Aquino effigy burning caps 5-day protest march vs. Tampakan mining

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/10 Dec) – Groups opposing the Tampakan copper-gold project of Sagittarius Mines, Inc. completed on Saturday their five-day, 150-kilometer protest march here, capped by the burning of the effigy of President Benigno C. Aquino III aboard a back hoe.

It was the second long march against Sagittarius Mines, which is controlled by Xstrata Copper, the world’s fourth largest copper producer, since last year.

This time, tribal members, farmers, youth, church-backed and militant groups, walked from Digos City in Davao del Sur to this city, beginning December 6, a reverse of the route they had last year.

The culmination was timed in today’s commemoration of International Human Rights Day.

An estimated 500 protestors joined the culmination of the march, dubbed “Lakbayan II: Tuloy ang Laban Batok sa Dinagkung Pagmina ug Pagpanglapas sa Tawhanong Katungod” or “The Fight Continues Against Large-Scale Mining and Human Rights Violations.”

It caused traffic jams as the protesters walked four kilometers to the downtown proper, occupying one lane of the highway.

They held the closing ceremonies near the old city hall building, occupying a block that was closed to traffic.

“We braved the heat and bear the rains as we progressed to this city because we want to inculcate in the public mind that SMI should not be allowed to operate,” Ryan Lariba, spokesperson of Bayan SOCSKSARGEN, told MindaNews.

After Digos City, the protestors, estimated at 200, advanced to Malalag town in Davao del Sur, where SMI plans to build a coal-fired power plant, then proceeded to General Santos City, where the company holds administrative and operational functions.

From General Santos, they went to Tampakan town, which the company listed as its “headquarters,” en route to Koronadal, the regional seat of government for Southwestern Mindanao.

The protestors, whose number swelled as they advanced, carried placards and tarpaulins calling for the abolition of the 1995 Mining Act of the Philippines, and urging SMI to abandon the project, among other issues, including human rights violations, militarization and labor wages.

Despite the searing heat, the culmination protest in this city lasted for about five hours, ending around 2 p.m.

Chants of “SMI palayasin” (kick out SMI) reverberated in the air in between speeches of the speakers.

As a highlight of the protest action, they burned the effigy of Aquino, whom they clad in a military uniform carrying an Armalite rifle.

Apparently not contented, they then bashed him with sticks and kicked the backhoe, which was fashioned from plywoods, until they were a total wreck.

Aquino, in his early days in office, had expressed support to the venture of Sagittarius Mines, noting the huge investment that the country can gain from the venture.

During the speeches, calls for justice for the slain Eliezer Billanes, who was believed to have been killed for his staunch resistance against SMI’s operations, also rang out from the mobile speakers loaded into a truck.

His daughter, Ma. Lorena Billanes, now secretary general of Hustisya Socsksargen, said that justice remained elusive for their family since the father was killed in March 2009.

“Maraming namatay dahil sa walang hiyang military. Si Boy [Billanes’ nickname] ay pinatay ng military,” Lorena told the crowd.

She also accused the mining firm of allegedly ordering the military to do the hit.

Sagittarius Mines and the 27th Infantry Battalion separately denied earlier that they were involved in the killing of Billanes.

Officials of Sagittarius Mines have said they “respect” those who are against their mining project.

Sagittarius is still in the exploratory stage and plans to go into commercial operation by 2016.

Its venture, however, is facing an obstacle with the environment code of South Cotabato that bans open-pit mining.

Sagittarius Mines is also hobbled by security threats from the New People’s Army and tribal members who lately organized into an armed group. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)