Lumads buying guns with money paid by mining firm?

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/25 February) — Mining firm Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI) may have abetted the proliferation of loose firearms in the hinterlands of Tampakan in South Cotabato where its mineral development site is located, a provincial official said.

South Cotabato provincial board member Joe Madangit said he has received reports that some tribal leaders have been buying firearms from proceeds of SMI payments to leave the area instead of relocation as provided by previous principal agreements between tribal councils and former owner of the Tampakan Gold and Copper Project.

Madangit however clarified that these were just reports and still have to be investigated.

On February 22, unidentified gunmen strafed the house of S’bangken tribal chieftain Tonio Binuhay killing him and his pregnant wife.

Police are still investigating the killings.

Chief Insp. Jomar Alexis Yap, Southwestern Mindanao police spokesperson, said they are looking into every possible motive, including the possibility that the murder was related to the mining project.

Binuhay was a staunch supporter of SMI and was a member of the village council in Tablu, Tampakan.

Members of the communist-led New People’s Army are also said to be active in the area and are strongly opposed to the SMI project.

The NPA, however, has not issued any statement owning up to the murders.

Madangit said based on initial reports reaching him, the gunmen reportedly used M-16 Baby Armalite rifles.

He said owning a firearm is a symbol of authority and power among B’laans, the dominant indigenous peoples living in the area.

“Some who opted to accept cash payments from SMI and chose to live outside the mining site are buying motorcycles and houses.  I received reports some bought firearms from gunrunners,” Madangit said.

Binuhay, he said, may have been a victim of personal grudge as he reportedly killed a fellow B’laan some years back.

He said police authorities should look into the report of loose firearms proliferating in the area.

He feared lawlessness might affect the already volatile peace and order situation in the SMI mineral development area.

“Remember these communities used to be havens of cattle rustlers and holdup men,” he said.

SMI immediately ordered the suspension of operations in the area following the death of Binuhay and his wife.

“To ensure the safety of employees and contractors, the management ordered the work suspension until further clearance from the authorities,” SMI corporate communication chief John Arnaldo said a day after the killing.

He declined to answer requests for interview on the possible role of SMI in the proliferation of loose firearms in the hinterlands of Tampakan.

But SMI external affairs communication superintendent Manolo Labor said, “SMI is not in the position to comment on the allegation that these payments are used by the community members to buy firearms.”

“This question is best directed to the local police or the military deployed within the project area as well as the members of the community themselves,” he added.

SMI is winding up its exploration activities in the bordering towns of Kiblawan, Tampakan and Columbio in Sultan Kudarat in preparation for extraction of copper and gold ores in the mineral-rich mountainous terrain in the area.

SMI-Xstrata recently concluded its pre-feasibility studies and has started its permitting process.

With ore deposits of over 12.8 million tons of 0.6 per cent copper and 15.2 million ounces of 0.2 grams per ton of gold, the Tampakan copper and gold project is reportedly the biggest of its kind in Southeast Asia and the Western pacific region. (Edwin G. Espejo/MindaNews contributor)