Tribal leaders and local residents of Bataraza have raised their opposition to plans of the Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation (RTNMC) to expand its operations into Mt. Bulanjao.
On Saturday, around 80 protesters composed of Pala’wans and residents of Barangays Sumbiling and Taratak held a mini-rally at the town center to air their appeal.
Jeminda Bartolome, president of the Samahang Magsasaka at Katutubo (SAMAKA), said the planned expansion is a threat to their livelihood and could destroy their main source of water.
“Napaka-importanteng bagay itong Bulanjao sa amin kasi kahit hindi man kami katutubo, dito na kami talaga lumaki, dito na kami nagka-anak at apo. Ang pinaka-importasya nito sa amin ay ang kagubatan na nandiyan na siyang nagbibigay ng suporta ng tubig na dumadaloy sa aming sakahan. Kaya ayaw namin na masira ang Bulanjao,” said Bartolome.
Bartolome also warned that the mining expansion will be hazardous to the health of the children of around 300 households dwelling near the mountain range.
She said Bulanjao’s forest ecosystem also provides them medicinal herbs and livelihood through non-timber forest products gathering.
Enling Coreo, a Pala’wan member of SAMAKA, told the media that if RTNMC extends its mining operation on Mt. Bulanjao, they would have nowhere else to go.
“Wala nang mapupuntahan talaga ang mga katutubo. Kaming mga katutubo dito, saan kami pupunta? At ‘yong mga pananim namin kapag namatay na, ano pa ang kakainin namin kapag kalbo na ang kabundukan na ‘yan? Kaya kung ako lang ang masusunod, itigil na ang kumpanya, dahil kinikilala [lang] ng kumpanya ngayon ay ang bente-kuwatro na chieftain, pero kung hindi ka chieftain, hindi ka makakalapit sa kumpanya,” said Coreo.
The chieftains, he said, are their representatives to the RTNMC but they do not listen to the complaints of the majority of the IPs.
Mendicio Bantete, a 64-year old Pala’wan IP, said the RTNMC management only recognizes the chieftains.
“Ang problema ngayon, ang mga chieftains lang ang kilala nila. Ang mga chieftains naman, ang mga miyembro niya ay hindi kilala. Kung ano ang ibinibigay ng kumpanya para sa mga nasira nila, idinadaan nila sa chieftains. Ito ang kabahagi ng mga katutubo na para ipamahagi sa amin [pero] noong dumating sa mga chieftains, hindi nakakarating sa mga katutubo. Ang sabi nila hindi puwedeng tanggalin ang mga chieftains, hindi puwedeng petisyonan,” said Bantete.
Bantete said a total of 24 barangays in Bataraza will be heavily affected if the mining expansion occurs.
Bantete added further that if their sentiments against the expansion will not be heard, they will be forced to join rebellious groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
“Kami nagpa-prangka na sa inyong mga taga-media, ‘pag katagalan na ganoon lang din ang mangyayari, maging Abu Sayaff [na kami],” said Cerenio.
On the other hand, Ricardo Vicente, a 64-years old farmer, said he is only against the expansion, not the current operations of RTNMC outside the Mt. Bulanjao core zone.
He fears that if Mt. Bulanjao is mined, laterite will be carried by water towards their rice farms.
“Ang mga laterite dito na ‘yan aagos sa basakan, paano na ngayon kami? Ang mina [dapat] hanggang doon lang, huwag na ilapit dito sa amin. Di naman kami nagbabawal sa mina [pero] doon lang sa dating ginigiba nila. Pero kung dito pa sila, iuurong pa, masisira na ang kabuhayan namin,” said Vicente.
Narciso Serenio, spokesperson of the farmers in Sitio Maculango in Taratak, said they will be heavily affected by the expansion.
He said they have already asked different government agencies for help, but received no proper response.
“Gusto lang namin huwag na bigyan ng expansion o sirain pa ang bundok kasi diyan lang kami nabubuhay,,” he said.
Nerto Colili, the community organizer of ELAC, said if the mining expansion destroys the watershed, the farmers benefiting from its supply will surely suffer.
Colili said an alleged water system facility was built by the provincial government in Mt. Bulanjao, but only a few people are benefitting from it.
“Alam natin na ‘yong kumpanya ng ng RTNMC, palawak nang palawak ‘yong operation nila. Lalo na ngayon ‘yong mga katutubo ay naapektuhan na sa Sumbiling dahil meron silang expansion ‘yong Mt. Bulanjao na-approve ‘yong permit para makapag-operate sila,” said Colili.
In an earlier statement, ELAC executive director Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda said two scientific studies conducted by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) and the Palawan State University (PSU) showed that the economic value of Mt. Bulanjao as a conserved area is over P94 billion for 18 years.
She said if destroyed, there will be a societal loss of over P203 billion for the same period if a five percent base discount rate is applied for also 18 years.
Anda also said that the mountain range, when subjected to sensitivity analysis, can make the government lose over P149 billion using one percent discount rate and using eight percent, over P88 billion.
Anda said the PCSD should also revoke the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) clearance it issued to the RTNMC’s mining project on December 11, 2014.
It was in May when ELAC threatened to sue PCSD and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) if they fail to stop RTNMC’s infrastructure development and mining exploration on Mt. Bulanjao.
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 push them to file a court case, she said.
In a statement Monday afternoon, Jose Bayani Baylon of Nickel Asia Corporation (NAC) under which the RTNMC is an affiliate, said they have submitted every requirement mandated by law including the endorsement of all 21 host and neighboring barangays.
He said it was under the direction and supervision of the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and of the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FCIP) of the IPs within the host communities.
“Under this process, all tribal communities have given their consent. All documents manifesting approvals and endorsements, including the positive results of the recently concluded public hearing, have been submitted to the relevant government agencies,” said Baylon.
Baylon also said that the sustainability of the host communities is taken into consideration, namely the “continuation of the economic and social benefits” they have provided for the last forty years.
He said included in these are free medical care in its own hospital for 25,000 tribal members within its host communities, and free education up to high school under its Indigenous Learning System (OLS) that benefitted around 1,400 students.
“Given its track record of responsible mining that has garnered recognition as the best in sustainable mining practices, not only in the Philippines but in the entire ASEAN region, RTNMC is certain that its plans will be beneficial to all concerned. It is likewise certain that no community will be deprived of water. It should be noted that the water systems in its host communities were built by the company in the first place,” Baylon added.