IP support group on tension at Balabag mines: “cease provocations and de-escalate the situation”

BAYOG, Zamboanga del Sur (MindaNews/21 April) –  A support group for indigenous peoples (IPs) is calling for support to “multi-stakeholder action and calls to cease provocations and de-escalate the situation” at the gold-rich Balabag Hill in Barangay Depore, following a spate of incidents that included removal of barricades and firing at truck tires on April 14 and the killing of the barangay captain and secretary on April 16. (see separate story)

The Partnership Forum for Indigenous Peoples Peacebuilding in Mindanao, which describes itself as a “non-partisan affiliation to promote positive and culturally appropriate efforts at conflict transformation related to resource-based conflicts in tribal communities,” aired its call in a statement Wednesday amid the ongoing standoff between a large-scale mining firm, TVI Resources Development (Phils)., Inc., an affiliate of the publicly listed Canadian mining firm, TVI Pacific which has a Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) over 4,779 hectares and the Monte de Oro Small-Scale Mining Association (Mossma), over mining rights over an area ranging from 20 to 80 hectares within the TVI’s MPSA but which Mossma claims it has prior rights to.

The Forum, whose member-organizations include the Ecosystems Work for Essential Benefits (EcoWEB),  Mindanawon Initiatives for Cultural Dialogue – Ateneo de Davao University  and Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao,  said it is particularly concerned about the “impact of this sustained and ongoing violence on the lives of those struggling to make a living, especially the Subanen Indigenous Peoples of the area who also have a pending Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title application for the area.”

It called on partners to join them in engaging the situation in three ways: “de-escalation, documentation and dialogue.”

Under De-escalation, the Forum is calling on support for “multi-stakeholder action and calls to cease provocations and de-escalate the situation” and that the needs and leadership of local indigenous peoples leaders must be heard and respected.

It urged an  interdepartmental-civil society organization  trauma response team to  provide an “ongoing presence to ease tensions, conduct trauma impact and resiliency assessment and support IP-initiated healing and reconciliation efforts” and to immediately demobilize  “617 private/irregular security forces in Bayog.”

The statement said the presence of these “armed agents” was reported by local partners in March 2012.  It added that the number does not include the 129 military and police personnel assigned to the area.

Under Documentation, the group urged the Commission on Human Rights “at the national level” to “immediately investigate and respond to the situation and send personnel to the area” and for this to be “coordinated with a high-level, multi-sectoral, international fact finding mission.”

It also urged the documentation and promotion of “indigenous conflict transformation practices in order to achieve in-depth understanding of the IP community and enhance IP leadership for community restoration.”

Under Dialogue, the group supports the formation of  a local inter-group community crisis response team representing Tribal Councils, NGOs, Church and religious groups, civic organizations, government agencies such as social welfare, IPs, environment and peace and order, and other organizations and to form a wider “coordinating group to support the local inter-group crisis response team and coordinate with national and international parties to create a space for dialogue.”

In a statement e-mailed to MindaNews on Friday, Ron Jabal, Public Affairs Director of TVI said that while they assert their rights as holder of an MPSA, TVI “has always used peaceful means to negotiate with illegal small scale miners in Balabag, Bayog Zamboanga del Sur, hence we support the planned de-escalation, documentation and dialogue.”

“We will never resort to violence and always respect human rights of everybody. We call on the illegal small-scale miners to do the same,” Jabal said.

Edgar Baling, Mossma technical consultant and spokesperson in an e-mail on Friday, said they will abide by the call of civil society “but they should put more emphasis to TVI who started the unscrupulous, irresponsible and irrational aggression done to Mossma people and the irreparable damages they have done to the people who are just peacefully doing gainful pursuit to make both ends meet in these difficult times.”

On Friday, April 13, Mossma members attempted to remove the barricade at the Inter-Agency checkpoint at the junction in Sitio Balabag, Barangay Depore, to allow trucks bearing diesel fuel into the minesite.

TVIRD banned the entry of diesel fuel that Mossma members use to run their rod fuels and cyanidation plants since April 5. Dennis Baguio of  TVI’s Public Affairs said this was implemented since last week of March.

On Saturday, Mossma members succeeded in their attempt and managed to allow three trucks bearing diesel fuel into the minesite, prompting TVI’s security forces to fire at the trucks’ tires.

The Municipal Peace and Order Council in a meeting Friday passed a resolution urging the Provincial Mining Regulatory Board to immediately resolve the conflict over the contested area currently being mined by Mossma members that is within the MPSA of TVI.

In its last meeting on February 17, the PMRB gave the contending parties and itself 90 days or until May 17, within which to present their position papers for the board to study.

Following Saturday’s tire-shooting incident, Mayor Leonardo Babasa convened the town’s Crisis Management Committee on Sunday. He said the committee passed a resolution urging TVI to maintain the status quo – apparently referring to the period when diesel fuel was still allowed to enter the minesite – and for Mossma members to exercise sobriety.

On Monday, April 16, the Mines and Geo-Sciences Bureau  (MGB) released a cease  and desist order it issued on April 13 against all forms of illegal mining in Western Mindanao, including the operations in Balabag.

Late Monday afternoon, the barangay captain of Depore, Francisco Arado, barangay kagawad (councilor) Ernesto Mancao and barangay secretary Edith Navarro were with five other residents sitting on the benches in front of a store in the village when two men on board a motorcycle slowed down and fired at them. Arado and Navarro were killed while Mancao was wounded.

On Friday, April 20,  some 150 persons waited outside the TVI office in downtown Bayog, apparently gathered by the company from upland villages to counter a planned rally of the Patriotiko Mindanao (Patriotic Coalition Against US Intervention).

Patriotiko Mindanao in a statement on the People’s Caravan and Lakbayan against US Militarism and Plunder distributed in Pagadian on April 17 listed a “picket rally” at TVI in Bayog on April 20 as one of its activities on its return from Zamboanga City.

Bayog is an interior town 18 kilometers from the national highway in Buug, Zamboanga del Sur.

Streamers made of sack were posted on the concrete fence of TVI’s Bayog office: “Sa TVI dunay paglaum” (in TVI there is hope), “TVI 4ever,” “Sa TVI kami” (we’re for TVI)  and “TVI pro-envi.”

Sack streamers were also seen carried by some participants to be unfurled apparently when the Patriotiko Mindanao participants arrive.  A number said “gipa-anhi lang man mi diri” (we were told to come here” and “igo lang gipababa dinhi” (we were brought down here).

Romy Albarico of  Barangay Datagan said they were there brought down “para maminaw sa rally” (to listen to the rally).  TVI personnel distributed lunch in plastic bags.

Retired Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Cayton,  TVI chief of security said the “peaceful rally” outside their gates had been scheduled ahead of the Patriotiko rally.

Patriotiko Mindanao did not arrive in Bayog. The group reportedly picketed the TVI office in Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay.

TVI first operated a gold and silver mining project in Sitio Canatuan, Barangay Tabayo, Siocon in Zamboanga del Norte,  an operation that triggered mass protests and complaints of alleged human rights violations, including alleged encroachment on the IP’s ancestral domain.

According to its website, TVI started decommissioning its gold and silver project in April 2008 and began construction activities for its copper and zinc production and support facilities, including a warehouse in Sta. Port, Siocon in June 2008.

Beyond Canatuan, the company prepared for the “second development-stage property and planned production center at the Balabag Gold and Silver Project in Bayog, Zamboanga del Sur.”   (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)