In the Dark

Below is an article published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer concerning the City of Mati.


By Carlos Isagani T. Zarate
Kris-Crossing Mindanao
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:16:00 11/10/2008

MANILA, Philippines - Immoderate greed and corruption, no doubt, will become hallmarks of the present administration when it exits, hopefully, in 2010: from the agriculture funds used by Joc-Joc Bolante to “fertilize” the results of the 2004 elections, to the overpriced projects like the cancelled NBN-ZTE deal and, recently, with the “polished” script as to the real source of the stash money caught in the hands of one of the “euro generals.”
Greed and corruption, surely, are sins not of the original making of the Arroyo administration. But, under President Macapagal-Arroyo’s watch, these maladies have evolved, with much degree of sophistication in some instances. These “sins” have already permeated all facets and processes of the government, local and national, that many Filipinos are already frustrated and resigned to the possibility that these can no longer be remedied. Much has been written on the dire consequences of corruption, yet this divisive social scourge continues to taint all levels of governance, affecting in the end mostly ordinary Filipinos. Take the case of the once sleepy coastal community of Macambol in Mati City, Davao Oriental.
Once a peaceful and close-knit community of 5,000 people that, for decades, thrived on fishing and farming, Macambol is now a divided community as a large-scale nickel mining operation threatens to devour the natural riches of the place. Macambol is the main site of the so-called Hallmark Project of the world’s biggest mining company, BHP Billiton, and its supposed local partner, Asiaticus Management Corp. (Amcor). While still in its exploration phase, the Hallmark Project covered seven exploration permits granted by the government between 2004 and 2005 and covering an estimated 13,000 hectares. BHP Billiton intends to extract Macambol’s nickel reserves for 30 years. It will also put up a processing plant for extracted ores, using the so-called hydrometallurgical technology, which is still “experimental and [whose] risks have not been fully assessed.”
Government data show that the country is host to Southeast Asia’s largest nickel reserves with an estimated 5.2 million tons, the world’s ninth biggest. The Hallmark Project is one of the 24 priority mining projects being vigorously pushed by the Arroyo administration under its 2004 Mineral Action Plan. With the project, the government estimates to receive annually approximately $80 million in both excise and income taxes, once production is fully operational beginning 2014-2015.
But behind the glossy and rosy scenarios painted by the project’s promoters are stories of bribery, flawed processes, lack of transparency and fear of potential environmental catastrophe, which threaten to further divide the people of Macambol. These stories were contained in the report titled “Kept in the Dark: Why it’s time for BHP Billiton to let communities in the Philippines have their say,” which was released last week in Davao City by Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (Cafod), the development agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The report, principally written by Cafod’s Sonya Maldar, claimed that, among others, bribery attended the processes of securing the informed consent and support of affected Macambol residents, particularly among some members of the indigenous peoples. Quoting affected residents, the report claimed that following the entry of the Hallmark Project in the area in 2002, “Amcor and government officials from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples offered inducements to people in Macambol in order to obtain support for the project.” These allegations, the report said, “cast further doubt on the validity of the consent process and therefore the basis of BHP Billiton’s ‘social license’ to operate in Macambol.”
The supposed forms of bribery, the report said, range from offering food and drinks in exchange for the signatures of approval of the residents to money as high as P1 million, “which is equivalent to over 120 years of average family income in Macambol.”
What also tainted the process of obtaining “free and prior informed consent” (FPIC) of residents as required by law, the report added, is the questionable authority of leaders who claimed to represent the lumad in the affected area. There were also allegations of deliberate exclusion in the process of residents, lumad and non-lumad alike, who oppose the project. Also, the recent and ongoing legal battles between BHP Billiton and Amcor over total control of the project not only further polarized the residents but also put into question the FPIC process.
The report also noted: “In a poor community like Macambol, mining has raised expectations …. Yet, from Cafod’s discussion with community members, it is evident that people in Macambol are not well informed about the Hallmark Project. They lack basic information about the project plans and timelines and have not had access to independent analysis of its potential social and environmental impacts.” The report also noted the “high risks” posed by the Hallmark Project as it straddles the areas like the Mt. Hamiguitan range and Pujada Bay, which are both considered protected under the law.
While the report made several recommendations, like taking a new FPIC process, for the government and BHP Billiton, Maldar admits that the same are “difficult to be realized,” particularly with government’s attitude toward large-scale mining.
What’s in store then for the Macambol residents? What more can greed and corruption steal from them? Narciso Salang, a Mandaya lumad leader, has only this to say: “Mining operations will affect our sacred lands … If we lose our natural resources, we lose the memories and heritage of our ancestors.”