Sagittarius Mines halts work as tribal chief, wife killed

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/23 February) — A tribal chieftain who staunchly supported the Tampakan copper-gold project of foreign-backed Sagittarius Mines, Inc was killed Tuesday night by still unidentified gunmen, prompting the company to temporarily suspend operations in parts of the mines development site due to security concerns.

The killing of Tonio Binuhay, tribal chieftain of S’bangken and a kagawad of Barangay Tablu in Tampakan, South Cotabato, one of the villages straddling the Tampakan project, alarmed Sagittarius Mines, company officials told MindaNews on Wednesday.

Binuhay’s wife, Rosanna, who was reportedly pregnant, was also killed in the attack that occurred in the couple’s house in Purok Quezon,  Barangay Sta. Cruz in the lowland of Tampakan town at past 8 p.m, the local police reported.

John Arnaldo, Sagittarius Mines corporate communications manager, said the temporary work suspension in the field was a “company best standard practice.”

“To ensure the safety of employees and contractors, the management ordered the work suspension until further clearance from the authorities,” he said, adding the mining firm was saddened by the death of a staunch supporter.

Arnaldo said the company believes the killing “was not related to the Tampakan mining project.”

Chief Insp. Jomar Alexis Yap, Southwestern Mindanao police spokesperson, said that investigation was still underway and different motives were being considered, including the possibility that the murder was related to the mining project.

“We are digging deeply into the case,” Yap said in a text message.

Manolo Labor, Sagittarius Mine’s external affairs communication superintendent, raised the company’s concern over the safety of the other tribal chieftains within the Tampakan project with the slaying of the victim.

“We would like to extend our condolences to the family of the tribal chieftain. This is alarming,” Labor said in a separate interview, reiterating that the killing “could not be related to the Tampakan project.”

The victim, a B’laan tribesman, stoutly supported the mining firm, pinning high hopes on the company for a better life of their tribe through the livelihood and scholarship programs given by the project.

Binuhay’s community is located in Barangay Tablu, site of Sagittarius Mines’ base camp that was attacked by the communist New People’s Army before dawn in the 2008 New Year’s Day.

The communist rebels burned the firm’s administration office and several mining equipment worth at least P12 million. They also disarmed and took several firearms of the security guards then manning the base camp.

No one was hurt in the attack although the NPA rebels also managed to keep at bay government security forces manning an Army detachment some 500 meters away from the base camp.

Early in 2009, the communist guerrillas, as part also of its campaign against Sagittarius Mines, successfully attacked the police station of Tampakan town, resulting in the wounding of four people, three of them policemen.

The NPA, armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, has warned the mining company to brace for more violent attacks as punishment for “plundering and destroying the nation’s patrimony.”

Sagittarius Mines, which eyes commercial production in 2016, is controlled by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth largest copper producer, with Australian firm Indophil Resources NL as minority equity partner.

Based on the Mine Project Feasibility Study submitted by Sagittarius Mines to the government last April, the Tampakan project could yield an average life of mine annual production rate of 370,000 metric tons and 360,000 ounces of copper and gold, respectively. The initial life mine estimate for the Tampakan project was pegged at 17 years.

The previous estimate was an annual average production rate of 340,000 tons and 350,000 ounces of copper and gold, respectively.

The Tampakan project is touted as the largest known undeveloped copper-gold deposit in Southeast Asia.

Based on its study, Sagittarius Mines will employ open-pit mining to extract the massive deposit, a method banned by the provincial government of South Cotabato. Several sectors have been pushing for a scrapping of the prohibition. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)