South Cotabato closes door to open-pit mining as Gov signs Environment Code

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/29 June)—Outgoing South Cotabato Gov. Daisy Avance-Fuentes marked her few remaining hours in office with an act that will likely make her overnight a heroine for the environment in the eyes of anti-mining activists. She signed the controversial Provincial Environment Code that bans the open-pit mining method.

“It is one ordinance we can legally defend and my conscience can defend,” Fuentes, a lawyer who will serve the province anew as representative of the second district, told reporters in a press conference here this afternoon.

She said she had made up her mind to approve the code last Friday, but affixed her signature only Monday night, after days of “hermit-like” seclusion to decide on the controversial matter that the global mining industry has been closely watching.

“This is a landmark legislation. It marks the province’s maturing autonomy by owning up to the responsibility as environment steward,” she said in her explanatory note.

The approval of the ordinance is seen to create a stumbling block to the bid of a foreign-backed firm, Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI), to develop a huge copper and gold project in the area.

Admitting local, national and international pressures from both pro and anti-mining advocates, Fuentes said her decision was based on a conviction that it is best for the province and defensible if the case reaches the court.

Explaining her reason not to veto the open-pit ban provision of the code, Fuentes said doing so would not only render the whole code ineffective but will also expose communities and resources to danger which will, with certainty, affect their health, security and economic sustainability.

No law on natural resources prohibits local government units from choosing mining methods which to their judgment are less detrimental to the health of their people and the sustainability of the environment, she stressed.

She also cited section 16 of the Local Government Code, which states: “Every LGU shall exercise the powers expressly granted, those necessarily implied therefrom, as well as powers necessary, appropriate, or incidental for its efficient and effective governance, and those which are essential to the promotion of general welfare.”

“Within their respective territorial jurisdictions, LGUs shall ensure and support, among other things, the preservation and enrichment of culture, promote health and safety, enhance the right of the people to a balanced ecology, encourage and support the development of appropriate and self-reliant scientific and technological capabilities, improve public morals, enhance economic prosperity and social justice, promote full employment among their residents, maintain peace and order, and preserve the comfort and convenience of their inhabitants,” the section added.

The environment code, a copy of which was obtained by MindaNews, shall take effect 15 days following the posting requirements and after its full publication for three consecutive issues in a local newspaper of general circulation within the Province of South Cotabato.

Nine Sangguniang Panlalawigan members favored the approval of the environment code, one opposed and two abstained in the voting earlier this month.

Fuentes also said she decided to approve the code because the study presented by the Sagittarius management in their recent meeting could not be verified.

Peter Forrestal, Sagittarius president and Xstrata Copper executive general manager in the Asia-Pacific, and Mark Williams, Sagittarius project manager, had met with Fuentes last June 16 apparently to dissuade her from signing the code.

The governor earlier raised a study by a British group titled Philippines: Mining or Food? in which it warns of the drying up of lowland rivers in the province if Sagittarius is allowed to pursue its venture.

‘Disappointing’

“This is a disappointing outcome given the significant stakeholder support shown for the Tampakan Project during the public scoping meetings held late last year, and the recent formal recognition of the Project by the Regional Minerals Development Councils of Regions XI and XII as the Flagship Project for their respective regions,” Williams said in a statement.

He noted that Sagittarius has undertaken extensive technical studies, led by international specialists in mining and engineering, to assess potential mining methods for the Tampakan deposit.

These studies identified open pit mining as the safest and only economic extraction method, given the configuration of the deposit and the geology of the region, he said.

SMI undertook an extensive program of stakeholder briefings as well as four public scoping meetings during the fourth quarter of 2009 as part of the Tampakan Project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) process, the statement said.

At these forums, Sagittarius presented the proposed mine plan for the Tampakan deposit including details on the final area, mining method, mine facilities and processes, potential benefits and impacts of the ine as well as an outline of the ESIA process and timeline, it added.

Sought for reaction, incoming Gov. Arthur Y. Pingoy Jr. said he would seek a review of the code to determine its legality.

“I will implement the environment code if after the review it is determined to be legal. We don’t want to be the laughing stock of the world if we implement it only to be found later it is illegal,” he told MindaNews over the phone.

Pingoy stressed there are currently no open-pit mining operations in South Cotabato, noting that SMI, the proponent of the massive Tampakan copper and gold venture, is set to start commercial production in 2016 yet.

In earlier studies, Sagittarius said the best way to extract deposits in the Tampakan project is through open-pit method because of the shallow location of the minerals.

In its sustainability report issued recently, Sagittarius said the Tampakan copper-gold project is a world-class 2.4-billion ton resource containing 13.5 million tons of copper and 15.8 million ounces of gold.

When developed, it has the potential to generate foreign investments amounting to over USD5 billion, employment opportunities for up to 8,000 to 9,000 people during construction and for around 2,000 during operations, and contribution to local and national taxes.

Last week, major Chinese miner Zijin Mining Group, China’s largest gold producer and third-largest copper producer, abandoned plans to acquire a stake in the Tampakan project.

Zijin’s entry into the Tampakan project would have been through the interest of Australian firm Indophil Resources NL, which owns 37.5% of Sagittarius’ 40% controlling equity in the Tampakan project. The rest of the 40% is held by Xstrata Copper.

The 60% non-controlling equity shareholders of Sagittarius are the Tampakan Mining Corp. and Southcot Mining Corp., known as the Tampakan Group of Companies. (MindaNews)

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