KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews / 24 February) – “Kung magboto kamo sa yes, daw pareho lang nga gintampa ninyo ang katawhan sang South Cotabato (If you vote yes, it’s like you slap the people of South Cotabato).”
Such was the message of farmer Ignacio Sulit, a member of Magsasaka at Siyentipiko Para sa Pag-Unlad ng Agrikultura, to the 14-member Sangguniang Panlalawigan who came in full force Thursday for the public hearing on the proposal to lift the controversial open-pit mining ban imposed by the provincial government 12 years ago.
Hundreds of people overflowed along the main Alunan Avenue as the South Cotabato Gymnasium and Cultural Center, with the observance of COVID-19 safety protocols, could not accommodate the thousands of pro- and anti-mining supporters who flocked to the event.
Sulit, one of the persons allowed to speak at the public forum, pleaded the provincial legislators to retain the ban on open-pit mining, the method that will be used to extract the massive deposit in the $5.9 billion Tampakan project, the largest untapped copper-gold reserve in Southeast Asia.
Speaking for the pro-mining advocates, Domingo “Amay” Collado, the indigenous people’s mandatory representative in Tampakan, South Cotabato, urged the board members to lift the open-pit mining ban, noting it contravenes the country’s mining law that does not prohibit such mining method.
“Gusto namon madevelop ang mina nga yara sa amon ancestral domain (We want the development of the mines inside our ancestral domain),” he said.
“Please respect our decision, don’t undermine us, don’t discriminate us,” he added.
Vice Gov. Vicente de Jesus, Sangguniang Panlalawigan presiding officer, told the crowd that all 14 members of the legislative body were present during the public hearing.
“This is how important this occasion is, this will determine the future of South Cotabato,” de Jesus said.
This is the second public hearing called by the collegial body outside its legislative hall. The first was in the Tampakan municipal gymnasium.
At the center of the controversy is the prohibition on open-pit mining method, which was contained in the province’s landmark Environment Code approved on June 9, 2010.
In 2015, the provincial board unanimously affirmed the open-pit mining ban in South Cotabato.
In March 2021, representatives of indigenous people in the province petitioned the Sangguniang Panlalawigan to review the Environment Code and amend the ban on open-pit mining method.
De Jesus said the petition was referred to the joint committees on environment and Muslim Affairs and Indigenous Peoples, which recommended amending the ban on open-pit mining method.
He said the collegial body will conduct a nominal voting whether to retain to lift the prohibition on open-pit mining method in the province.
“Wag kayo mag-alala, di kami hihinto, makikinig kami (Don’t worry, we will not stop. We will listen),” the vice governor said.
Acting Environment Secretary Jim Sampulna, who once served as director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – Region 12 based in this city, attended the public hearing.
Sampulna claimed “he did not come to influence the decision of the provincial board members.”
“Open-pit mining is a globally accepted method most feasible for shallow deposits,” he said.
Sagittarius Mines, Inc., operator of the Tampakan project, confirmed in an earlier study that the copper and gold reserves are near the surface and the best way to extract them is through open-pit mining method.
Last December, former Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, who resigned recently and was replaced by Sampulna, lifted the ban on open-pit mining method imposed by his predecessor, the late Gina Lopez, in 2017. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)