SPECIAL REPORT (2): SMI gears up to mine mammoth Tampakan copper-gold project

Last of two parts

TAMPAKAN, South Cotabato (MindaNews / 23 January) — Based on Sagittarius Mines Incorporated’s (SMI) exploration studies finished a long time ago, the most viable way to extract the vast deposits is by open-pit mining, a method banned by the South Cotabato provincial government through its Environment Code passed in 2010.

In November 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte rejected the recommendation of the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) to lift the ban on open pit mining method that was ordered by then Environment Secretary Lopez.

If the Tampakan project is approved for extraction, it would be the largest in the Philippines and among the largest copper mines in the world, according to the company.

Road repairs funded by Sagittarius Mines, Inc benefit Sitio Kampo Sinko, Barangay Danlag in Tampakan, South Cotabato as seen in this photo taken on January 16, 2020. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

From the original contract area covering 28,539.68 hectares, SMI reduced the final mines development area to 9,494.70 hectares.

The mineral resource estimate defined by the completed exploration work comprises a total of 2.94 billion tons at a grade of 0.51% copper and 0.19 grams per ton gold, using a cut-off grade of 0.2%. This represents 15.0 million tons of copper and 17.6 million ounces of gold, company data said.

If approved, the mine is estimated to yield an average of 375,000 tons per annum of copper and 360,000 ounces per annum of gold in concentrate over the 17-year period of mining and ore production.

Tampakan Mayor Leonard Escobillo, a registered nurse, said that instead of extracting the huge deposits in one big scoop “concentrated in about 500 hectares in Tampakan town,” SMI plans to remove the deposits in three phases.

Nurse Leonard Escobillo, mayor of Tampakan, South Cotabato. MindaNews photo by GREGORIO C. BUENO

A 500-hectare open pit is the equivalent of 700 soccer fields, its depth about 800 meters or eight times the height of the 20-storey Marco Polo Hotel in Davao City.

Three phases

Escobillo said the first phase will cover 10 years of extraction and rehabilitation altogether, targeting one-fourth of the minerals.

The second phase involving another one-fourth of the deposits will follow the same scheme of extraction and rehabilitation in the next 10 years, he added.

The final phase, involving the same extraction and rehabilitation scheme, will take away one-half of the remaining deposits, Escobillo said.

Mayor Escobillo noted the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 does not ban open pit mining, the method SMI said is the only viable way to extract the huge mineral deposits in his town.

He expressed confidence that SMI’s planned venture will bring in economic progress with the taxes, employment and downstream businesses that will be generated by the Tampakan project, not just to his town but in the surrounding areas as well.

‘Brace for chaos’

B’laan leader Daguel Capion warned of chaos and more bloodshed within the Tampakan minesite should SMI proceed in excavating the mineral deposits.

“In the years leading to and during the exploration phase, the company would approach and consult with us. But nowadays, there are no more negotiations, the community is being kept blind,” Capion said.

B’laan leader Daguel Capion. MindaNews photo by GREGORIO C. BUENO

At least six of Capion’s immediate family members and relatives, including his wife Juvy and their two children, have been killed separately within the Tampakan project area.

Juvy and their two children were killed in October 2012 during a military operation that aimed to arrest Capion, who was then facing murder charges for the death of three people working for a road project funded by SMI the year before.

Capion, who used to work as community relations officer of SMI before leading the armed group opposing the Tampakan project, was subsequently arrested in 2015 in Malungon, Sarangani but was released almost a year later, according to him, due to “lack of evidence.”

Speaking in Cebuano, Capion told MindaNews on January 16 that “more lives will be lost if the large mining project will be allowed to proceed.”

“Tribal people will kill each other,” he said, explaining those who could not benefit might harbor hatred against those who could get windfall from the mining venture.

Or reversing the situation, he said, those who are pro-mining might silence those opposing the project so that there would be no more obstacles along the way.

Capion warned that “chaos will also prevail in the mines development site if the tribe’s hallowed and hunting grounds will be destroyed” without their consent.

He said there are other B’laan tribal members who are not vocally for or against the company but could be security threats as well.

Peace and Development

But Dalena Samling, head of the Danleg tribal council, believes SMI’s mining project could bring peace and development to the tribal communities,

“The Tampakan project will bring significant employment and business opportunities to our fellow tribal people,” she said in a separate interview.

For the males, they could be hired as masons, carpenters and welders, or beauticians and caterers for women, said Samling, who has been a long-time vocal supporter of the Tampakan project.

Residents within the Tampakan project transport their corn harvest down to the markets in Tampakan, South Cotabato on January 16, 2020. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

She said many B’laan children have finished elementary and high school, and proceeded as scholars to finish college degrees because of SMI, even if the firm has yet to start extracting the minerals.

SMI prides itself as a “responsible miner,” citing the six recognitions it received from the Presidential Mineral Industry Environmental Award in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Samling also backed the open-pit mining method for the Tampakan project, saying the soil condition and the surface location of the minerals are not suitable for tunnel mining.

Supporters of the Tampakan project have filed a petition before a local court seeking to lift the ban on open-pit mining imposed by the South Cotabato provincial government, South Cotabato Governor Reynaldo Tamayo Jr. confirmed last year.

Samling said that if SMI can proceed in extracting the minerals using the open-pit method, the mining site “can be transformed into a tourist destination once the company is done with its business.”


Indications that SMI is preparing to mine the Tampakan project are visible and steadily progressing, despite the opposition and security threats.

The SMI basecamp in Barangay Tablu that was attacked and burned by the New People’s Army rebels on New Year’s Day in 2008 has been rehabilitated, company and government sources said. 

Gateway to base camp of Sagittarius Mines, Inc. in Tampakan, South Cotabato. MindaNews photo by BONG SARMIENTO

On January 16, MindaNews was allowed to enter the basecamp by the company’s armed guards until only the first gate, until the guardhouse where a second gate leads to the basecamp’s compound.

A stone’s throw away from the basecamp’s entrance gate, the military detachment, which has been there even before the NPA attacked the SMI facility on January 1, 2008, remained perched on the hill.

The Diocese of Marbel, which is opposing the Tampakan project on concerns over the environment, food security and human rights violations, did not know until a few days ago, that SMI had been granted a 12-year extension for its original FTAA.

Casicas succeeded the late Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez, a staunch critic of the Tampakan project, in July 2018.

In September 2019 during a forum conducted at the Notre Dame of Marbel University here, the diocese urged the national government not to renew the FTAA of SMI for another 25 years.

Marbel Bishop Cerilo Casicas reiterates the diocese’s support to the ban on open-pit mining imposed by the South Cotabato government in 2010, during a forum
at the Notre Dame of Marbel University in Koronadal City on Friday, September 13, 2019. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

In that forum, Casicas pledged to sustain the opposition spearheaded by his predecessor againt the Tampkan project, a venture that he said “even God will not approve” considering its impact on the environment, Indigenous Peoples and other residents who will be affected.

Vowing to sustain the local Catholic church’s resistance against open-pit mining, Casicas stressed: “God created humans to protect the environment.” (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)


 READ:  SPECIAL REPORT (1): SMI gears up to mine mamoth gold-copper Tampakan project