SouthCot gov vows to appeal CA ruling allowing open-pit mining in Tampakan

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews / 26 March) – South Cotabato Governor Reynaldo Tamayo, Jr. has committed to appeal the ruling of the Court of Appeals (CA) allowing open-pit mining method for large-scale mining projects, including the controversial $5.9 billion project in Tampakan town, Diocese of Marbel Bishop Cerilo Casicas said.

In a statement issued Saturday, Casicas disclosed that he and a small team from the diocese, and Tamayo held a closed-door meeting following the confirmation that the CA had issued a decision favorable to large-scale mining projects eyeing to extract minerals using the open-pit mining method.

“(It was) a fruitful conversation,” the Bishop said of Thursday’s meeting held at the governor’s office in this city.

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

The CA issued the ruling on August 22, 2022 validating the province’s prohibition on open-pit mining, which is contained in its landmark Environment Code approved in 2010. But the ban, the CA ruled, is limited only 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 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 Philippine government granted a Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) to SMI in 1995. The 25-year FTAA was set to expire on March 21, 2020, but was extended by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau for 12 years – or until March 21, 2032 – in an order issued June 8, 2016 but made known only in January 2020.

The FTAA is subject to renewal for another 25 years.

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

Based on the firm’s Mine Project Feasibility Study in 2010, the Tampakan Project could yield an average annual production of 370,000 metric tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold. The life of the mine was pegged at 17 years.

The provincial ban on open-pit mining has been a stumbling block for the Tampakan Project, which is named after the town where the minerals are located.

Casicas said Tamayo committed to explore legal options toward appealing the CA decision limiting the scope of the open pit mining ban.

The governor also promised to lobby the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to honor the province’s open-pit mining ban not just on small-scale mining but large-scale mining operations like the Tampakan project. 

According to the Diocese’s statement, the governor assured the Bishop that he was “anti-open pit mining, including large-scale mining.” 

Protesters from the Diocese of Marbel and from multisectoral groups in South Cotabato air their sentiments against the proposed lifting of the ban on open-pit mining outside the gymnasium in Tampakan, South Cotabato where a public hearing was conducted on Friday, 18 February 2022. Photo courtesy of Social Action Center of the Diocese of Marbel

“The people of South Cotabato opposing the Tampakan mining project are hopeful that the governor will maintain his opposition to open-pit mining, which is an environmentally destructive mining method. We will hold him to his promises and assurances that he has made to us,” Casicas said.

About two weeks ago, the prelate prodded the governor’s office for clarification over reports that the CA had already rendered a decision on the appeal against the decision of Regional Trial Court Branch 24 Judge Vicente Peña rendered in October 2020, which upheld the open-pit mining ban as a valid exercise of the police power of the province.

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

“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.

The provincial government received a copy of the CA decision on September 15, 2022 but no announcement was made about the ruling until Casicas blew the whistle in another statement furnished to MindaNews last Thursday.

During the meeting with the governor, Casicas reiterated the importance of upholding the full extent of the Environmental Code, which covers large-scale open-pit mining.

The Social Action Center of the Diocese of Marbel was part of the movement that pushed for the environmental ordinance.

In May 2022, the landmark provincial ban on open-pit mining was lifted by the previous set of Sangguniang Panlalawigan or provincial board, stirring public outrage in the province with the local Catholic church leading peaceful street protests.

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. MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO

Two weeks later, Tamayo vetoed the measure, even as he claimed that “it won’t have a bearing after all” to the Tampakan project.

“With or without a veto, their [large-scale] mining operation can proceed because the local government is not the one giving them the permit. They have obtained a permit from the national government,” Tamayo told reporters inside the capitol after addressing the thousands of anti-open pit mining protesters in front of the provincial government compound on June 1, 2022.

The governor also noted that a national law supersedes a local legislation, apparently referring to Republic Act 7942 or the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 that allows open-pit mining method across the country. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)