The Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) has threatened to sue the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) if they fail to stop the Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation’s (RTNMC) infrastructure development and mining exploration within 30 days on Mt. Bulanjao in the municipality of Bataraza.

Any change in the Environmentally Critical Areas Network (ECAN) zoning of the 676-hectare Mt. Bulanjao, an important forest ecosystem located in a “restricted use zone” in Bataraza, will also cause the filing of a court case, ELAC executive director Grizelda Mayo-Anda said Thursday at a media conference.

The 30-day notice to sue was sent by ELAC on May 15 to Governor Jose Alvarez, the chairperson of the PCSD, and DENR Sec. Roy Cimatu.

She said the PCSD should also revoke the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) clearance it issued to the RTNMC’s mining project on December 11, 2014.

The three Pala’wan IP complainants (from left to right) Jeminda Bartolome, Jurnil Rebot, and Kenedy Corio of Brgys. Sumbiling and Taratak, Bataraza.

Anda said the case will be filed by Pala’wan indigenous peoples (IP) complainants Kenedy Corio, Jurnil Rebot, and Jeminda Bartolome of Barangays Taratak and Sumbiling, Bataraza.

“Malapit na naming sampahan ng kaso ang DENR at PCSD. Binigyan natin ng notice to sue si PCSD na pinapangunahan ni Governor Alvarez at si DENR kasi gusto natin ‘yong tinatawag nating writ of continuing mandamus gamitin na. Kapag sinabing mandamus, gusto nating mapanagot ang opisyales ng gobyerno kung bakit nila pinapayagan minahin ang Bulanjao,” she said.

Bulanjao’s total economic value, importance

Anda pointed out two scientific studies conducted by the PCSD itself and the Palawan State University (PSU) showing Mt. Bulanjao’s economic valuation as a conserved area placed over P94 billion for 18 years.

She said the amount is what will be lost if the government allows mining to destroy Bulanjao.

Anda, who is the counsel for the three IP complainants, said based on values derived, it can be concluded that mining on Bulanjao will result in a societal loss of over P203 billion for the same period using a five percent base discount rate for a period of 18 years.

Subjecting the mountain range to sensitivity analysis also disclosed that using one percent discount rate, the government will be losing over P149 billion or over P88 billion if eight percent will be used.

Anda said further that according to the results of the two research, “preserving Bulanjao can contribute the same amount of environmental and ecological services as a forest ecosystem.”

“Ang unang tanong ay bakit hindi pa ito tinatalakay sa PCSD? PCSD ang gumawa. Ang sinasabi ng PCSD siyentipiko siyang dokumento… hindi po ako dalubhasa pero sa paulit-ulit na pahiwatig sa akin, makikita ninyo sa dokumento na P94 billion ang halaga ng forest noong 676 hectare na miminahin ng RTNMC. Kung papayagan man ay P94 billion ang halaga ng forest ecosystem. Hindi ba mababagabag ang mga darating na henerasyon kapag nasira ‘yon?” she said.

Anda pointed out what will be lost if the Bulanjao mountain range will be mined is “greater” than the income that mining will generate.

Bartolome said to them, Bulanjao is “very important” as its forest ecosystem provides them medicinal herbs, livelihood through non-timber forest products gathering and its 30 river bodies are sources of their drinking water.

“Ang pangunahing halaga niya sa amin kaya gusto namin na pangalagaan itong Bulanjao ay ‘yong tubig dahil mahigit 30 ilog ang meron dyan sa Bulanjao. Rizal man o Bataraza, dyan nagmumula ang tubig sa Bulanjao. Yan ang nagbibigay ng tubig na siya naming ginagamit sa pang-araw-araw na pagsasaka namin at pang-inom. Dyan din kami kumukuha ng halamang pang-gamot para di na kami bumili,” she said.

She added that Bulanjao should instead be declared as an important watershed area in place of laying it open to the destructive mining operation.

Corio added the government should think about their welfare before it allows RTNMC to operate mining in Bulanjao.

“Sana mag-isip naman sila, gampanan naman nila ang kanilang sinumpaang tungkulin na pangalagaan ang kalikasan,” he said.

“Ang pakinabang sa amin ng Mt. Bulanjao ay yantok. Kapag wala kaming pera, nangunguha kami ng yantok, pinagtitiisan namin. Pangalawa, honey at source namin siya ng tubig. Kung titingnan namin siya, proteksyon din siya sa amin kapag malakas ang hangin, nag-co-control siya. Kapag nawala ang Bulanjao, ang baba mawawala na. Talagang ma-de-demolish,” Rebot, the youngest among the three complainants said.

DENR and PCSD mandate

Anda said the mandate of the SEP is “to enforce R.A. 7611 and other existing complementary laws and to perform related functions which should promote the development, conservation, management, protection and utilization of the natural resources in the province.”

In the case of Bulanjao, however, these are not being delivered to protect its forest and biodiversity because of the clearance the PCSD gave to RTNMC for the renewal and conversion of mining lease contracts into a mineral production sharing agreement (MPSA) denominated as AMA-IVB-144A.

“Anong ginagawa ng gobyerno? Bakit pinapayagang sirain? Sa ngayon binigyan ng permit to verify minerals ang RTNMC dahil binigyan ng SEP clearance ng PCSD noong August 2015. At silang mga IPs, kami, simula 2014 petisyon ng petisyon pero 2019 ay sige pa rin ang exploration,” Anda said.

In September 2017, Corio, Rebot, and Bartolome wrote to the PCSD seeking its help in the revocation of the SEP clearance, but to this day, they said it has not “favorably responded.”

They also said giving RTNMC the SEP clearance is contrary to Executive Order (EO) No. 23 which states about the total commercial log ban and EO 79 which institutionalized and implemented reforms in the Philippine mining sector.

Anda reminded the DENR that under Section 1 of EO 79, applications for mineral contracts, concessions, and agreements shall not be allowed in “critical areas, island ecosystems, and impact areas of mining as determined by current and existing mapping technologies identified pursuant to existing laws, rules, and regulations such as, but not limited to the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS).

She said the issuance of the authority to verify minerals by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the DENR contravenes also with Republic Act 11038 or the act declaring protected areas and providing for their management.

“The study of the PCSD shows na ‘yong Bulanjao ay rich sa non-timber forest products at may curative uses… ethnobotanical and pharmaceutical… or curative uses. Now is the time to make every Palaweño proud that we have a Mt. Bulanjao that is not, with all due respect, being protected by the government agencies,” she said.

She said by issuing the authority to verify minerals to RTNMC, the government is choosing to be neglectful of Bulanjao’s role in carbon sequestration whose old growth forest density is high.

Expectations from PCSD, DENR

As legal counsel of the communities, Anda said they expect the PCSD to revoke the SEP clearance and the DENR to stop the RTNMC mining exploration because Bulanjao can still be preserved.

In the event that the PCSD and the DENR will continue to ignore the appeal of the communities, she said ELAC will use the continuing mandamus to make them accountable.

“Ang expectation namin ay sana bawiin nila ang SEP clearance, pahintuin na nila ang exploration na isinasagawa ngayon ng Rio Tuba kasi puwede pang ma-preserve. Once development starts kasi talaga, putol ‘yan, putol. Tree cuttings ‘yan. Kami ay talagang nag-ple-plead, naghihikayat sa kanila na wag nang ituloy ito. Sa gobyerno ang kakasuhan namin dito kapag itinuloy nila… dapat managot sila,” she said.

An almost tearful Corio called on Alvarez to listen to them as chair of the PCSD in taking back the SEP clearance of the RTNMC mining project.

He said the IPs who live at the foot of Bulanjao will lose their means of livelihood if mining destroys it.

“Sa aming ama ng lalawigan, sana ang hinaing namin na ito ay sana bigyan mo nang pansin. Huwag mo po sana pabayaan ang mga katutubo sa Bulanjao na mawala ang source ng kanilang kabuhayan at tubig,” he said.

Meanwhile, in an interview with Alvarez, he said the letter from ELAC has not yet reached his knowledge.

“Wala pa akong alam,” he said.

He pointed out that “everyone is free to file a case”, but the matter regarding Bulanjao “is more under the DENR’s control and not the province.”

“They are free to file anything they want if that is the course [of action] they will decide [to do],” Alvarez said, stating “the destruction of the environment should not really be allowed.”

“So they should file and let those concerned answer it,” he added.

RTNMC statement

In a statement, Jose Bayani Baylon of Nickel Asia Corporation (NAC) under which the RTNMC is an affiliate, said Friday that they have submitted to the processes required by law in relation to their operations in Bataraza, inclusive of a public consultation held last May 7, 2019, at Brgy. Rio Tuba.

“Through this process, Baylon said the RTNMC “has obtained the necessary endorsements from the local communities, from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) on behalf of the IPs in the area, as well as the SEP clearance from the PCSD for its expansion into the adjacent Bulanjao area, which they had previously operated years ago.

“RTNMC believes that the endorsements and clearance it received was obtained for good and valid reasons and consistent with laws and regulations,” he said.

He pointed out that the contributions of RTNMC’s operations in Palawan are real and substantial, symbolized by receiving recognition as one of the province’s top taxpayers, as well as by the community that has grown in Rio Tuba inclusive of a hospital, a grade school and high school, and numerous livelihood and infrastructure projects.

The press conference called by ELAC was also in celebration of the World Environment Day on June 5 and the Philippine Environment Month. (with a report from Gillian Faye Ibañez)

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