COMMENTARY: The Bishop speaks. By Edwin G. Espejo

It was one mistake I would never regret as it gave the good-natured bishop a sense of control over the course of the interview.

Yes, the 68-year old bishop of the Diocese of Marbel (he will turn 69 on February 20) is a man in full control of his conviction and a very amiable person to talk to and be with.

Alternating wit, humor and sometimes sarcasm, he gives life to even the dourest topic and makes one laugh at the most serious issues of the day.

He is one member of the powerful and influential Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippine (CBCP) who can drop the stingiest rebuke straight face to even the president of the Philippines and get away with it because – well – he is Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez.

But he could also disarm even the closest of friends in public.

That is why when news came out that former Presidential Assistant for Mindanao Paul G. Dominguez had already resigned as president of the mining firm Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI) in April last year, he said he felt relieved. "Now, I can again greet him (Dominguez) with 'How's my friend?' instead of greeting a 'worthy opponent'," he said with a hearty laugh.

Yes, the two are good friends and have shared many tables in countless conferences and private occasions. Yet they came to a head when Dominguez was appointed president of SMI.

When interviewed at his official residence, Bishop Gutierrez had just released a statement on the New Year's Day attack at the base camp of SMI. "The Church in general and the Diocese of Marbel in particular never condone any violent means of trying to settle any dispute or differences," the bishop said.

But he stopped short of condemning the New People's Army (NPA) which owned the raid.
"We condemned the sin, not the sinner," even as he described the incident as a terrorist act.

Bishop Gutierrez however said they were not surprised by the incident. "The presence of large scale mining would affect our peace and order situation.  Any immoral activity breeds social ills," he said in the same statement.

Accusing SMI of immoral activities, he said mining operations in the hinterlands of Tampakan would destroy the environment and result into human rights abuses.

"I told (former environment secretary) Mike Defensor and President Arroyo that the mining site is a watershed area. It supplies water to five major rivers and SMI will eventually pollute these rivers," he explained.
"Ti, mangakig si Pax kay magkalapatay iya tilapia  (Then, Rep. Pax Mangudadatu will get angry because his tilapia will die)," he burst with a laughter.

(Rep. Mangudadatu owns several hundreds of hectares of fishpens in Lake Buluan which one water source comes from the tributaries of the Tampakan watershed area. )

Although the CBCP has opposed mining operations in the country and has called for the repeal of the Mining Act of 1995, Bishop Gutierrez said what he was against was 'destructive' mining.

"Destructive gid lang (plain and simple). How will they extract (the ore) besides open pit?" the bishop pointedly asked. He said SMI could dig a tunnel using steel as beams and extract the ores if the company had concerns over the environment.

The bishop even offered his views on how to do away with mine tailings and suggested to an Australian acquaintance and a Finnish friend that these be sent to Australia.

"You packed them in drums and bring them to Australia…or send them to the South Pole. Kadlaw sila tanan (They all laughed)," he giggled.

Yes, the bishop could shame even some jaded environmentalists it comes to protecting the environment.

He could rattle off all the toxic gasses and chemicals that will contribute to global warming once SMI goes on full scale operation. "Ano gamiton nila nga chemicals (What chemicals will they use)? Cyanide kag (and) arsenic? Those are toxic (chemicals)!" he exclaimed.

He then cited an encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI in saying that development should be integral. "Integral development.   That means both body and soul should benefit from it.  What would you do with the soul if the body is not taken cared of," he said.

That is why, he explained, the Church has taken an active stand against mining operations in the country. And the Church has brought the alarm to the international scene. The bishop even flew to London in September last year to campaign for the halt of SMI mining activities in Tampakan.

Appearing before the House of Commons in the British Parliament, Bishop Gutierrez delivered an impassioned speech against SMI.

In another forum in London, the bishop said three people approached him and said they would withdraw their shares from Xsrata Copper, the company that now controls SMI.

It is a testament of the Bishop's unique way of delivering his message.

The church here also spearheaded the campaign in the 1990s against Western Mining Company (WMC) which previously owned the Financial Technical Assistance Agreement that is now in the hands of SMI-Xstrata following the sale of the former to the latter.

When asked if the Church had come full circle again now that it is facing a far more formidable opponent in Xstrata, the bishop empathically said no. "We never go full circle.  We always go forward and we intend to pursue our opposition to destructive mining to the end," he said.
He belittled claims of SMI that the company has brought development and extended assistance to tribal communities hosting the mining development area.

He refused to call them bribery but instead accused SMI of "inducing" the tribal communities to accept mining operations in the area. He described these "inducements" as another form of human rights abuse.

"When you take advantage of the ignorance and poverty of the people, that is one form of human rights abuse," he explained.

He then asked if the host tribal communities really understood the principal agreements they had signed with then WMC which still stand today as it was also assumed by SMI. "Nakaintindi sila sang ila nga gipirmahan kay ti Ingles?  Ano ang nakasulod sa agreement?" he asked.(Did they understand what they signed since it was in English?  What were the contents of the agreement?)

When told that a provision in the agreement includes compensation should the tribal communities be displaced by the mining operations, Bishop Gutierrez let out a long sarcastic laugh.

"They (SMI officials) have many come-ons.  Schooling, jobs, assistance.  Ti, anuhon ta ina kay damo gid nga mangingilad nga tawo ? (What can we do if there are many out there to deceive other people?)," he said in disbelief.

Still, he said, the Church will continue to pray for those who are misleading the people. "We love the sinners," he quipped.

Veering away from the mining issue, the bishop narrated how he once told President Arroyo in the presence of some Cabinet officials that the government's Tindahan Natin program only contributed to the "idiotization of the Filipinos."
"Okay, cheap rice and noodles. Those are all carbohydrates. I ask them if there are also vegetables to contribute to proper nutrition. They sat in stunned silence," the bishop said.

Several months after that meeting, Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap reportedly told the bishop that the government has added sardines to the program.

The bishop said he felt his jaw dropped at how government is approaching the poverty problem of the Filipino people.

The bishop told many other anecdotes and more than an hour into the interview he told us if we already ran out of questions. "May pamangkot pa kamo kay ganahan pa ako magsabat? (Do you still have questions to ask because I am still in the mood to answer them?)," he crackled mightily.

Interviewing the bishop could be entertaining and stimulating and I was beginning to be disarmed by his charm. As good as the session may be, it has to come to an end.   Oh lest I forget, the bishop said before we started that he seldom gives interviews to the one he just gave us because some of his words are being twisted.

It served as a warning. But well taken. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Edwin G. Espejo is former editor in chief of Sun.Star General Santos).