The Tampakan Project: battle over Southeast Asia’s largest copper-gold deposit (2)

Last of two parts

TAMPAKAN, South Cotabato (MindaNews/12 Nov) —Potentially the largest foreign direct investment in the Philippines, the $5.9 billion Tampakan mining project faces two major challenges: the ban on open pit mining imposed by the South Cotabato provincial government and the increasing activism of environment groups and local Catholic clergy which had made clear their  anti-mining stance.

Underneath the surface, however, hostility toward the project is simmering among tribespeople who fear that the mines development will lead to their displacement and the destruction of their way of life. Some have taken up arms to protect what they insist is their ancestral domain.

Sadly, several lives have been lost, among them Gurilmin Malid and Pensing Dialang, who were both killed in 2002 allegedly because of their anti-mining stance.  This localized yet deadly war has also recently led to the killing of Juvy Capion and her two sons on October 18, following a clash allegedly between Philippine soldiers and tribesmen led by her husband, Daguel Capion.  Capion has been leading the opposition to the mining project and had openly declared war on Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI) for allegedly disrespecting the rights of the tribe. Capion also expressed concerns about the negative impact of the mining project on the environment.

Reportedly injured, Capion managed to escape and has remained in hiding but his wife, Juvy, and her sons Jordan, 13, and John Mark, 8 were killed.   The couple’s four-year old daughter Angeline, fondly called Vicky, was unhurt. The girl’s future remains uncertain given the rising tensions within the tribal community of Bong Mal, where the killing happened.

Bong Mal is the traditional B’laan territory straddling Barangay Danlag, Tampakan in South Cotabato and Barangay Kimlawis, Kiblawan in Davao del Sur. At the heart of the mines development site, it serves as a crucial artery for the mining company to move around the mountains.

In Bong Mal, the Capions lay claims to vast tracts of land, part of which is a farming area where the mother and her two sons were killed by bullets supposedly coming from the soldiers. Pieces of brains and blood splattered the walls and the floor of the hut where they died.  Aside from the four-year old daughter, another young relative survived the incident.

Forced to fight

From late 2009 until March 2011, Capion expressed his opposition to the Tampakan project through peaceful means, either by joining anti-mining activities in the lowlands or speaking before his fellow tribesmen about the impact of the mining project on their community.


Daguel Capion, leader of the armed B’laan tribesmen resisting the Tampakan project during an interview with MindaNews on October 1.  MindaNews photo by Bong S. Sarmiento

Capion was highly regarded even by SMI.  Before he spoke his mind against the company, he was an SMI employee, serving as community relations officer. He was influential among the tribal members even as SMI did not recognize him as the tribal chieftain of Bong Mal.

For SMI, Bong Mal’s chieftain is Neraldo “Dot” Capion, his relative who supports the mining firm.  His ascent to the post came not by bloodline, which is the customary tradition of the B’laans, but through a vote resembling that of a barangay election.

“If SMI or its supporters have been telling the outside world that everything is smooth in the mines development site, that’s not true,” Daguel Capion said on October 1 in the same hut where his wife and two young children were felled by bullets 17 days later.

With an armalite and garand rifles beside him, he told MindaNews that their armed struggle will continue unless the company abandons its mining project.

“We would be displaced to places where living would have to be dictated by money,” said Capion, his armed followers lingering nearby.

Should mining operations proceed, some 4,000 people will be displaced from the mines development site, most of them B’laan tribal members, and transferred to relocation sites which many are rejecting since staying there would mean exposure to and living in a world alien to their way of life, Lawin Macundon, a B’laan tribal elder, said through an interpreter.

Capion pointed out: “Here we can go hunting for wild deer and pigs, and frogs as well, for our food.”

Capion earlier said he left SMI after realizing that the stake of the tribal people and the environment is far greater than what the mining firm is offering them, such as jobs. The local Catholic Church, while supporting his activism, would later disapprove of his resorting to violence.  Before he took up arms, Capion was a regular presence in anti-mining activities spearheaded by religious groups.

To the local military, he was simply an extortionist who took up guns after he failed to get what he wanted from the company.

Capion began opposing the Tampakan project about three years ago because, according to him, the mining company had become aggressive and was allegedly no longer seeking the tribal people’s consent in opening up access roads for drilling activities, resulting in the desecration of their ancestors’ burial grounds.

He said he felt that their rights were being trampled upon by the mining company, which later would deny the allegation and would promise to look into the complaint.

In 2011, Capion took up arms and led a band that ambushed and killed three workers of a construction company hired by SMI for a road project. He admitted the ambush and this is the reason why he is being hunted by the military.

This transition from peaceful protest to violent activism would change the landscape of Bong Mal from a quiet farming community to a place of death and violence.  Last June, a security consultant of SMI and a police escort were killed in the mining tenement. The incident happened just three days after a security guard was shot to death last June 17 also in the same village.

In a press conference on November 5 in General Santos City, the military also accused Capion of perpetrating the New Year’s Day 2008 burning of the base camp of SMI in Barangay Tablu in Tampakan town; disarming of nine SMI security guards also in Tablu on December 15, 2011; and the killing of the security guard last June 17.  The New People’s Army (NPA), however, admitted responsibility for the 2008 raid and burning of the base camp.

Capion and his band of armed B’laan tribesmen did not leave Bong Mal even as they were  the subject of a military manhunt.  According to Capion, staying around Bong Mal would prove that he and his followers “have not joined or have linked up with the NPA.”

As a guerilla tactic, Capion, who was joined by his brothers Batas and Kitari, spread themselves in the area in small groups. Although their number could not be ascertained, it is said that a sack of rice would not suffice for a week. The military, during the November 5 press conference, stressed that Capion, “the leader of an armed bandit, has more or less five followers.”

Within the mines development site, the Philippine Army has set up several detachments to maintain peace and order and as buffer to the NPA rebels.

Tribal division

The mining project has divided the B’laan tribe.

Those who support the mining venture points to the economic and social contribution the project will bring or has brought.

“Our children are going to school because of the mining company,” Dalina Samling, tribal chieftain of Danlag, said, referring to the thousands of scholars SMI has sponsored in the elementary, secondary and college levels.

For supporting SMI, the tribal councils each receive an annual financial assistance of P2.7 million from the company as stated in their respective principal agreements.

Constancio Paye Jr., Mines and Geosciences Bureau director for Region 12, said the principal agreements allowed SMI to conduct exploration activities even without the Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of the B’laan tribe because when the Financial or  Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) was granted, there was no Indigenous Peoples Rights Act yet. Enacted in 1997, the IPRA Law mandates the companies to secure the FPIC of indigenous peoples for mining projects within ancestral domains.

The mines development site straddles two Certificate of Ancestral Domain Titles (CADTs) and a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim (CADC) in the towns of Tampakan in South Cotabato, Columbio in Sultan Kudarat and Kiblawan in Davao del Sur.

Woy Lim P. Wong, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) director for Region 12, recognizes the problems besetting the mines development site of SMI involving tribal communities.

While he said his office has been involved in community consultations within the SMI tenement, he appeared “hands off” in the tribal division confronting Bong Mal, especially on the war waged by Capion against the mining company.

“In due time, we will establish an indigenous political structure in the area,” Wong said, believing this could help solve the tribal divide.

But getting the support of the tribe members who are against the mining firm is another story since they have developed distrust of the NCIP, for seemingly siding with SMI. While it is true the NCIP has been involved in consultations, Capion insisted they were done only through the tribal council and did not involve the general tribal community stakeholders.

“In fact, the NCIP is partly to blame for the violence at the mines development site for its failure to conduct a genuine consultation with the affected tribal community stakeholders,” he said in a subsequent telephone interview.

For now, the company may be relieved of its security nightmare after Capion, in this phone interview last October 25, gave an assurance that he would not retaliate or avenge the death of his wife and the children. He, however, asked that justice be given the fatalities by prosecuting the soldiers involved in the operation through court proceedings. He also assured that his brothers– Kitari and Batas—“won’t do anything violent” as they follow Capion’s “wisdom.” Capion, however, said he could not assure “what the other groups” may do hereafter.

Still the same poor tribal communities

Did the annual financial assistance ensured by the principal agreements improve the lives of communities or the tribal communities in Bong Mal?

A tour of the area would show one tangible result:  a public elementary school. Elsewhere, residents say there were no visible developments from SMI’s annual financial assistance like common function halls, health centers and sports facilities that were built using concrete or solid materials.

The Datal Biao Elementary School in Barangay Danlag in Tampakan, South Cotabato, the lone public school in the mines development site of Sagittarius Mines, Inc. MindaNews photo by Bong S. Sarmiento

To be sure, roads have been improved to allow residents to transport their agricultural crops to the lowlands, but this has been maintained by the company because they need to move around the mountains especially at the height of its exploration activities. Also, there are cellular phone communication signals in the mines development site due to SMI.

On top of the yearly financial assistance to the tribal councils, SMI also extends cash aid to the host barangays and municipal governments.

In a chance interview in September 2012 in Bong Mal, Alfonso Malayon, a member of the Barangay Danlag village council, said communities in Bong Mal have remained poor despite the company’s cash assistance.

“Not much has improved here in the communities since the entry of the mining company,” he said.

SMI has spent P367 million for various corporate social involvement programs including community fund assistance to the host barangays and tribal communities in the past four years alone. The company did not provide the total or estimated amount of financial assistance years before 2007, when Australian firm Indophil Resources NL was at the helm.

Indophil poured Au$27 million when the project was resurrected in 2003 for exploration activities, until Xstrata Copper took over in 2007, and part of that amount went to the annual financial assistance to the tribal councils and host villages and municipalities.

Each of the five tribal councils receives P2.7 million annual financial assistance from SMI since Xstrata Copper entered the picture in 2007. Before this, each was getting reportedly P1.5 million annual cash aid. Counting the last 10 years, the amount extended to the five tribal councils have reached P105 million.

Days before Capion’s wife Juvy and her children died, she told MindaNews many of them have not benefited from the company’s financial aid to the tribal council although they have tried to ask for help.

“We requested for livelihood assistance but it never came, maybe because we are against the mining venture. But those who support mining, they have been given,” she said.

SMI explained that the financial assistance to the tribal councils is administered by a tribal foundation, which approves requests for livelihood projects. Each tribal council is represented in the foundation’s board.

In downtown Tampakan, the economy does not seem to have perked up as there are no banks and modern buildings as yet. The only semblance of improvement in a town that hosts what is supposed to be massive mineral wealth, are the new municipal hall and a portion of the public market.

Vice Mayor Relly Leysa denies reports the town hall was constructed with SMI funding. He said it was constructed from local government funds and a loan.

But Leysa acknowledged that SMI’s annual cash assistance helped build portions of the town’s gymnasium and the new public market building, and for the scholarship of elementary and high school students.

Better future

Based on its projected economic data once the firm goes on commercial stream, the Tampakan project will shape “a better future for 
the people of southern and southwestern Mindanao.”

“If developed, the Tampakan project would generate significant economic benefits that would stimulate the local, regional and national economies,” SMI stated in its community benefits fact sheet.

Here are SMI’s figures:

  • An annual contribution of on average PhP134 billion ($2.8 billion) to Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) each year over the construction and operation phases – equivalent to an additional annual increase of 1% to Philippine GDP;
  • Total government revenues (national and local) through a variety of taxes and charges of approximately PhP307 billion ($6.4 billion) over the life of the project;
  • Royalty payments and direct contributions in excess of PhP39.8 billion ($830 million) 
to local communities and local indigenous groups over the project’s life; and
  • Opportunities for approximately 10,000 workers during the peak of the 
construction phase and direct employment opportunities for approximately 
2,000 workers during the operations phase.

The company initially targets to begin commercial production in 2016, but because of setbacks, moved it to 2018. The initial life of the mine was placed at 17 years.

Clash of national vs. local laws

The Philippines’ Mining Act of 1995 or Republic Act 9742 does not prohibit open-pit mining method, but the DENR cited the prohibition on open-pit mining imposed by South Cotabato as the reason for rejecting the SMI’s ECC application.

The issuance of the new mining policy by President Aquino in June 2012 did not explicitly lift the open-pit ban of South Cotabato, although Executive Order (EO) 79 states the need in Section 12 for the “Consistency of Local Ordinances with the Constitution and National Laws/ LGU Cooperation.”

“LGUs shall confine themselves only to the imposition of reasonable limitations on mining activities conducted within their respective territorial jurisdictions that are consistent with national laws and regulations,” it said.

The South Cotabato provincial government, headed by Gov. Arthur Pingoy, Jr., has defied EO 79, stressing that LGUs have the right to protect their environmental territory under the Local Government Code of 1991.

“We will impose the environment code that bans open pit mining unless revoked by a court. We are not banning mining but only the method,” was Pingoy’s curt reply.

Curiously, no case has been filed in any court, not even by SMI, to challenge the open-pit ban of South Cotabato two years since its adoption.

What the company did was to elevate its appeal for the rejection of its ECC to the Office of the President. President Aquino, however, gave a hint that he would wait for Congress to craft a new law on mining revenue before acting on the appeal of SMI.

Tough balancing act

The Tampakan project has become so complicated it requires a tough balancing act to weigh its potential economic windfall on the one hand and, on the other, its adverse impact on the environment and the people’s lives.

Security and human rights issues have to be addressed as well given the killings and other acts of violence that hound the mine project, and how the entry of a project that touted to bring development to the area has instead triggered schisms among the indigenous peoples.

Is there a way out of the impasse?

South Cotabato Vice Governor Elmo Tolosa says  there is and that is for SMI to proceed with “little or no opposition” by using tunneling, instead of the open pit mining method.  The company, however, maintains the only viable option is open-pit mining.

Lobbying  by both pro- and anti-mining groups has become louder more than ever and is expected to intensify in the run-up to the May 2013 election of a new set of  provincial officials.

While SMI remains hopeful it could get the necessary clearances or support candidates who would lift the ban so the Tampakan project could proceed, the opposition is as avid to stop the proposed open-pit mining project on concerns over the environment and human safety.

The longer it takes for this logjam to be untangled, the more lives may be laid on the line.

(This article  of Bong S. Sarmiento/MindaNews was produced under the Environmental Investigative Reporting Fellowship project of the International Women’s Media Foundation)