TAMBASAKAN: Selling a Sacred Mountain. By Elson T. Elizaga

In Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte is a mountain sacred to the Subanon, but is being mined for silver and gold by a Canadian firm, Toronto Ventures, Inc. (TVI). To justify the exploitation of this mountain, TVI hired four archaeologists educated at the Archaeological Studies Program (ASP) of the University of the Philippines. Their job was to make an Archaeological Impact Assessment (AIA) — a requirement for TVI to get an Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC). 

In October 2004, the archaeologists wrote an AIA report, which states that the 580-hectare mining area in Mount Canatuan “were found negative of any archaeological and cultural materials.”

Pleased with this report, TVI put the executive summary of the AIA in its website, apparently to show that mining can be done in Mount Canatuan because it is not an archaeological or religious site. According to the Subanon supreme elder Timuay Noval Lambo, the archaeologists also said that “the mountain is not sacred because it has no temples and monuments”. This allegation rhymes with the statement of Rocky Dimaculangan, the TVI director of public affairs who wrote to the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2007: "Mount Canatuan is not sacred …."

The ASP archaeologists failed to understand that the absence of archaeological materials in a sacred mountain is precisely because the community prohibits human occupation there. Indeed, a report supported by the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development states, “The peak of Mount Canatuan, according to the Subanon, was not for occupation, flamboyant use, or architectural manifestations.” 

Moreover, many cultures worldwide prohibit secular architecture and activities in sacred mountains.

In an email to the Indo-Eurasian Research yahoogroup on September 5, 2008, Dr. Francesco Brighenti wrote: “The Dongria Kondh tribe of Orissa, whose opposition to the bauxite mining project started by the Vedanta Company on their sacred mountain, the Niyamgiri, has been discussed on this List earlier on, never built their settlements on the slopes or the top of that mountain, nor did they ever practice their slash-and-burn agriculture thereon. That is, indeed, the sacred seat of their main god, Niyamraja, who is at the same time conceived as their Great Ancestor.”

Two other list members, Dr. Benjamin Fleming and Dr. Trudy S. Kawami, mentioned similar sacred mountains in American South West. Kawami wrote, “No dwellings, kivas or other constructions are made there so that the area would appear to uninformed eyes as empty or uninhabited.”

Fleming wrote: "I would just add to Trudy's note that this is indeed the case at Devil's Tower in Wyoming [featured in the film 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'). Though it is a very popular climbing attraction most of the year, the mountain is off limits for one month out of the year at the request of native groups from the area. [It is] Clearly recognized as a sacred monument because of the way it has been received as a religious object, having nothing to do with any archeological structures built there."

The information about the absence of secular constructions in sacred mountains is common knowledge in cultural anthropology and archaeology. So, one wonders why ASP neglected to explain the connection. The AIA made by ASP describes the Subanon ritual buklog, which is performed every seven years, but does not relate this activity to the religious significance of Mount Canatuan. Instead, the AIA merely gives a geological explanation: “The absence of any material evidence of prehistoric human activities in the survey areas can be attributed to the location. The site is relatively high and far from the preferred prehistoric habitation sites of near rivers or seashores.” 

This limited treatment of ASP is largely due to a new school of thought: Several teachers at ASP, such as Eusebio Dizon, when questioned about the failure to follow archaeological code of ethics in 2005 in Cagayan de Oro, explain that archaeology has evolved out of anthropology, and is now related more to geology – believe it or not. This idea is rejected by many cultural anthr
opologists. It also alarms some geologists, because it hints that geologists don't follow any code of ethics.

On record, the group that produced the AIA for TVI was not ASP directly but the Archaeological, Cultural and Environmental Consultancy, Inc. (ACECI). It was necessary to use this private firm because the client was private, too. But for the Huluga archaeological site in Cagayan de Oro, ASP officially made the deal since the other party was the mayor. In both cases, ASP people were involved, with the approval of the National Museum, where several ASP members also hold office — like Dizon, Leee Anthony Neri, Sandy Salcedo, and Willy Ronquillo. 

So, an ASP member who also belongs to ACECI or the National Museum could shift legal personality depending on the client – a possible conflict of interests. The cooperation of a state school and museum and one private archaeological research firm explains why the National Museum, which is under the Office of the President, is lenient on the less scientific activities of ASP.

At the heart of this network is the need for money. National Museum officials like director Corazon Alvina repeatedly explain that the National Museum “does not have money”. This situation partly explains the rejection of Dr. Erlinda M. Burton’s request for permit to excavate in Huluga. Burton’s proposal would not generate money because she would only ask her students to do the project. Similarly, her suggestion that the National Museum organizes cultural deputies nationwide remains unheeded. Such an activity would democratize heritage conservation. 

Today, reports on scams involving millions of pesos are big news and given attention by the Senate, especially if the project is familiar. But archaeology seems to be too arcane a subject to most. Nobody seems to suspect that the production of AIAs can be a breeding ground for irregularities. And that people who claim to be in pursuit of science can also work as mercenaries. (Elson T. Elizaga is a heritage conservation advocate. A copy of this article with more details is in elson.elizaga.net).