Bishop slams SMI for claiming religious groups support its Tampakan mining project

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 11 Dec) – Bishop Cirilo Casicas of the Diocese of Marbel in South Cotabato  has slammed the developer of the controversial $5.9 billion (P297 billion at current rates) Tampakan project for claiming in a legislative hearing that the local religious sector has thrown its support to the largest undeveloped copper-gold minefield in Southeast Asia.

The Sangguniang Panlalawigan of South Cotabato held a special session in Koronadal City on Thursday, December 9, regarding the petitions to lift the open-pit mining ban imposed by the provincial government since 2010. It was aired live on Facebook.

Residents of South Cotabato stage a protest against mining on 10 June 2010 as they hailed the passage a day earlier of the provincial government’s Environment Code banning open-pit mining. A foreign mining firm has been eyeing to extract huge amounts of gold and copper deposits in the municipality of Tampakan and neighboring areas using open-pit mining. MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO

In his presentation, Roy Antonio, SMI corporate linkages manager of the Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI), the firm behind the Tampakan Project, claimed that the project has gained the support of local religious groups but did not name any.

Bishop Casicas, who was able to make his presentation after at least five hours of sitting down and listening to the proceedings, vehemently belied SMI’s claim that the local religious sector has thrown its support to the Tampakan project.

“I am the bishop here (South Cotabato), which has an 80 percent Catholic population…How can you claim that you have the support of the religious sector? We have been staunchly opposing the Tampakan project ever since,” he stressed.

Marbel Bishop Cerilo Casicas submits the initial signatures calling on the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to uphold the open-pit mining ban in South Cotabato. on Monday, 4 October 2021, in Koronadal City. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Marbel

Casicas said the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, the Anglican Church and the Episcopal Church in the province have joined the diocese in fighting the Tampakan project.

Even on social media, Casicas said “the sentiment is against SMI.”

“Vox populi, vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God,” he said, noting the Tampakan project does not have social acceptability.

He challenged the mining company to match the signatures gathered by the diocese that petitioned the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to retain the open-pit mining ban.

The bishop said that they have gathered at least 93,000 signatures since the campaign was launched in August, 40,000 of these from within the diocese.

Antonio was not able to respond as it was already evening but earlier in the hearing, he invited the Diocese to designate a representative to a multipartite monitoring body.

With the concurrence of the body, Vice Gov. Vicente de Jesus, Sangguniang Panlalawigan presiding officer, scheduled the resumption of the hearing on Monday afternoon, December 13.

Gateway to base camp of Sagittarius Mines, Inc. in Tampakan, South Cotabato. MindaNews photo by BONG SARMIENTO

Earlier Thursday morning, Antonio revealed the revised production plan of the company — from “one big production scoop” during the projected 17-year life-of-the mine to a phased extraction program.

The Tampakan project has the potential of yielding per annum an average of 375,000 tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold in concentrate within the mine’s lifetime, according to an earlier company study.

Based on the 2010 plan to extract an area the size of 9,500 hectares, he noted the firm will extract one-fourth of it in 10 years, or Phase 1, which they expect to yield 15 million tons of deposits.

“If we start big, the impact will be big. But with the phased (approach), the impact will be “small… The mining footprint will be very much reduced, including its environmental impact,” Antonio said.

Including Phases 2 and 3, the Tampakan project could extend to 30 years, he added.

Antonio listed down the economic contributions of the Tampakan project even if the venture has yet to go on commercial stream.

He claimed that since 1995, when the financial or technical assistance agreement (FTAA) for the Tampakan project was granted by the government, the company has already invested P32 billion.

Antonio said that since 2004, the firm has paid taxes worth at least P2.6 billion, the bulk going to the coffers of the national government.

A resident manoeuvres the dirt road passing a bridge under construction at the Tampakan project area on January 16, 2020. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento

For Phase 1 or the first 10 years if the firm starts operation, Antonio said they are projecting to pay taxes worth P76.6 billion and P4.8 billion to the national and local governments, respectively, Antonio said.

The indigenous peoples within the project area could get royalties, equivalent to one percent of gross company earnings, amounting to P6.6 billion in the first 10 years of the project, he said

The firm’s 25-year FTAA, which was set to expire on March 21, 2020, was extended for another 12 years in an order dated June 8, 2016, but only made public in January 2020. The 12-year extension will allow SMI to operate the mine until 2032, with the possibility of a renewal for another 25 years or until 2057.

In 2017, then Environment Secretary Gina Lopez canceled the Tampakan project’s environmental compliance certificate (ECC) “due to environmental and social concerns.”

But in July 2020, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau regional office revealed that the Office of the President had restored the ECC as early as May 6, 2019. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)