CA ruling waters down SouthCot’s open-pit mining ban; activists vow to sustain campaign

Anti-open pit mining advocates led by the local Catholic Church hold a prayer march rally in the streets of Koronadal City on Wednesday (1 June 2022). MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews / 24 March) – The Court of Appeals (CA) has issued a ruling that dealt a blow to the campaign against open-pit mining in South Cotabato, but activists remained unperturbed and vowed to sustain their opposition to the destructive mining method.

In a decision dated August 22, 2022 but circulated in the province only this week, the CA declared that the open-pit ban in South Cotabato is valid, but its application is limited to small-scale mining operations.

“Further, it is clarified that the ban on open-pit mining does not apply to large scale mining operations of the said province, particularly the Tampakan Project,” the ruling by the CA’s 23rd Division based in Cagayan de Oro stated.

The controversial Tampakan Project, touted as the largest untapped copper and gold minefield in Southeast Asia, is being developed by Sagittarius Mines Inc., which revealed that the most viable method to extract the shallow minerals is through open-pit mining.

The CA 23rd Division issued the ruling following the petition filed by B’laan Indigenous Cultural Communities consisting of the indigenous peoples of the (sic) Bongmal, etc, et. al. against the Provincial Government of South Cotabato.

The petitioners questioned the decision of Regional Trial Court Branch 24 Judge Vicente Peña rendered in October 2020, which favored the prohibition on open-pit mining contained in the province’s environment code.

“Section 22 (b), which bans open-pit mining in the province of South Cotabato is not invalid, but rather legal and consistent with DAO (Department Administrative Order) 2017-10 (issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources), the Local Government Code (of the Philippines) and above all the Constitution,” the judge had ruled.

Diocese of Marbel Bishop Cerilo Casicas blew the whistle on the CA decision, urging South Cotabato Governor Reynaldo Tamayo, Jr. to hold a public dialogue over the ruling, which neither he nor the provincial government did not announce to the constituents.

“Notwithstanding the pronouncement of the Court of Appeals, we remain firm with our stand that open-pit mining operations in South Cotabato pose a great risk to the integrity of the environment of our province and its neighbors. At stake are the health and livelihoods of many,” Casicas said in a statement. 

“We trust that the governor shall exert his best efforts to defend the rights of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology. It is of vital importance that the true meaning and heart of the ordinance is not in any way compromised or defeated,” the prelate added.

Casicas stressed that open-pit mining, especially large-scale operations, stands to encroach on closed and open canopy forests, some of which are considered integral woodlands.

Certainly, large-scale open pit mining operations will erase vast areas of agricultural lands, destroy the remaining watershed, and will cause massive and destructive flooding in Mindanao, he said.

South Cotabato Gov. Reynaldo Tamayo Jr. addresses the anti-open pit mining advocates outside the South Cotabato provincial capitol in Koronadal City on Wednesday (1 June 2022). MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

With its 30 parishes, the clergy and the laypeople, Casicas urged Tamayo to join them in “the moral imperative to act together decisively in order to save our common home.”

Speaking on local radio early this week, Tamayo confirmed the CA ruling.

“It did not invalidate the open-pit mining ban in South Cotabato but limited its scope to small-scale mining operations,” he said in the vernacular.

Based on the same CA decision, he added that large-scale open-pit mining operations are vested in the national government under Republic Act 7942 or the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.

According to the governor, “the provincial government could no longer question RA 7942 before the SC because the High Tribunal has already affirmed its validity.”

In June 2022, Tamayo vetoed the lifting of the ban on open-pit mining, which was passed by the previous composition of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan that caused an outrage and triggered peaceful march protests in the streets of this city.

Apparently taking a potshot, Tamayo noted there had been “no protest” in the province when former Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu ordered in December 2021 the lifting of the nation-wide ban on open-pit mining imposed by the late Environment Secretary Gina Lopez.

The governor said he would seek an audience with current Environment Secretary Ma. Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga to discuss her position on open-pit mining.

Meanwhile, the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), which works with communities threatened by the risks of open-pit mining projects, said the provincial government can still appeal the CA decision.

“This is not the end of the line for the open-pit mining ban. Certainly, the provincial government on behalf of their constituencies has the duty to appeal the CA decision precisely as the decision recognizes their police powers,” said lawyer Rolly Peoro, LRC legal services coordinator.

Peoro said the regulatory role granted to local governments is very much part of the national level of mineral and resource governance laws, and hence cannot be limited to just small-scale mining projects.

He noted that Tamayo “is in prime position to push back against this curtailment of the autonomy granted by the Local Government Code to local chief executives defending their constituents’ right to a balanced and healthful ecology.” (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)