Agusan bishop says Church will stand up for and defend environment if DENR can't

SAN FRANCISCO, Agusan del Sur (MindaNews/15 November) –  “The Church will stand up for and defend the environment if the Department of Environment and Natural Resoruces  (DENR) cannot,” Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos said Saturday, after officiating at the mass attended by some 2,000 residents from Rosario, San Francisco and Prosperidad towns in Saturday’s anti-mining caravan.

He said the mass action against mining in the Mt. Magdiwata watershed was “an expression of  People Power against the destruction of nature and the threat on the lives of the community.”

“It is an expression of people’s prayers and concrete action of the Church,” the bishop added.

Mt. Magdiwata is the only source of potable water supply for the town and residents had earlier expressed fears of a “disaster waiting to happen” if  mining activities in the watershed are not stopped.

San Francisco resident Butch Garcia warned a “Ginsaugon-like tragedy” would bury the town if authorities do not stop mining in the area. He was referring to the disaster in February 2006, when at least a thousand persons were killed in a mudslide in Guinsaugon, St. Bernard, Leyte.

In a press statement released by the Agusan del Sur’s information office, Gov. Adolph Edward
Plaza  said  protection of the watershed is one of the provincial government’s top priorities, it, being the source of water for communities around it.

He said the provincial government can only do so much. “We call on all stakeholders to support and be counted in protecting and preserving the watershed,” he said.

Mt. Magdiwata, located at the west side of San Francisco, was declared a watershed and protected area under Presidential Proclamation No. 282.

“Imminent danger”

After the mass at the Sacred Heart church, Sacred Heart parish priest Modesto Malacdang together with Elmer Luzon, San Francisco Water District (SFWD) general manager, led at least 200 caravan participants, mostly students from Catholic schools, in an ocular visit at the mining area.

But the police warned them not to enter allegedly because of the presence of  undetermined number of  armed men.

“We  cannot allow the people to proceed to the area due to imminent danger” Senior Inspector Joel Biñas, the town’s police chief told caravan organizers who  arrived at 11 a.m. at the foot of Mt. Magdiwata in Sitio Sumogbong, Barangay Alegria, a kilometer away from the mining tunnels owned by Judito  Pintado who claimed to be a Manobo.

The placard-bearing residents aboard  a hundred cars and motorbikes, proceeded to Barangay Alegria after passing Rosario and San Francisco’s national highway.

Biñas said they received reports that Manobo leaders were arming themselves and ready to drive away any intruder in their ancestral land.

Sources said the Manobo leaders were provoked because of a possible confiscation of their gold ore stocks by government authorities after  a team from the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources (MENRO) led by Adolfo Ariño shut down  a  mining tunnel owned by Pintado on the same day.   It added that the Manobos got mad at MENRO personnel after they allegedly poured a suspected toxic and odorous chemical into the tunnel.

Father Malacdang said the group  only wanted to see the reported environmental damages caused  by  gold-ore mining  tunnels in Mount  Magdiwata.

“We will just appeal to them to stop the (operations in the) mining tunnels but we have no authority to confiscate any of their property,” Malacdang said.

No firearms

The town police chief denied Malacdang’s request but  allowed four journalists, including a reporter of a local government-television station covering the event, to proceed without security escort.

Although they  failed to reach the mining site, Malacdang said the protest action has raised the level of awareness of the people on the importance of protecting the environment.

Pintado together with some officers of the Diwata Bunrosa Sectoral Tribal Council (DBSTC) denied the allegations that they were armed and would harm people who were coming in.

Manobo Datu  Adlayan, DBSTC administrative officer, told reporters, “wala’y among mga armado ug wala gani mi kwarta (we have no armed men and we have no money).

The DBSTC is an organization of Manobos in Bunawan, Rosario and San Francisco. The organization claims that Mt. Magdiwata is part of their ancestral domain.

“Amoa kining yutang kabilin ug  adunay katugod sa pagdumala niini ubos sa usa ka Native title nga among gihuiptan sa pagkakaron” (This is our ancestral domain and we have the right to manage it under  a Native title that we have in our possession), he said.

He said they would not stop operating the tunnels unless government can provide them alternative livelihood.

Pintado said he closed his two mining tunnels after receiving a cease-and-desist order issued by Gov. Plaza. But he admitted that he opened another tunnel after his appeal for reconsideration was not acted upon.

Cease and Desist

On July 8 this year, Plaza issued a cease and desist order addressed to Pintado stating that a memorandum of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau regional office based on the results of an investigating team organized by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR’s) Community Environment and Natural Resources Office, showed that “you have conducted small-scale mining activity within the Mt. Magdiwata watershed area without necessary permit issued by this office and having operated within the proclaimed watershed area which is closed to mining activity pursuant to Presidential Proclamation 282 and the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.”

“You are hereby ordered effective immediately to Cease and Desist from further operating the said area upon the receipt of this order, otherwise legal sanction pursuant to the pertinent provision of RA 7942 and its Revised Implementing Rules and Regulations (DAO 96-40, as amended) and other relevant Environment Laws will be imposed upon you.

Despite the CDO, mining operations in the watershed were monitored to have continued.

Luzon, the water district manager, said water consumption for 5,600 commercial and household
consumers now reach up to 130,000 cu. meters per month. He said the town may just end up without water if the  illegal cutting of trees and gold mining activities in the area are not stopped.

In an open letter dated  September 24, the SFWD alleged that local and national government agencies have been reluctant to act on the complaints against the illegal activities at the watershed area.

Luzon said Pintado had continued to operate mining tunnels in Mount Magdiwata despite Plaza’s CDO.

He said the CDO, which led to the closure and demolition of Pintado’s three mining tunnels, was implemented only on August 7.

Bonifacio Narca, SFWD monitoring team leader. however,  said Pintado  resumed his activities a few days after the order was implemented by building two new tunnels. (Alden Pantaleon Jr/MindaNews)