Fact-finding mission blocked from entering Sagittarius mine site

TAMPAKAN, South Cotabato — Members of a multi-sectoral fact-finding mission who trooped to the mines development site of foreign-backed Sagittarius Mines Inc. on Wednesday  to check alleged military abuses in the area were blocked by groups supposedly supportive of the mining project.

At least three roadblocks were set up in the towns of Tampakan and Kiblawan in Davao del Sur to prevent the fact-finding mission from going to their destination, Rene Pamplona, advocacy officer of the Social Action Center of the Diocese of Marbel, said.

He said they are planning to proceed tomorrow (Thursday), with the help Diocese of Digos, to Bong Mal through Kiblawan town.

Bong Mal can be accessed through the towns of Tampakan and Kiblawan, about three hours apart using the General Santos City- Davao City highway.

“The fact-finding team will go to the tribal communities directly affected by the Tampakan project to find out firsthand the real situation there,” he said earlier today.

But even if the group could not go to Bong Mal, they can still gather testimonies as several residents have decided to descend from the mountains to talk with the fact-finding team, he said.

Those who went down were expected to reach the lowland this (Wednesday) evening, Pamplona said.

He said the two-day mission also seeks to gather evidence that the mining firm “does not respect lawful orders.”

An estimated 1,000 tribal members were expected to gather in the mines development site to call on Sagittarius Mines to abandon its project during the fact-finding mission, he said.

Pamplona said there have been complaints from tribal community members that the company, in cahoots with the military, has been allegedly curtailing their religious and cultural practices.

The fact-finding mission came days after militant groups tried but failed to reach the mines development site for a solidarity mission with the tribesmen opposing the Tampakan project.

Last Sunday, militant groups returned after they claimed that two vehicles blocked their way towards the mountains here. They blamed the company and the military for the blockade.

John B. Arnaldo, Sagittarius Mines corporate communications manager, said that the company is “committed to open and transparent engagement.

“A commitment to ethical behavior guides SMI’s approach to how it responds to actions by stakeholders and how it conducts its business,” he said.

Arnaldo said that SMI has always conducted its business “through genuine partnerships by working ethically, responsibly, openly and with others.”

SMI will continue to talk openly with stakeholders about its plans. This includes engaging in facts-based, reasoned discussions with those opposed to the Tampakan Project in the spirit of transparency, he said.

Lt. Col. Alexis Noel C. Bravo, 27th Infantry Battalion commander, said earlier that soldiers have been deployed in the mines development site due to the security threats posed by the communist New People’s Army.

The military official denied that soldiers were deployed there to protect and advance the interest of Sagittarius Mines.

Since last month, members of the B’laan tribe opposing the mining project have set up barricades in various portions within the tenement of Sagittarius Mines.

The move was triggered by the plan of the mining firm to relocate them from the mines development site.

The blockades were set up Bong Mal, the boundary between Tampakan and  Kiblawan that serves as crucial artery for the mining firm to move around the mines development site.

Before the barricades were put up, there have been indications from some tribal communities in Bong Mal that the mining firm should abandon its venture, despite the project’s touted economic benefits for the residents like jobs, education, health and other basic social services.

Last year, disgruntled tribal members resorted to violence in dismay over the firm’s continued operation in the area. They ambushed workers of a construction firm hired by company resulting in the death of three persons.

Pamplona also said the fact-finding mission will seek to establish that Sagittarius Mines “has been violating” the order of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Last January, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje issued an order denying the company’s application for an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) for the Tampakan project.

Paje cited the open-pit mining ban imposed by the provincial government of South Cotabato in denying the firm’s ECC application.

Paje’s order also directed the mining company to refrain from doing any activities in the area it has applied for.

Sagittarius Mines eventually filed a motion for reconsideration but the Environment department has yet to issue a decision.

Pamplona said the mining firm still has operations in the mines development site even with the DENR order.

The fact-finding mission was composed of representatives from at least three Catholic dioceses in Mindanao, the Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc., the Alyansa Tigil Mina, Legal Rights Center-Kasama sa Kalikasan/ Friends of the Earth-Philippines, and the Philippine Human Rights Information Center, among others.

The group also invited representatives from the Human Rights Commission.

Meanwhile, members of Philippine and foreign workers’ groups will also start today a week-long fact-finding mission on mining-related issues in the Caraga Region.

Foreign delegates coming from labor groups in South Korea, United States, Belgium, Australia, Japan and Germany will join their counterparts from the Metal Workers Alliance of the Philippines, integrated Philippine Electronics Network (iPEN) and other local groups.

The mission in Caraga will look into the mining methods being used by transnational companies and find ways to protect communities and workers “from the destruction engendered by mining operations.”

The mission will also assess the impact of mining operations on employment, environment, and work conditions in the mine sites.

Caraga Region comprises the provinces of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Sur, Surigao del Norte and Dinagat Island. (Bong Sarmiento with reports from H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews