Illegal mining, loose guns linger in Tampakan mining tenement

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 11 April)—Illegal small-scale mining operations and loose firearms have proliferated anew within the mining tenement of the controversial $5.9-billion Tampakan project, authorities have found out after a series of raids last month.

Sagittarius Mines, Inc. camp site in Tampakan, South Cotabato. MindaNews file photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Engr. Efren Carido, director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau in Region 12 (MGB-12), told MindaNews over the phone Tuesday that illegal activities in Southeast Asia’s largest undeveloped copper-gold minefield “include sluice and tunnel mining for gold deposits.”

Some of the illegal mining sites in Sitio Acacia in Barangay Danlag and Sitio Aspak in Barangay Tablu in Tampakan, South Cotabato have ball mill machines, an indication that these illegal miners are looking for the long haul until they were discovered, Carido added.

“It was good we busted them,” he said.

Carido said a multi-partite team conducted three raids in the Tampakan project, which is being developed by Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI), since last month. The raids, he said, led to the confiscation of various equipment commonly used in illegal mining operations—flexible plastic pipe, collapsible hose, sledgehammer, shovel, plastic pail, and cut nets and screens, among others.

He pointed out that about three hectares of the mountain have been destroyed by sluice mining, also known as banlas mining.

Banlas mining, which is considered a highly-destructive mining method, involves the pouring of large amounts of water using high-pressure water jets on a mountain’s surface to extract the rocks containing the gold ore, and then pan them with mercury.

Banlas operations were first uncovered in the gold-rush town of T’boli, South Cotabato in the early 2000s, particularly in Barangay Kematu.

Carido noted they already informed SMI about the resurgence of illegal mining operations within its tenement.

The mining firm is mainly responsible to protect its tenement from illegal mining activities, he stressed

The official said ores containing copper were strewn over the illegal mining sites because the illegal miners were more after the gold ores.

Carido said the illegal mining sites are located far from populated communities, taking about two to three hours of trekking to reach the place.

“Before we could even reach the place, the illegal miners would know we are coming through their informants who alert them using text messages or calls,” he said.

Carido said the illegal small-scale mining operations have gone beyond the Tampakan project tenement, apparently in the neighboring town of Columbio in Sultan Kudarat province.

Siegfred Flaviano, South Cotabato Provincial Environment Management Office chief, sounded the alarm on the presence of armed men allegedly involved in the illegal mining operations within the Tampakan project.

“[We can hear] warning shots every time we conducted monitoring and surveillance in the area,” he said in a statement.

Flaviano said he already brought the matter during the Provincial Peace and Order Council meeting held last month.

At least two sources from communities within SMI’s mining tenement separately confirmed the resurgence of illegal mining activities as well as the proliferation of loose high-powered firearms in the area.

Requesting anonymity for security reasons, they revealed the firearms were bought allegedly using money from the illegal small-scale mining operations or from the payment of the lands the villagers leased to the mining company.

The company rents land at P160,000 per hectare for 25 years, or P6400 annually.

Flaviano said the alleged financier of the illegal small-scale mining is known to them but he did not name the individual pending results of investigation.

He said they learned the name of the supposed financier from the only suspect they arrested during one of the raids they conducted.

The Tampakan project has yet to start commercial operations since it was officially launched in the town on January 17, 2003.

Since then, it has been facing staunch opposition from the local Catholic church and allied organizations on concerns over the environment, food security, health and human rights.

The firm is reportedly eyeing to commence full swing operations in 2026.

In a study, SMI revealed the Tampakan project has the potential to yield an average of 375,000 metric tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold per annum in the expected 17-year life of the mine.

Open-pit mining is the most viable method to extract the shallow deposits of the large-scale mining project, the firm said.

South Cotabato banned open-pit mining in 2010.

However, in a ruling known only last month, the Court of Appeals said that the provincial ban on open-pit mining method applies only to small-scale mining operations, and does not cover large-scale mining operations, including the Tampakan project.

South Cotabato Gov. Reynaldo Tamayo Jr., following a meeting with Marbel Bishop Cerilo Casicas, had vowed to appeal the CA decision.

The diocese has been spearheading the campaign to stop the open-pit mining project of SMI. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)