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For Palawan IPs, nickel mining is a threat to the community's survival

Gaea Katreena Cabico - Philstar.com
For Palawan IPs, nickel mining is a threat to the community's survival
A consensus building is held in Brgy. Barong Barong in Brooke's Point on August 5, 2022.
Rowena Combang

MANILA, Philippines — Indigenous Pala’wans in Brooke’s Point in Palawan said they are at serious risk of losing their lands, livelihoods, and way of life due to the extraction of nickel from their ancestral territory.

Mining activities in the southern Palawan municipality threaten the livelihood of communities dependent on agriculture, fisheries and forests, and affect the access of residents to clean water, Pala’wan leaders and youth interviewed by Philstar.com said. 

They protested the Community Consultative Assemblies (CCAs) that they said were hastily done for the activities of Ipilan Nickel Corp. (INC) and the outcomes of the meetings. 

CCAs are part of the free, prior and informed consent process facilitated by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP). 

Pala’wan residents in the barangays of Ipilan, Aribungos, Maasin, Mambalot, Barong-Barong, and Calasaguen were consulted for the operations of INC. Aribungos was the only barangay where the “no” votes won. 

When the consent of the concerned communities is obtained, the terms and conditions agreed upon shall be embodied in a memorandum of agreement to be executed between and among indigenous peoples, the proponent, the NCIP, and any other party that may be necessarily involved, according to FPIC guidelines. 

But Pala’wans opposed to mining operations said the FPIC process was full of irregularities. 

'Irregularities'

Pala’wans interviewed by Philstar.com accused the NCIP of failing to comply with guidelines. They said the FPIC team implemented a majority voting system, which is against the practice of indigenous peoples, during the decision-making meeting. 

“Ang katutubo ay hindi nagbobotohan, kundi consensus building. Kapag mayroong umaayaw, kailangang ma-settle ‘yun. Pero ang nangyari hindi kami pinapakinggan ng NCIP,” said Weliton Palite, a panglima or leader from Brgy. Ipilan. 

(Our people do not vote, but we build consensus. If someone opposes, that must be settled. But what happened was that NCIP did not listen.)

Palite, youth leader Mamilmar Dubria, and Brooke’s Point councilor Victor Colili said that even indigenous peoples from other barangays and the neighboring towns of Bataraza and Sofronio Española participated in the decision-making gathering. 

They added that majority of those who voted “yes” to mining activities were “panimusan” or Pala’wans who had converted to Islam. They live in the town’s lowland areas.

“Ang mga katutubong naninirahan sa kabundukan, maglalakad sila ng isang araw or isang araw at kalahati para marating ‘yung kapatagan. Tapos mula sa kapatagan sa paanan ng bundok, maglalakad pa sila sa area kung saan idadaos ‘yung decision making. Hindi nila (NCIP) ‘yun kinonsidera,” Dubria, who is from Barangay Aribungos, said. 

(The IPs who live in the mountains walk for a day or a day and a half to reach the plains. Then, from the foot of the mountain, they will walk to the area where the decision-making is held. They did not consider that.) 

"Ang mga katutubong galing sa kabundukan, gutom na ‘yan pagdating sa kapatagan. Pagdating doon ay di pa sila na-e-entertain. Dahil doon ay hindi na sila bumababa. Kumbaga ang sabi nila, ‘Dito na lang kami maghihintay, basta ayaw namin ng mina,’" he added. 

(The IPs living in the mountains are already hungry when they come to the plains. When they got there, they were not entertained. Because of that, they don’t go down anymore. They said, ‘We’ll just wait here but we are firm that we don’t want mining.)

They also said that IPs opposing mining projects were usually not given the chance to speak during the consultations, and there were no translations for the uplanders who could not easily understand Filipino. 

Philstar.com reached out to NCIP Palawan Provincial Officer Jansen Jontila, NCIP Mimaropa Regional Director Marie Grace Pascua, and INC for comment and clarifications, but we have yet to receive a response as of this writing. 

In an email to Philstar.com on August 3, the commission’s Ancestral Domains Office said the "matter has already been addressed by the NCIP, pursuant to our existing FPIC guidelines." Philstar.com asked the NCIP to elaborate, but it has yet to respond.

Confusion

For most of the consultations, it was not clear to the indigenous peoples whether the consent process was for INC’s certification of precondition (CP) application for its existing mineral production sharing agreement (MPSA) expiring in 2025 or the renewal of its MPSA for another 25 years until 2050. 

A CP is a document that affirms the consent of an indigenous cultural community to a project. Meanwhile, an MPSA gives contractors the right to mine within a contract area.

Puerto Princesa-based Environmental Legal Assistance Center, Inc. (ELAC) said the confusion stemmed from a work order issued by the NCIP Mimaropa constituting a new FPIC team for the CP application of INC covered by its MPSA No. 017-93-IV. The MPSA comprised 2,835 hectares of land in Brooke’s Point.

However, the order did not specify as to whether the consent process is for the ongoing operations of the mine or the renewal of its MPSA. 

Proponent INC maintained the firm was participating in the process for the renewal of its MPSA, ELAC said.

The mining company grounded its argument on an endorsement provided by the environment department’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau for the renewal of its MPSA and a letter from former ADO Director Myrna Caoagas who rendered an opinion in 2006 that INC was exempted from securing a CP since its MPSA was granted in 1993, prior to the passage of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997. 

INC claimed that Celestial Nickel Mining and Exploration Corporation (CNMEC), the previous MPSA holder, has a memorandum of agreement executed with Pala’wan leaders in December 2008. 

"Then MPSA holder itself, CNMEC, emphasized in their 2008 MOA that such MOA shall take effect only after the NCIP issues the CP even after receiving such a letter from the ADO. This is an admission that the proponent does not have a CP and is still required to acquire such a permit from the NCIP," ELAC said in its July 27, 2022 letter to NCIP. 

Under the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, no government agencies shall issue, renew or grant any concession, license, lease, permit, or enter into any production sharing agreement without a certification from the NPIC. 

Pala’wans in Brooke’s Point were also attending CCAs for the FPIC of MacroAsia Mining Corp. 

Protected area, food basket

The project area of INC straddles the Mount Mantalingahan-Pulot Range, which was granted protected area status in June 2009. The protected area has high floral and faunal diversity and endemism, and is considered sacred by Pala’wans. 

“Sa pagbukas ng panibagong pag-asa ng minahan, pinapatay niya naman ‘yung kasunod na henerasyon ng katutubong Pala’wan… Hindi kami mabubuhay na mga katutubo kung wala ang kabundukan kasi karugtong ng aming hininga ang bawat gubat sa bundok,” Dubria said. 

(The prospect of mining will kill the next generation of Pala’wans… We cannot live without the mountains because our lives are connected to the forests.)

The extraction of nickel may also hurt the status of Brooke’s Point as Palawan’s “food basket.”

“‘Yung area na ngayon ay binubungkal ay bahagi ng aming approved watershed. ‘Yung Barangay Maasin, ang host barangay, ‘yan ang aming rice granary pati ang Brgy. Mambalot. Sila ‘yung maapektuhan ng pagmimina,” said Brooke’s Point Vice Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano.

(The area that is being dug is part of our approved watershed. The host village, Barangay Maasin, and Barangay Mamabalot are our rice granaries. They will be affected by mining activities.)

In 2021, the Office of the Ombudsman suspended Feliciano after finding her guilty of "oppression or grave abuse of authority" over her orders to demolish mining-related structures of INC in 2017 following reports of tree-cutting, an activity that requires clearance from the environment department. 

Groups of indigenous peoples and environmental advocates protested the decision, saying Feliciano’s move to protect the environment from destructive mining operations was not wrong. 

In 2022, Feliciano ran for vice mayor and won. 

In a document, Global Ferronickel Holdings Inc., the mother company of INC, said its "mine plan and design will institute control measures to minimize siltation through proper mining and water management practices."

Pala’wans also protest the construction of INC’s port and causeway, which they say has resulted in siltation and pollution of their traditional lobster and shellfish harvest sites. 

Fight for survival

Palite appealed to President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Jr. to look into the threats of mining to their lives and livelihoods, and the "unjust" FPIC process facilitated by NCIP. 

"Maawa ka po para sa huling henerasyon kasi ‘yung kanilang bubungkalin malapit sa basakan, kaniyogan, simula aplaya papuntang bundok. Andito ang aming hanapbuhay, dito kumukuha ng halamang gamot ang mga katutubo," Palite said. 

(Please have mercy on the next generation because they will dig the land near our farms, coconut plantations, from the beach to the mountains. This is where we get our livelihoods. This is where the IPs get their medicinal plants.)

Despite the unfavorable outcome, Pala’wans in Brooke’s Point vowed they will continue their fight for survival. 

Youth leader Dubria said they will reach out to different government agencies and may even run to the court. 

"Naniniwala kami na hangga’t may bundok na nakatayo, hangga’t may puno na nakatayo, hangga’t may ilog na umaagos patungong karagatan, may pag-asa kami."

(We believe that as long as there is a mountain standing, as long as there is a tree standing, as long as there is a river flowing to the ocean, we have hope.)

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