- The pursuit of cleaner sources of energy could lead to the destruction of a biodiversity hotspot of global significance — the ‘Galapagos of Asia’ — a new analysis argues.
- Communities on Sibuyan Island have opposed mining for over 50 years but need decisive action from the government to safeguard their forests and rivers via a permanent mining ban.
- Demand for nickel and other ‘energy transition metals’ is set to increase, requiring long-term planning and rigorous, independent and participatory assessment of environmental & social impacts.
- This post is an analysis. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
A nickel mining concession that overlaps a protected area threatens the unique biodiversity of Sibuyan, a remote island at the center of the Philippine archipelago renowned for its natural beauty and endemic flora and fauna. This poses a litmus test of the government’s commitment to safeguard the outstanding biodiversity of the Philippines and the communities that depend on it.
No environmental compliance certificate has been issued for full mining operations, but Altai Philippines Mining Corporation (APMC) was initially authorized to mine 50,000 tons of laterite under an exploratory permit. Serious breaches of environmental regulations, including the illegal construction of a causeway, led the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to issue a cease and desist order, while action by local residents tried to stop the company’s trucks from bringing nickel laterite to the causeway.
Nickel is a growing component of the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles and in energy storage. Global demand for nickel is expected to increase between 6 and 19 times current levels between 2020 and 2040, according to the International Energy Agency, with an increasing share of this open-pit laterite nickel coming from jurisdictions with weaker environmental and social standards.
The Philippines contains an estimated 5% of global nickel reserves in the form of extensive and shallow deposits of laterite, surface mined after removing the overlying vegetation and topsoil. Nickel mining has dramatically transformed several Philippine islands, vividly illustrated by Hinatuan Island which has a nickel mine half the size of the APMC concession on Sibuyan. Ironically, the Sibuyan municipality in which the mining lease is located is proposed to be declared as a Tourism Development Area.
Nickel mining will unleash extensive damage on rivers, reefs, and local livelihoods. APMC’s own project documents state that “surface mining will entail ground clearings and alteration of slopes. The consequences are erosion and sedimentation and turbidity of streams, which will affect the surrounding sea.” Nickel mining elsewhere in the Philippines has been linked to unsafe levels of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen that was featured in the film Erin Brockovich.
‘Galapagos of Asia’
Sibuyan Island is a small (449 km2) island surrounded by deep ocean and situated approximately in the center of the Philippines. The geographic isolation of the island has led to the evolution of endemic plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, making it of international importance for conservation and leading to its moniker, “Galapagos of Asia.”
In recognition of the extraordinary biodiversity and endemism of the island’s mountainous forests and jagged peaks, Mt. Guiting-Guiting Natural Park was declared by presidential decree in 1996 and ratified by Congress in 2018. The new protected area received the backing of the European Union and the Dutch Government while a parallel project led by WWF Philippines sought to improve rural livelihoods and bring recognition to Indigenous peoples’ customary land titles on the island.
Recent work has demonstrated that Philippine fauna is far richer than researchers previously assumed, with endemic species continuing to be discovered on Sibuyan and other islands. Much of the shift in appreciation of the evolutionary diversification in the Philippines has resulted from a better understanding of the archipelago’s complex geological history. Paradoxically, the same geological processes that produced this exceptional biodiversity are also responsible for the ultramafic rock type which is mined for laterite nickel.
Dr. Lawrence Heaney of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago has researched the biodiversity of Sibuyan since 1989 and has said, “I have documented five species of mammals that live only on Sibuyan Island. This is greater than the number of mammal species that are unique to any entire country in continental Europe. I know of no island of similar size globally that has as many unique species. This is an extraordinary number from such a small island.”
Community opposition to mining
Sibuyan’s 60,000-strong population lives along the island’s coast and foothills. Local communities on Sibuyan have successfully opposed open-pit mining for over 50 years to protect their clean rivers, forest livelihoods and coastal reef fisheries, calling on successive Philippines presidents to declare the island free of metallic mining and revoke all existing exploration permits.
When asked, Barangay Councilor Donato Royo from España, one of two affected barangays on Sibuyan Island, said:
“We dread the effects of mining on our land, forest, and sea. Where shall we go if the mine pushes through? Sibuyan is the only place we know—it is our home, where we were born, live, and will die. Our survival depends on the island. We do not want our island to be mined (ipamina), we want to bequeath it as an inheritance to the next generation (ipamana).”
Impact of mining
The social impacts of nickel mining are also potentially devastating as globally more than half the transition minerals resource base is located on or near the lands of Indigenous peoples and rural communities. These territories sustain livelihoods as well as protect important terrestrial biodiversity and ecosystem services. Mongabay recently reported on toxic spills in Indonesia, the planet’s largest producer of laterite nickel, which have caused widespread livelihood impacts.
Canadian company Altai Resources Inc., which lists interests in Sibuyan and which previously reported APMC as a subsidiary, has identified 19 million tons of soil and rock that it will remove from the protected area and its buffer zone, clearing up to 1,580 hectares (3,904 acres) of forest in the process. Preliminary surveys indicate that there is a much larger unexplored area with similar nickel occurrence and the Philippines government has already granted exploration permits covering a further 5,500 hectares (13,591 acres) of forests around and overlapping the protected area.
Mining history and recent developments
Though mining concessions have been threatening Sibuyan since the 1970s, the first Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (an exclusive permit to mine a concession area) was not granted by the DENR until 2009. It covers two large areas of coastal and mountain forest and overlaps with the Mt. Guiting-Guiting Natural Park buffer zone and strict protection zone.
In 2011, in response to community mobilization, the DENR intervened and ordered exploration to stop. In 2017, the late DENR Secretary Gina Lopez, banned all open-pit mining in the Philippines.
The DENR stop order in Sibuyan was however lifted in 2021 ending the nationwide ban on open-pit mining. Though an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process has yet to be conducted to secure the permits to operate, the current Mineral Production Sharing Agreement holder, APMC, has been acting outside the law to construct a causeway for a port facility, cut trees, and extract ore.
As a result, in February 2023, the DENR intervened again to temporarily halt mining operations, citing violations of environmental laws and absence of permits for tree cutting and causeway construction.
Community members protesting the illegal mining operations at the drilling site were subject to police violence (which was caught on video) and wrongful arrest in February 2023. The Philippines Commission on Human Rights has received multiple complaints of harassment and intimidation, including that the mining company barred teachers from participating in anti-mining protests and forced students who participated to issue a public apology. Several environmental defenders are now the subject of legal action by the mining company, which protesters view as intimidation aimed at silencing opposition.
Village representatives have been manning a barricade to protect the forest and reefs from further damage. Elizabeth Ibañez, an island resident from one of the affected barangays, who is often stationed at the barricade, said: “Sibuyan, I pray you will not be desecrated because of the greed and selfishness of a few. I give you my oath: I will never sell you to the miners.”
Sibuyanons are reaching out to Philippines media and protesting to show their opposition to mining, with the support of church and diaspora groups. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Romblon has communicated via an intermediary that it “opposes all forms of metallic mining in Sibuyan and the province of Romblon.” Recently, over 1,300 island residents gathered in Barangay Taclobo for an anti-mining rally.
All over Sibuyan Island, especially in the municipality of San Fernando, signs of various styles, often handmade, proclaim “No to Mining.” Residents have put up red flags and hang the “no to mining” posters in front of their houses. Since the February 2, 2023 blockade, volunteers set up the “Barikada” camp to block access to the site of the illegal causeway. The video of residents blockading APMC trucks with nickel ore that went viral on social media triggered local and national media coverage. Efforts to spread awareness of the mining issue are also made by individuals through social media using the hashtag #notomininginsibuyanisland which on Tiktok alone has reached 6.5 million views.
The local legislative bodies of the affected localities have passed resolutions calling the national government and DENR to revoke the mining company’s Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) and to ban any form of mining in Sibuyan.
Following the suspension of mining, local residents filed for a writ of kalikasan at the Philippines Supreme Court against the DENR, APMC and the Mines & Geosciences Bureau, in an attempt to permanently halt the mining. The writ was granted on 13 June 2023, providing ‘a legal remedy for persons or organizations whose constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology is violated or threatened.’ The writ places a requirement on the mining company and government agencies to provide evidence to dispel concerns regarding potential harmful impact of a project to the environment.
The DENR has repeatedly assured residents that its experts will visit the island to gather evidence, as Sibuyan residents have expressed frustration at the lack of engagement from the DENR secretary, who is being urged to cancel the Mineral Production Sharing Agreement of APMC. Human rights advocates are also pressing the Canadian government to explain the possible involvement of a Canadian company in legal violations and harassment of peaceful protesters in the central Philippines.
On social media, many environmental defenders are asking the same question – how can destroying the extraordinary biodiversity of Sibuyan and the lives of its island communities ever be justified?
Jake Willis works with a range of international and national agencies including IUCN, KfW and UNDP to improve the design, implementation and monitoring of conservation programs in Latin America, Central Africa, the Himalayas and Southeast Asia. He served as a forestry expert with Mt. Guiting-Guiting Natural Park from 2001-2003.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of the impacts of nickel mining and related mining activities on marine ecosystems, listen here:
See related coverage of mining in the Philippines: