10,000 march to press South Cot gov to sign environment code

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KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/22 June) – Pressure has continued to build up on outgoing South Cotabato Gov. Daisy Avance-Fuentes as she bides for time before deciding on the fate of the Provincial Environment Code passed last week by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan which bans open-pit mining.

Earlier reports quoted Fuentes as having said she was keen on signing the controversial code, citing the adverse impact of open-pit mining on water sources.

Her pronouncement sent an estimated 3,000 opponents of the code, who are supporters of the huge copper and gold venture of foreign-backed Sagittarius Mines Inc. in Tampakan town, to the capitol and the governor’s house last week where they held pickets.

This morning it was the turn of some 10,000 people organized by the Diocese of Marbel to march in the city streets and mass outside the provincial capitol here to intensify calls for the governor to sign the code.

The three-hour march which lasted from 9 a.m. to 12 noon also called on SMI to abandon the mining project.

Fr. Romeo Q. Catedral, the diocesan social action director, said the mass mobilization was organized to thank the Sangguniang Panlalawigan or provincial board for passing the environment code that took five years to complete.

“We also want to thank the governor (in advance) who in the past weeks gave commitments that she will sign the environment code following the unanimous decision of the SP (Sangguniang Panlalawigan), Catedral said.

Last June 9, the provincial board approved during the third and final reading the environment code, with nine in favor, one opposed and two abstaining.

Early last week, Fuentes, who is on her last term but won as second district representative in the May 10 polls, said: “The decision for that issue was overwhelming. It’s difficult to veto it and I have no reason to veto the same.”

“The SP  (Sangguniang Panlalawigan) reflects the voices of the people, and they voted landslide to approve the environment code. I will sign that before I leave office (on June 30),” she also said.

She did not respond to a request for a phone interview Tuesday after the large crowd disbanded outside the provincial capitol in an activity marked by songs and enactments that aimed to raise awareness for the environment.

Last Wednesday, executives of Xstrata Copper, which has the controlling equity in SMI, arrived in town to meet Fuentes apparently in a bid to dissuade her from signing the environment code into an ordinance or a local law.

Once it becomes an ordinance, the environment code is expected to stand in the way of the commercial development of the Tampakan project in which Sagittarius will have an investment of at least $5.2 billion, according to anti-mining advocates.

In reaction to the mass action Tuesday, John B. Arnaldo, Sagittarius corporate communications manager, said they are closely monitoring the development, adding they respect the views of those opposing their venture.

He said that during last Wednesday’s meeting, Peter Forrestal, Sagittarius president and Xstrata Copper executive general manager in the Asia-Pacific, assured Fuentes the project “would be safe to the environment.”

Sagittarius executives gave the governor studies to refute her fears that the low-land areas would dry up, Arnaldo said.

Fuentes last week gave Sagittarius until Wednesday (June 23) to submit its technical study for comparison to a study done by a British group entitled titled “Philippines: Mining or Food?” published in 2008.

The British study shows a map where Sagittarius operates, covering a thickly forested area traversed by rivers.  Sources said the study used mapping data coming from government agencies.

Excavating the mineral resources using open-pit method would effectively kill the watershed source that would eventually dry-up rivers in the lowlands, said Fuentes earlier.

Arnaldo has noted that a local law can not supersede a national law, referring to Republic Act No. 7942, or the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, which did not ban open-pit or any other mining method.

But Catedral said that local government units have the right to chart ways to protect its environment under the Local Government Code of 1991.

The priest thanked the thousands of people that turned up in the peaceful mass mobilization that caused traffic jams in many streets of the city, the seat of Region 12.

Catholic high school and college students, parishioners, non-government organizations and militant groups from South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and Davao del Sur joined the solidarity march.

Marbel Bishop Dinualdo D. Gutierrez showed up on a makeshift stage at the start of the activity and stayed there under an umbrella shortly after the crowd disbanded.

His speech, however, was brief, thanking the crowd for attending, the Sangguniang Panlalawigan for approving the environment code, and urging Fuentes to sign the code.

“This environment code is important not just for the present generation but also for the future of our children,” the bishop said.

“We will always pray for you,” he said, referring to the SP members and the outgoing governor.

Fuentes did not hold a dialogue with the bishop and the leaders of today’s mass action, unlike last week when she accommodated the tribal leaders inside her house while their companions were rallying outside.

On Monday, the governor and the board members held a meeting where she reportedly reassured them that she would sign the environment code, said Catedral.

Vice Gov. Eliordo U. Ogena, the Sangguniang Panlalawigan presiding officer, confirmed Tuesday that the environment code has been submitted last week to the governor’s office for here signature.

Ogena, a lawyer, also confirmed the meeting took place but denied that Fuentes already made up her mind to sign the environment code.

“She’s feeling intense pressure. The governor wants to make a careful and comprehensive study of the environment code before making a decision,” the vice governor told MindaNews. (MindaNews)