The diocese of Dipolog City is collaborating with local officials and NGOs to help indigenous people assert their claim to ancestral land against mining operations. Canada-based Toronto Ventures Inc. (TVI) is exploring for gold and other minerals on 5,000 hectares in Zamboanga del Norte province. The Church and others advocating against the operations say the mining will damage the forests and water resources, cause pollution and kill fish.
“Siocon is an environmentally critical area, as certified by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources,” Mayor Caesar Soriano of Siocon said, noting the area is a watershed. “Once our forests are denuded, once open pit mining commences, certainly we’ll experience flash floods,” he said.
Thousands of indigenous Subanon people live on the mining sites in the mountainous communities of Siocon town, served by Dipolog diocese.
“Now, people are calm, but they are waiting,” Bishop Jose Manguiran of Dipolog said in late August.
Earlier, on Aug. 13, police arrested 12 Subanon people at the Siocon parish residence. The people were detained at the police station for two hours until Church groups, the mayor and NGOs pitched in to pay the 2,000-peso bail for each person detained, including a 70-year-old tribal elder.
In a local court, TVI charged the elder and his companions with obstructing permit holders’ operations in violation of the 1995 Mining Act
In March and April, Subanon men, women and children barricaded the gates of the TVI mining site in Canatuan, Siocon, seeking to prevent the start of mining in nearby Pisawak village.
“We have a legal counsel,” Bishop Manguiran reported, adding that local and foreign supporters also have offered help and advice on how to deal with the foreign mining firm.
Tito Fiel, coordinator of the interdiocesan Committee on Mining Issues, called the August arrests “harassment.” He acknowledges the mining law prohibits the illegal obstruction of permit holders. But he added “In our view, TVI is not really a legal mining company” because it is operating “full blast” when it has not obtained all the necessary permits.
Fiel said the Subanon are contesting mining activities “within the 8,000 hectares of ancestral lands of the Subanon in the town.” They also want outposts manned by armed mining guards removed from areas around the indigenous communities.
Speaking before 800 Subanon and supporting Christian and Muslim protesters at Siocon police station on Aug. 13, Bishop Manguiran compared the mining firm to “mere visitors in the country who became oppressors of their hosts.” The bishop asked why is it that the user of the resource has a larger voice in decision making than the owner.
He later said, “What I am doing, as an environmentalist, as part of the Church, is to stand with the people in protecting the earth, and to stand against government policies that destroy it.”
“Actually, we are trying to put into practice the government’s own laws for the environment,” the bishop said.
Police are searching for 20 other tribal elders after Siocon judge Paciano Galleposo ordered their arrest when he found probable cause in the case filed against them by TVI.
In defense of the mining company, Manny Mallari, chief of the Environmental Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said that TVI is legally entitled to explore in the area. He said the department signed a Mineral Production Sharing Agreement with the mining firm in 1994, before the Subanon issued their claim to the land covered by the exploration and before the 1997 law that protects indigenous ancestral land.
“They (Subanon) should respect prior rights,” Mallari said. He explained that the sharing agreement permits a firm “to utilize their exploration site for 25 years and is renewable for another 25 years.”
Foreign mining firms have flocked to Zamboanga del Norte since 1988 looking for gold deposits “believed to be commercial in quantity,” Mallari said.
Fiel counters, however, that the local Subanon applied for a Community Forest Stewardship Agreement with the environment department in 1989, even before they formally organized as a group. Later, as Siocon Subanon Association Inc., they filed a Community Ancestral Domain Claim. Fiel added that he believes TVI is engaging in destructive open-pit mining.
He recalled one other firm left the area after having extracted gold in 1988 and an Australia-based firm later moved to Indonesia after encountering opposition from the Catholic Church and anti-mining activists.
Fiel said the diocese and its allied groups are opposing all forms of mining, including the activities of small-scale miners and “even (firms that) have permits from the national government.”