior contracts, including the company’s 25-year mineral production sharing agreement that is effective until April 10, 2025.

The company filed a case against Feliciano with the Philippine Ombudsman, which acts on complaints filed against government officials.

In a ruling in 2021, the Ombudsman sided with INC and found Feliciano “guilty of oppression or grave abuse of authority” for her actions against the company. The Ombudsman’s decision entailed a yearlong suspension without pay, in place until July 27, 2022.

By that time, Feliciano should already be one month into her term as vice mayor, a post she previously held from 2007 to 2010.

Feliciano’s win in the recently concluded elections came after the Court of Appeals made public on May 4 its decision to reject Feliciano’s petition to reverse the Ombudsman’s decision for lack of jurisdiction.

By the time the Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued a stoppage order on May 19, 2017, Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC) had already cleared around 20 hectares (50 acres), cutting some 7,000 trees within the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape. Image courtesy of Mary Jean Feliciano’s office.

Running for vice mayor was a strategic choice, Feliciano said, since in this position she will lead the policymaking municipal board and thus can thwart attempts to revise the municipality’s existing comprehensive land use plan (CLUP) and zoning ordinance, which currently provides no space for mineral development.

The interim mayor, a vocal mining advocate who rose to the post after Feliciano’s suspension, issued a business permit to INC on Sept. 29, 2021, and a renewed permit on Jan. 28, 2022, allowing the company to resume operations in its 2,835-hectare (7,005-acre) mining concession area, 80% of which was found to be within “core zones,” or highly environmentally sensitive areas of maximum protection.

“First [on the] agenda is to file a resolution requesting the [incoming] municipal mayor to revoke the mayor’s permit because under the CLUP there is no mineral zone in Brooke’s Point,” Feliciano told Mongabay.

Feliciano used her powers as mayor to issue and enforce cease-and-desist, closure, and demolition orders in 2018 against Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC). Image courtesy of Mary Jean Feliciano via Facebook.

Tension between mining firms and local zoning policies

Ana Christina Bibal, a political ecology and environmental science researcher from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), said existing local zoning policies and government agencies mandated to enforce them are being “weaponized” by the extractive industry to legitimize its encroachments into areas officially designated as conservation zones in Palawan, dubbed the country’s last ecological frontier.

“Despite the presence of extensive environmental laws, strong local opposition and stark long term social and environmental risks, legal decisions in Palawan have often always leaned towards the interests of extractive and corporate industries,” Bibal said.

UPLB assistant professor Ron Jay Dangcalan, who specializes in political economy and environmental politics, said “there are a lot of strategies the national government can use to coerce the local governments to allow mining.” These, he added, include influencing environmental regulatory bodies to issue permits and clearances, and unseating local officials through trumped-up charges and other threats.

“We cannot let the forests and the people of Palawan pay for the blunders of the government. While the country’s needs are temporarily met, they are going to pay for it in the long run,” Dangcalan said.

Most analysts predict the incoming national administration, led by president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the country’s late dictator, will continue pro-mining policies as it attempts to shore up an economy battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The future of Brooke’s Point relies on God and on us citizens — we can’t entrust this to the national government,” Feliciano said.

Job Lagrada, an environmental activist and pastor, said the local election results showed how locals stood their ground to save their forests that provide them with clean water, air, food and other life-giving natural resources. “Brooke’s Point people understand the importance [and] the value of our environment over money,” he told Mongabay.

Leading a series of massive anti-mining rallies in town since last year, Lagrada said the locals will continue to make noise to register their opposition. “There are two more companies trying to secure permits while the acting mayor is still in the throne,” he said. “Brooke’s Point will continue to push out mining companies in our land.”

Banner image: A rally on May 5 in front of the municipal hall. Image courtesy of Job Lagrada.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.