Standoff in Balabag as large and small-scale miners fight for rights over gold-rich area

BALABAG, Bayog, Zamboanga del Sur (MindaNews/15 April) — The Municipal Peace and Order Council (MPOC) on Friday passed an “urgent” resolution asking the Provincial Mining Regulatory Board (PMRB) to immediately resolve the conflict between a large-scale mining firm and a small-scale mining group to avoid  a potentially bloody confrontation in this gold-rich area.

FORBIDDEN. TVI Resources Development (Phils), Inc., an affiliate of the publicly listed Canadian mining firm, TVI Pacific, has been barring entry not only of "illegal chemicals" and "illegal explosives" into the minesite at Sitio Balabag, Barangay Depore, in Bayog, Zamboanga del Sur, but since April 5, also diesel fuel and other mining-related materials, claiming it has the right to do so as holder of a mining permit from government. Small-scale miners, however, maintain they have prior rights. MindaNews photo by Froilan Gallardo. “They (PMRB) should act now or else it will be bloody,” Mayor Leonardo Babasa told MindaNews late Friday afternoon, about an hour after members of the Monte de Oro Small-Scale Mining Association (Mossma) who staged a rally at the junction in  Sitio Balabag, Barangay Depore, attempted to remove the barricade at the Inter-Agency (IA) checkpoint here to allow trucks bearing diesel fuel to proceed to the minesite. The fuel is needed to run their rod mills and cyanidation plants.

Tension heightened on Saturday afternoon, the second day of the rally when Mossma members forced their way through, allowing three trucks bearing drums of diesel fuel to enter, Babasa told MindaNews by phone late Saturday night. He said blue guards of the TVI Resource Development (Phils) Inc.. Philippine affiliate of TVI Pacific, Inc., a publicly listed Canadian mining firm, fired shots at the tires but the trucks still managed to pass through.

(Mayor Babasa told MindaNews Sunday evening that the town’s Crisis Management Committee met earlier that morning and passed a resolution asking TVI to maintain the status quo by allowing the entry of diesel fuel in the minesite. He said TVI can bar the entry of illegal materials such as cyanide but diesel fuel should be allowed in pending the PMRB’s resolution on the mining rights issue. He also said they asked Mossma members for sobriety. No rally was held on Sunday).

Since April 5,  trucks bearing diesel fuel and mining-related chemicals and tools, have been barred entry at the IA checkpoint, with TVI claiming it has rights over the gold-rich area as holder of a Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) over 4,779 hectares, under the Mining Act of 1995. Mossma, on the other hand, claims it has prior rights under the People’s Mining Act of 1991 over a portion of TVI’s MPSA, which it has been mining allegedly since the mid-1980s and which it had repeatedly petitioned to be segregated from TVI’s MPSA and declared as Minahang Bayan or People’s Small-Scale Mining Area

Pastor Albert Tiondo, Mossma’s Indigenous Peoples-Community Development Facilitator, told MindaNews Friday that they massed up in front of the IA checkpoint to air their sentiments over the alleged cutting off of their water system by TVI, harassments and this recent ban on entry of diesel fuel and mining-related needs. He also claimed the company imposed a “food blockade,” a claim TVI denied.


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“We will not eat, Sir?

“We are not barring the entry of rice and food supply,” said retired Col. Cip Bayan, TVI’s head of security at the IA checkpoint. He told MindaNews on Friday afternoon that what they are barring is the entry of materials “used in illegal mining.”

He said rice and food supply are allowed into the mining site but the miners refuse to bring in the rice without the diesel fuel.

Anna Marie Garcia, who operates a rod mill at the minesite, cut off the rope of the checkpoint’s boom using a lighter last Friday and pushed the barricade in an attempt to let the trucks pass. She told MindaNews they need the diesel to get the rod mills operating, so they can earn and be able to buy food.

Diesel is also needed to operate the CIP (carbon-in-pulp) cyanidation plants.

When Bayog police chief Sr. Insp. Daniel Pel-ey and 53rd Infantry Battalion chief Lt. Col. Nasser Pendatun tried to pacify Garcia by saying they will bring the matter to their superiors, she asked, “So gikan karon adalawa taman usa ka bulan maghulat mi sa inyong giingann nga tawagan? Dili na mi  mangaon sir? Di na mi manganon?” (So starting today until one month later, while we wait for the response of those you will call, we will not eat anymore, Sir? We will not eat?).

“Ultimo giutang tulo ka sakong bugas wala na miy ikabayad gumikan kay wa mi crudo. Karon lang nakiusap mi, karon lang di nyo kami mapagbigyan?” (The three sacks of rice we can’t pay for anymore because we don’t’ have diesel (to run the rod mills). We are pleading now, can’t you allow us?” she asked.

Illegal operations

TVI’s Makati-based Public Affairs Director Ron Jabal told MindaNews on Saturday: “what they conveniently forget to say is that they are operating illegally hence are technically engaged in minerals theft. (Diesel) is not being allowed because this is used in the illegal operations. What they conveniently don’t discuss is the use of child labor and the use of environmentally destructive and unsafe methods and processes.”

“The real issue here is who has the legal right to minerals development and who can better provide safe mining projects that contribute to host and impact communities. We believe that governmen and the TVI can do this and not the illegal small-scale mining operators and financiers,” he said

Mossma has repeatedly stressed in its petitions that it has prior rights in the area.

“There’s a standoff,” Babasa told MindaNews late Friday afternoon, adding the PMRB should immediately resolve the issu

But the PMRB in its last meeting on February 17 gave Mossma, TVI and itself 90 days “:including the mailing and furnishing of copies of the position papers and other supporting documents that the parties may submit.”

Ninety days from February 17 is May 17, after which “the matter will be evaluated by the Board and another meeting will be scheduled for the deliberations and decision.”

Reports on the complaints of Mossma members over the alleged harassment by TVI and the banned entry of diesel fuel have reached Governor Antonio Cerilles but he told MindaNews on Thursday that as the MPSA holder, “it is the obligation of TVI to police their area.”

Cease and Desist Order

Cerilles, who served as Environment Secretary under the Estrada administration, and is PMRB vice chair (the chair is MGB regional director Albert Johann Jacildo), maintained the small-scale miners are operating illegally, have no permits issued by government, have no environmental clearance certificates while TVI has an MPSA issued by government.

Minutes of the February 17 PMRB meeting, a copy of which was given to MindaNews by TVI, showed that apart from the 90-day period as agreed upon by Mossma, TVI and the PMRB,  the PMRB “unanimously agreed to issue Cease and Desist Order (CDO) to all illegal mining operations/activities in the Province of Zamboanga del Sur” which it described as a “reinforcement effort to the 2 CDOs issued before by DENR, MGB/EMB last 2003 and by the Prov. Governor Aurora Cerilles of Zamboanga del Sur last June 2010, although the latter ones were issued specifically against the operations at Balabag, Bayog.”

TVI’s Dennis Baguio of Public Affairs and Pablo Luyao of Community Relations, told MindaNews last Friday that Jacildo had yet to sign the CDO although they stressed this was a “reinforcement effort.”

MindaNews sought Jacildo for verification but he could not be reached.

Rich deposit

Mossma’s claimed portion within TVI’s MPSA is less than a hundred hectares. Mossma technical consultant and spokesperson Edgar Baling claims the area they are fighting for is only about 20 hectares. Mossma’s petition before the Panel of Arbitrators of the Mines and Geo-Sciences Bureau (MGB) on March 20, 2012 cites 40 hectares while its September 6, 2011 letter to MGB chief Leo Jasareno put the figure at “more or less 80 hectares.”

TVI geologist Jay Elvina, OIC of the Balabag Exploration Project said the contested area is about 10 hectares with a confirmed presence of about 100,000 ounces of gold and a life of mine of  “five to 10 years.”

An ounce of gold at Sunday’s trading price costs USD 1,657.38 per ounce or PhP70,670.68.

TVI has been negotiating with Mossma members and has compensated a number of them for the dismantling of their structures at the minesite and signing a waiver and quitclaim. But a number of miners have refused to vacate the area.

Pastor Tiondo said that since TVI’s negotiations, there remains only about “3,000 to 4,000”  miners, workers and family members at the minesite now, compared with “5,000 to 6,000” before.  He said the number of rod mill operators has gone down to 24 from 30 and the cyanidation plants or carbon-in-pulp plants is down to 21 operators with 45 tanks, from 24 operators

Mossma members decried a supposed “silent attack” to demolish the remaining structures at the minesite owned by 17 Mossma members, including the big-time financiers of the small-scale mining operations, on or before April 1, according to alleged e-mail exchanges that Baling said were leaked to the group by a TVI insider.  TVI’s Jabal said  the e-mail exchanges were “fabricated” while Governor Cerilles, who was implicated in the e-mails as having consented to the demolition said these were “false documents.”

No demolition occurred before April 1 but effective April 5, trucks bearing diesel fuel and other mining-related needs were barred from entering, effectively paralyzing operations.

A visit to the minesite on Friday showed several rod mills lying idle although a few were still milling ore.

Tension

Friday’s tension at the checkpoint was not as much as Saturday’s when Mossma members managed to let three trucks pass.

“Gilata nila sa bala ang sakyanan” (They fired at the vehicles), Tiondo told MindaNews by telephone.

Arandy Silva, Mossma’s chief operations officer said the police ordered those who attended the rally to go home to avoid violence.

Baling said “wala na kaagwanta, ang mga tao gidasmagan ang boom sa checkpoint. Gi-strafing (sa TVI) ang sakyanan” (they could not take it anymore so the people decided to force their way through. TVI strafed the vehicles).

TVI’s incident report from Balabag, furnished to MindaNews by Jabal noted that some 200 Mossma members, around the same number in Friday’s rally, chanted and demanded  the entry of trucks loaded with diesel.

The TVI report said representatives of Mossma members led by Lalang Paquit sought permission at the IA checkpoint to allow the entry of rice. “We replied that they are free to get the rice but not the diesel-filled drums along with it,” the report said.

 

At around 4 p.m., the report added, Mossma members “started to converge violently at the boom area, throwing rocks and started to forcibly open the boom and remove the barricades and the PNP  immediately  formed a human barricade to block the picketers.  However, the picketers were able to push and shove and overpower the authorities that made possible the entry of three trucks loaded with diesel which prompted the blue guards stationed at the boom to shoot at the tires.  The trucks were able to travel all the way up to the Site area running on flat tires.”
It added that two TVI guards “were hit by stones on their forehead causing minor open wound injuries.”

 

Commisioner Jose Manuel Mamauag of the Commission on Human Rights told MindaNews on Saturday that they will send CHR personnel to the minesite to initiate a dialogue between the contending parties and to monitor the situation there.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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