Clouds hamper aerial survey of illegal mining within Tampakan project

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/18 April)—Cloudy skies hampered the aerial survey at the Tampakan copper-gold project of foreign-backed Sagittarius Mines, Inc. to determine the extent of illegal small-scale mining activity there, an official said on Monday.

But in another part of South Cotabato, officials saw the destructive impact of banlas, or sluice mining, in Tboli town during the aerial survey conducted last Saturday.

“Nakalbo gid ang bukid (The mountains were turned bald) because of banlas,” said Vice Gov. Elmo Tolosa.

Tolosa said they failed to assess the impact of banlas within the mines development site of Sagittarius Mines due to poor visibility brought by clouds.

Earlier, South Cotabato Gov. Arthur Pingoy, Jr. said that two hectares of the mountains have reportedly been destroyed by guerrilla banlas operations within the Tampakan project.

Banlas or sluice mining method employs the pouring of large amounts of water on a mountain’s surface to extract the rocks containing the gold ore.

The governor has said the assessment in Tampakan would be conducted from the air due to security concerns on the ground. Late last month, three workers of a contractor for Sagittarius Mines were killed when armed men ambushed their convoy in Barangay Danlag in Tampakan town, one of the villages straddled by the firm’s copper-gold project.

Tolosa said an inquiry on banlas mining in the province may possibly be conducted by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan committee on environmental protection if somebody brings out the matter.

The aerial survey was made possible after banana firm Sumifru Philippines Corp., which operates in T’boli town, offered its small plane for the purpose, the vice governor said.

Banlas mining was first uncovered in T’boli town and has invaded Tampakan a few years ago despite the crackdown ordered by the provincial government.

Tolosa blamed the death of three illegal mine workers in Tampakan town early this month to banlas, noting that miners would pour water to loosen the soil, thus a high possibility of landslides when heavy rainfall occurs.

Critics had earlier criticized Sagittarius Mines for failing to keep illegal mining activities away from its tenement.

Sagittarius Mines is controlled by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth largest copper producer, with Australian firm Indophil Resources NL as minority equity partner. Philippine conglomerate San Miguel Corp. owns a stake at Indophil.

The Tampakan copper-gold project represents the largest undeveloped copper-gold deposits in Southeast Asia. If developed, the mine could be the largest in the Philippines and among the largest copper mines in the world.

Current estimates indicate it could yield an average of 375,000 tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold per year over a 17-year life of mine, the company said in a study.

With a required capital investment of US$5.9 billion, the Tampakan project would be the largest direct foreign investment in the Philippines should it go on commercial stream in 2016.

The Tampakan project, however, is presently hobbled by the environment code of South Cotabato that bans open pit mining, the method Sagittarius Mines said it will employ in extracting the minerals. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)