Rebel Attack Exposes Mining-Related Issues

Adriano Mantilla, a former miner, appreciates the economic benefits of mining, but says that the devastation before him is proof of how destructive it is.

SURIGAO DEL NORTE, Philippines, Oct. 16 (Kyodo) — Adriano Mantilla, 65, sits under a hut on the corner of an elevated road, gazing with disappointment at the prominently red-painted hill, highway and seashore several kilometers below him.

Mantilla, a former miner in mineral-rich Surigao del Norte Province in northeastern Mindanao, told Kyodo News that while he appreciates the economic benefits of mining, the devastation before him is proof of how destructive it is.

And that destruction of the environment is why, communist rebels in the region say, they attacked three mining companies in the province on Oct. 3.

"Mining has benefits -- monetary, to be specific, for government. But I think there is abuse already," said Mantilla, who twice worked briefly at Taganito Mining Corp., one of the three firms raided.

TMC, which mines nickel for local processing and shipment to Japan and China, has been in operation in the region for about three decades.

The site under Mantilla's gaze belongs to firm Platinum Groups Metal Corp., which was most damaged in the raid by about 200 New Peoples' Army rebels.

The other target was Taganito High-Pressure Acid Leaching, which is in partnership with Sumitomo Metal Mining Co.

In taking responsibility for the raids that caused about $70 million in damage, the NPA said the three firms were punished for "immensely destroying the environment, violating the rights of the natives, displacing peasants and exploiting workers."

The government, however, believes the attacks came after the companies refused to pay a "revolutionary tax" of millions of pesos a month to the rebels.

Neither the rebels nor the companies have said any "tax" was behind the attacks.

"I think the NPA is correct in those issues. I understand their concern," Mantilla said. "Our sea here, especially during the rainy season, turns red. There are no more fish because it's muddy, unlike before."

Mantilla said the mining firms continue production at the expense of nature and that sometimes also affects human health.

"It's very dusty here. Some people, including me, get sick. We sometimes suffer from loose bowels due to contaminated water," he added.

Local officials acknowledge the environmental problems, but they call them "a normal effect," adding, as do the mining companies, the damage has little affect on human health.

"TMC stands by its exemplary social and environmental record for the past 24 years, which have earned the company various awards in these fields," said Gerard Brimo, president of Nickel Asia Corp., TMC's parent company.

The company also dismissed the NPA claim of neglect of the miners, saying they comply with minimum wage standards.

"The mine sites operate 24 hours a day. So there are three drivers for every truck that was burned. There are three families affected for every piece of heavy equipment damaged. Is this what the NPA wants? And can it provide an alternative job for these workers and their affected families?" asked Johann Jake Miranda, a Mindanao Development Authority official.

The local officials claim at least 5,000 workers were temporarily affected by the attacks.

The officials also say local tribes are unaffected by the mining, but a member of the Mamanwa tribe said he left his ancestral homeland in the area for fear of exposure to toxic chemicals once mineral full-bore processing begins in a year or two.

"I am a little sad to leave our homeland because we love it. It's suddenly no longer ours after another mining firm took control over it," Nilo Lapugan, 29, said. "If I had a choice, I would prefer to stay there because it's nearer the mountains where we could farm if we have no job at the mining sites."

The mining company has offered to relocate the affected tribes.

President Benigno Aquino III has been inviting foreign companies to invest in exploration and exploitation of an estimated 14.5 billion tons of metallic mineral reserves and about 67.66 billion metric tons of nonmetallic minerals, but the environment department has imposed a moratorium on processing and issuance of new mining permits because of increasing concern about the environmental and social impact of new mines and plants.

According to the Mines and Geo-sciences Bureau, there are 27 mineral production sharing agreements for commercial operation and 74 others for exploration in Mindanao.

And according to 2005 data from the bureau, the Chamber of Mines reported almost 3 billion tons of copper, more than 3 billion tons of gold, nearly 1 billion tons of nickel, almost 300 million tons of aluminum, more than 16 million tons of chromites and more than 11 million tons of iron in Mindanao.

Benjamin Philip Romualdez, president of the chamber, said mining accounted for 4.3 percent of Philippine exports at $513 million in the first quarter of 2011.

In 2010, mineral exports, led by copper and gold gains of 27 percent, grew 12.1 percent overall to $1.87 billion from $1.47 billion in 2009, Romualdez said.

But even as industry and government commit to more mining, the serious threats to the Mindanao environment remain uncontrolled, as do the threats from the rebels to physically disrupt mining operations.