SouthCot shuts down operations of 300 tunnels in gold mine site but…

T’BOLI, South Cotabato (MindaNews/27 Oct) — Backed by about two dozen police and military personnel, officials of the South Cotabato government swooped down on the gold rush village of Kematu here Thursday morning and shut down the operation of 300 illegal tunnels.

No violent resistance marred the implementation of the closure order that was served on the miners last Friday. Operators, displaced mine workers and their families watched helplessly as the team went in to padlock some tunnels.

“An estimated 4,000 workers and their dependents will be affected by the closure of the gold tunnels,” said Bong Daquil, operations manager of one of the long-time small-scale miners belonging to the T’boli Minahang Bayan Multi-Purpose Cooperative (TMBMPC).

“For our family alone, we employ at least 100 workers,” Daquil, a local policeman, told MindaNews as he watched men nearby nailing wood on the entrance of one of the bigger tunnels shared by several members of the cooperative.

Dominador Siloterio of the T’boli information office, said the local government unit fears that criminality will rise, especially theft and robbery, because of the thousands affected by the closure of the gold tunnels.

He added the LGU is bracing for requests of assistance from displaced workers.

Lourdes Jumilla, secretariat head of the Provincial Mining Regulatory Board (PMRB) who led the team in implementing the closure order, said they only padlocked several gold mine tunnels “but all the operations in the small-scale mining area are shut down.”

“There are 300 tunnels and it would be very difficult to padlock them all, considering they’re up in the mountains and scattered,” she told MindaNews.

But it is not totally over for the small-scale miners.

“They’ll be allowed to operate again if they can comply with the (environmental and work safety) requirements…they’ll then be given permits so they can resume operations,” Jumilla said, noting the closure order was meant to force the small-scale miners to operate legally.

Closure of the small-scale mining area, comprising 21 hectares, also came because of the overlapping land claim of the TMBMPC and the Maguan clan in the gold-rich mountain.

In 1994, then Gov. Hilario de Pedro III issued Executive Order (EO) 12 declaring the  21 hectares as “minahang bayan” or people’s mining site in favor of the TMBMPC.

In recent years, the Maguan clan claimed the area was part of their ancestral domain and demanded that mining operations there by the TMBMPC members should have their consent.

The two parties failed to settle their dispute during the emergency meeting called last Tuesday by South Cotabato Gov. Arthur Pingoy Jr. There were also previous efforts for the two sides to mend their differences.

A new development, however, emerged during another emergency meeting of the PMRB on Wednesday that lasted until night. Jumilla said the board has approved a resolution recommending to Pingoy the amendment of EO 12.

“In effect, the 21 hectares will be declared by the governor as ‘an open house’  for small scale mining operators, and not just for the TMBMPC members, so long as they can obtain a permit,” Jumilla said, adding the declaration seeks to give indigenous peoples the chance to become mine operators too.

No copy of the resolution was immediately made available.

Meanwhile, to ensure the closure order won’t be violated, at least two checkpoints or detachments manned by soldiers and policemen will be put up in the village.

“These detachments will prevent the transport of ore to the town center,” Siegfred Flaviano, acting chief of the Provincial Environment Management Office told MindaNews.

“Even if the miners continue with their operations in the closed tunnels, it’s “impossible” for them to get the ores through the buyers in the poblacion because there’s only one road out where the checkpoints will rise,” he added.

Instead of violating the closure order, Flaviano, who was part of the implementing team, urged the illegal small-scale miners to work out compliance to the safety and environmental standards so they would be given permits.

“That way they’ll be operating legally and they would have problem,” he said.

Sacks of ore were seen lying on the road near the closed tunnels. The small-scale mining operators were given five days – from Friday last week to Wednesday —  to take out their stocks from the tunnels for transport to the buyers in the poblacion.

Flaviano said transport of ores outside the village is now “strictly not allowed.”

Pingoy told reporters earlier the provincial government had “no other choice” but to close the mining operations after the small-scale operators  failed to comply with the requirement the past 20 months.

“We’ve given them enough human consideration period…We will padlock the tunnels,” he said.

Pingoy said that because the small-scale miners were operating illegally, the provincial government was not getting the appropriate taxes and fees from them. Collections within the 21 hectares did not even reach P200,000 last year.

The governor said the closure of the tunnels will also ensure that once operations resume after requirements shall have been complied with, it would be in accordance with the standards to minimize impact on the environment.

During the administration of then governor and now 2nd District Rep. Daisy P. Avance Fuentes, the provincial government also closed the small-scale mining in Barangay Kematu because of the land dispute.

The 21 hectare land is within the tenement of Tribal Mining Corp’s 85-hectare under Mineral Production Sharing Agreement 090-97-XI granted in 1997. The agreement has a lifespan of 25 years.

Tribal Mining has partnered with Canadian firm Cadan Resources Corp. for the commercial development of its T’boli gold-silver project, and is just awaiting the final approval from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau.

The Court of Appeals earlier ruled that the conflict over rights between the mining firm and the small-scale miners involving the disputed area shall be resolved by a Regional Panel of Arbitrators, which is a quasi-judicial body annexed to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Eumir Ernesto Tiamzon, Tribal Mining president, backed the move of the provincial government to close the small-scale mining tunnels.

He claimed that under the Small-Scale Mining Act of 1992, small-scale mining operators should ask the consent of the company that holds the tenement.

But Tiamzon, a lawyer, said the mining company is willing to talk with the small-scale miners and co-exist with them.

The company sponsored the packed lunch of the team that implemented the closure order. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)