Lopez-led signature drive vs SMI’s Tampakan project gains ground

GENERAL SANTOS CITY(MindaNews/08 March) — Anti-mining and environmental groups in South Cotabato province and the neighboring areas have started gathering around 300,000 signatures in a bid to pressure the national government to call off the Tampakan copper-gold project of foreign-backed Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI).

The massive signature campaign was launched following a recent series of public forums in the area spearheaded by popular anti-mining activist Regina Lopez and other local and national environmental groups.

Lopez, convener of anti-mining group Save Palawan Movement, said the signatures will highlight the “true sentiment” of local residents with regards to SMI’s US$ 5.9 billion Tampakan project.

“We will show to them that at least 50 percent of the population in South Cotabato don’t want the project to continue and are saying no to mining in Tampakan,” Lopez said.

Bulk of the copper and gold reserve lies in the town of Tampakan in South Cotabato, with the mines development site also straddling Kiblawan in Davao del Sur, Columbio in Sultan Kudarat and Malungon in Sarangani.

Once the target 300,000 signatures are met, she said they would present them to the Senate and even to President Benigno Aquino III to persuade them to stop the project.

She said they would lobby with national government officials to look into the signatures and “consider that as the true will of the people regarding the mining project in Tampakan.”

“The people know and decide what’s best for them and they (national officials) cannot go against the people’s will,” said Lopez, who is managing director of ABS-CBN Foundation Inc.

Environment Secretary Ramon Paje issued last month a conditional environmental compliance certificate (ECC) to SMI despite a standing ban on open-pit mining ban implemented by the provincial government of South Cotabato.

Among the conditions cited in the ECC were the settlement of the question on social acceptability, protection of the rights of indigenous people, land access under the Department of Agrarian Reform and the willingness to assume continuing liability over any environmental damage.

The open-pit ban, which was embodied in the province’s environment code, was the main reason for the DENR’s denial in January last year of SMI’s application for ECC. The company appealed the decision but the DENR rejected it on the same ground.

SMI, which is controlled by Xtrata Copper, the world’s fourth largest copper producer, had disclosed that it would employ the controversial open-pit mining method for its operation, a move vehemently opposed by local environmental groups and Roman Catholic Church.

Lopez said records showed that not one of the mining companies that operated in the country “in the last 100 years” was able to rehabilitate a mine area.

“What we have instead were four major mining disasters,” she pointed out.

In terms of benefits from mining, Lopez said a study released by the National Economic and Development Authority showed that among the areas that have high percentage of people living below the poverty line were those that hosted mining projects.

She cited the case of Bataraza in Palawan that posted a poverty incidence of 53 percent, Caraga Region with 47.5 percent, Zamboanga Peninsula with 42.75 percent and Bicol Region with 44.92 percent.

“If mining is good then why are there still many poor people in these areas? Look at the Igorots in Benguet, many of them are still poor,” she said

Lopez’s group also launched about two years ago a massive signature drive against plans to mine Palawan.

From an initial target of one million signatures, the group has so far gathered 7.3 million signatories against the project, its website said.

The signature campaign was supported by ABS-CBN Foundation Inc., Haribon Foundation, Greenpeace, Alyansa Tigil Mina, Aldaw, LRC-KsK, Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines and ABS-CBN’s Bantay Kalikasan.

John Arnaldo, SMI corporate communications manager, said they welcome Lopez’s sentiments and efforts against the mining project and noted that they would also want to engage with her.

“We would like to invite her on her next visit to have an engagement with us so we can also present to her the details of the project and show her what we have done,” he said.

Arnaldo said they would introduce Lopez to the project’s stakeholders, especially the B’laan tribal folk within the mining area, “so they can directly tell her what they think and feel about the project.”

“We want her to see the project site so that she can personally see the condition of the area today so she will have a basis to compare later if the project will push through,” he added. (Allen V. Estabillo/MindaNews)