“This land’s our only livelihood”

The Philippine government’s anti-poverty plans are stimulating foreign corporations’ interest in the country’s mineral and metal reserves. On the island of Mindoro, however, indigenous farmers fear they will lose their ancestral homeland to the strip-miners. Ian MacKinnon reports.

For farmers like Ramil Baldo, making a living has never been easy. Venturing out from his bamboo shack, which lacks electricity, running water and sanitation, he harvests whatever he can. Mainly it is bananas and other fruits from the jungle-clad uplands on the Philippine island of Mindoro. Only a stunning mountainous panorama above and a river bubbling below his hilltop settlement offset the privations.

But it appears things may soon become a lot harder for the 34-year-old farmer and at least 5,000 other Mangyans given the plans of a British-based multinational mining company to remove residents from the land they have farmed for six centuries, land that houses their forebears’ sacred ancestral burial grounds.

The threat facing these Mangyans, members of Mindoro’s indigenous people, from the proposal by Crew Development to strip-mine 37.5 square miles (97.2 square kilometers) is so severe that Baldo has left the island for only the second time in his life — to bring the people’s plight to the attention members of the British parliament.

“We don’t ever want to leave this area, especially the burial sites of our forefathers,” he said while at home, sitting in a shack that serves as the schoolhouse for his Kisluyan community. “This land is our ancestral domain, where our grandparents and parents lived and died. It’s the only place we know. We’re worried, very worried. This land’s our only livelihood.”

But the land is also a key part of the plan of the Philippines president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to stake the country’s future on mining to win the “war on poverty”. Immense, barely tapped reserves of minerals and precious metals offer a rich seam of wealth.

Applications for 2,000 mines await a green light. With backing from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Philippines liberalised its mining sector regulations in 1995, giving generous tax breaks and imposing few restrictions on foreign ownership, so as to attract investment by multinational mining companies.

Legal challenges to the legislation failed despite a chequered environmental record and litany of mining disasters.

This year the British parliamentarian Clare Short launched a scathing report on Philippines mining after heading an investigation into human rights and environmental impact. “I have never seen anything so systematically destructive as the mining programme in the Philippines,” she wrote in her introduction to Mining in the Philippines: Conflicts and Concerns. “The environmental effects are catastrophic, as are the effects on lives.”

Apart from the dismay over the trampling of Mangyan rights, there is widespread alarm that Crew’s nickel and cobalt mining could adversely affect the farmland that makes Mindoro a nationally important area for rice. The opencast mine operation that will strip the topsoil and process ore down to 15 metres is crossed by two rivers.

“Our rice fields will be destroyed by the mine,” said Evelyn Cacha, who manages a family-run rice mill and is former chair of the anti-mine coalition ALAMIN. “The ore extraction will spoil surface and groundwater. I tell other millers to look around at the rice fields because we’ll never see their like again.”

In Villa Cerveza, in the eye of the controversy, the mining firm won grudging support from impoverished inhabitants. Crew brought electrification and medical services. However, some residents are not convinced. Larry Lubasan, 50, an opponent, said: “The mining company’s just trying to buy us off. I’m afraid the chemicals will flow into the rivers. Those living near mines in the Philippines see only negative effects.”

Mindoro's 700,000 residents suffered cataclysmic flooding in late 2005, and environmentalists believe upland areas stripped of vegetation by the mining could leave the basin open to flash floods. Crew says it plans to strengthen riverbanks. But for a yearly haul of 40,000 tonnes of nickel and four tonnes of cobalt, four million tonnes of waste “tailings” will be dumped on a land site.

This has raised concerns about leaks — judged unfounded by Crew. The company claims it scrapped earlier plans to pump waste “tailings” almost four kilometres out to sea at Pinamalayan, in rich tuna grounds near an area of strong marine biodiversity. But residents are still sceptical. “The council prohibits us from throwing rubbish around. Why can’t the government ban them from tossing their waste in the sea?” said 68-year-old Deofistas Sales. “There’s no doubt our catches will suffer.”

Pinamalayan’s fishermen have blood ties to the neighbouring island of Marinduque, a Philippine byword for mining disasters. In 1996 a mine spewed four million tonnes of poisonous grey sludge into a river, causing the deaths of two children and affecting 20,000 villagers. Recently the government halted Australia’s Lafayette Mining operations for 16 months at Rapu-Rapu after two cyanide spills within a month.

The disasters spawned an alliance — of Mindoro’s provincial government, the city mayors, the Catholic church, environmentalists and human-rights groups — that is determined to see off Crew. The company, which claims it has got the support of Mindoro’s local councils, says the national government in Manila rates the nickel project a top priority. It says 2,000 mining jobs and 20,000 jobs in supporting industries will be created.

Hans Christian Quist, president of the Norway-based Crew Minerals, a Crew Development subsidiary, said they needed to talk to local politicians, however. “Some have not been well informed.”

But Daphne Villanueva, Christian Aid’s Philippines’ representative, said: “Looking at the history of Philippines mining cases, they’ve all gone wrong. Our role is to protect the rights of the poor against big business. The Mangyans’ rights are already violated and now their lands are being encroached.”

Ned de Guzman, director of Mahal, a Mindoro social development group, said: “Jobs will be for those with mining expertise, from outside the province. Mindoro will bear the full brunt of the costs and see none of the benefits.”


The Philippines archipelago of more than 7,200 islands is among the world’s most mineral-rich countries, with gold, silver, bauxite, nickel and coal mines. But it remains one of Asia’s poorest nations, with a fragile democracy, slow growth, weak institutions and a widening wealth gap. Its mineral reserves are estimated to be worth some $840 billion, yet only 1.4% of the estimated nine million hectares of mining land is covered by permits. To exploit the resources, the government formed a mining act in 1995. It claimed the industry would bring an extra million jobs over the next six years, although only 125,000 people are now employed in mining. The development has come at a price for the country’s 84 million people. The worst mining disaster was on Marinduque island, involving a leak of four million tonnes of toxic waste at Marcopper’s mine. The estimated damages of $80 million have yet to be fully recouped.


Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007