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Activists welcome decision to revoke permit for controversial Philippine gold mine

Tampakan government employees close a facility belonging to Sagittarius Mines, Inc.

Tampakan government employees close a facility belonging to Sagittarius Mines, Inc. following the revocation of the firm’s permit from the office of the municipal mayor. Photo supplied by a local resident.

  • On Sept. 15, local officials in the southern Philippine municipality of Tampakan revoked the business permit for mining firm Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI), which is seeking to develop a massive copper and gold mine in the area.
  • Local officials cited alleged fraud and misrepresentation by the company, noting that it categorized itself as a mineral exploration manufacturer while an assessment found it to be operating as a general engineering contractor.
  • The company also recently filed a court petition against the local government, which is seeking to collect 397 million pesos ($6.9 million) in accumulated taxes and surcharges. Local officials deny any link between the tax dispute and the permit revocation.
  • Local activists have hailed the revocation of the permit as a victory in a decades-long campaign against the mine.

TAMPAKAN, Philippines — In a move celebrated by anti-mining activists, local officials in the southern Philippine municipality of Tampakan have canceled the business permit for a controversial copper and gold mine, citing alleged fraud and misrepresentation by the operator, Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI).

“The firm does not have a permit anymore from the local government to operate in our jurisdiction. We closed their facility here,” Tampakan Mayor Leonard Escobillo said at a press conference on Sept. 16.

According to Escobillo’s order revoking the company’s permit, SMI declared itself a mineral exploration manufacturer in its permit application. But an assessment by the local government found the company to be operating as a general engineering contractor.

In canceling SMI’s permit, the mayor said he was enforcing the Municipal Tax Code of 2012, which allows local authorities to revoke or deny business permits if the applicant deliberately made false statements in their application.

“There’s nothing personal in this case,” Escobillo told reporters. “We are just doing our obligation, which is to implement our tax ordinance.” According to local officials, the alleged irregularities came to light during a general audit of businesses operating in the municipality.

Mongabay sought a comment from SMI but the firm did not respond as of the time this story was published.

Tampakan Mayor Leonard Escobillo (in pink shirt) discusses the revocation of the mayor’s permit issued to Sagittarius Mines, Inc. on Friday, Sept. 16, during a press conference at the municipal hall. Photo by Bong S. Sarmiento.

Welcome news for activists

Local activists have hailed the cancellation as a victory in a decades-long fight against SMI’s plans to bring the Tampakan copper and gold mine into production.

Tampakan Forum, a coalition of various groups opposing the Tampakan project and spearheaded by the local Catholic Church, expressed jubilation upon learning SMI’s permit was canceled. “The revocation can be considered as another victory towards stopping SMI from operating in the area. We laud the local government unit for this positive move,” said Jerome Millan, director of the Social Action Center of the Diocese of Marbel.

The Tampakan project is touted as the largest undeveloped copper-gold minefield in Southeast Asia and among the largest of its kind in the world. Based on a company study, the Tampakan project has the potential to yield an average of 375,000 metric tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold in concentrate annually throughout the 17-year life of the mine.

The project area lies within the ancestral domain of the Blaan tribespeople, an estimated 4,000 of whom would be displaced once excavation begins. In addition, anti-mining groups say the project would result in the felling of primary forests and pollution of nearby water sources and irrigation, given its proximity to several major watersheds.

“This is a positive development, especially for the local residents who have been fighting to stop the mining firm from operating in our area,” said Rene Pamplona, a resident of Tampakan municipality and chair of the Alyansa Tigil Mina (Alliance to Stop Mining).

Yolanda Esguerra, national coordinator of the Philippine Misereor Partnership, Inc., a network of social development and advocacy groups in the country, called the decision a model for other local officials across the Philippines. “It gives an example for other local government units that they have the power to exercise their authority under the law, to willfully decide on its development direction, protect its people and ecological systems, and assert its governmental autonomy,” she said.

Tampakan government employees close a facility belonging to Sagittarius Mines, Inc. following the revocation of the firm’s permit from the office of the municipal mayor. Photo supplied by a local resident.

The notice of revocation of SMI’s permit was served to the company’s offices in Tampakan and in Polomolok, both in South Cotabato province, by the local government on Sept. 15, Escobillo said.

SMI’s core facility, in the village of Liberty, was padlocked as a result of the cancellation of the firm’s business permit, Escobillo said.

The move came on the heels of a court petition filed by SMI before a local court asking for a review and issuance of a temporary restraining order against the local government’s demand to collect 397 million pesos ($6.9 million) in accumulated taxes and surcharges. The local government was notified of the petition on Sept. 8 and has 30 days to respond.

Nena Santos, a lawyer for the Tampakan municipal government, said the revocation of SMI’s permit “has nothing to do” with the tax dispute.

SMI made a false statement in its application for a mayor’s permit, which is why the local government canceled it, with the tax case being an entirely different matter, Santos said at the same press conference

“The company falsely claimed that they are already into manufacturing,” she said, noting the firm has not yet commenced commercial mining operations.

The mayor said SMI has various avenues for redress under the law and the local ordinance for the lifting of its canceled permit, but did not elaborate.

Forested mountains within the Tampakan mining tenement. Image by Bong Sarmiento.

Reversals of fortune

The revocation of the mayor’s permit is the latest the blows to a mining project that has been mired in controversy since the area’s reserves were confirmed in the 1990s.

The Tampakan project has been staunchly opposed by the local Catholic Church and environmental groups over concerns for the environment, food security, health, and human rights.

Security threats from the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and armed tribesmen also hobbled the Tampakan project. On New Year’s Day 2008, NPA rebels stormed and burned the company’s base camp in the hinterland village of Tablu in Tampakan.

In 2010, the South Cotabato provincial government imposed a landmark ban on open-pit mining, the method that SMI says is the most viable way to extract the deposits lying near the surface. The ban hampered SMI’s bid to proceed to commercial operation.

The company has seen some victories as well. In October 2020, the Philippine National Commission on Indigenous Peoples granted the project what’s known as “certification precondition,” confirming that the traditional owners of the project site have consented to the project, and that the company has complied satisfactorily with the process of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

While anti-mining advocates denounced this development and the process that led to it, there are growing indications that Indigenous resistance to the project, once the backbone of the anti-mining movement, has fractured and faltered.

Then, in May 2022, legislators in South Cotabato lifted the provincial mining ban, removing the decade-old thorn in SMI’s side. However, that reversal of fortune was short-lived: South Cotabato Governor Reynaldo Tamayo Jr. vetoed the measure in June 2022, so the ban on open-pit mining remains in effect across the province.

Banner image: Tampakan government employees close a facility belonging to Sagittarius Mines, Inc. following the revocation of the firm’s permit from the office of the municipal mayor. Photo supplied by a local resident.

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