Sibuyan’s reminder: People, not profit, should drive the mining industry

March 3, 2023

by Mark Ernest Famatigan

My family hails from Romblon, a province I consider one of the quietest in the country. Not just in a literal sense (the province mostly consisted of a few urban centers, the rest are rural barrios, so you can only imagine how noiseless the islands can be), but politically. Romblon does not often get the attention of the national media, so imagine my shock when Sibuyan Island made it to the news.

Over the previous month, Sibuyan has been making headlines in light of a protest led by its residents against a nickel mining firm. On January 26, residents and anti-mining groups had apparently formed a human barricade to stop a truck from transporting nickel ore. Another barricade was formed on February 3, but the Philippine National Police (PNP) dispersed the protesters, allowing three mining trucks to pass through.

Why are Sibuyanons against these operations? Needless to say, as with any mining operation, nickel extraction is environmentally destructive. The formation of pathways on the island means the cutting down of trees, erosion of soil, and destruction of small ecosystems dependent on the island’s lush green forests.

That, on top of violations of the Philippine Environmental Impact Statement System, the Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act, the Philippine Clean Water Act, and Presidential Decree 705, for illegal logging, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Sibuyan is just one of many communities whose harmony was disrupted by mining corporations. In Brooke’s Point, Palawan, residents followed in the former’s footsteps by also forming a human barricade against another nickel mining firm supposedly operating without a mayor’s permit and Certificate Precondition (CP). There’s also the copper-gold rich Tampakan open-pit mine, where Sagittarius Mines, Inc. operates. Locals have been resisting that too.

There seems to be a problem when big corporations – both foreign and domestic – are in charge of mining operations. When mining was liberalized under the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, the country’s mining industry was ever more placed at the service of foreign capital, putting Filipino interests second when mineral ores are extracted. While its direct effects were listed in the previous paragraphs, this power dynamic in the mining industry also induced the displacement of national minorities from their ancestral lands, the deception, human rights violations including extrajudicial killings of the former, environmental defenders and other rights advocates, and the unsustainable, market-driven extraction of natural resources.

What more can we expect when the industry’s motivation is not people’s welfare, but the profit-seeking agenda of greedy corporations?

The conundrum of the mining industry can be mitigated through tightened government regulation, but only fully solved if it is nationalized with a democratic and accountable State overseeing its development. When the government leads the development of mining, it is obligated to operate with Filipino interests in mind, since it is directly accountable to the people and must undergo strict checks and balances, which is not the case for the private sector under a liberalized economy.

This is exactly what the People’s Mining Bill is trying to solve. The bill was first introduced in Congress by progressive lawmakers as early as 2011. Under this bill, the state will develop the industry that factors in the medium and long-term needs of the people while upholding the self-determination of national minorities, human and labor rights, and the environment’s preservation and protection. It is also the only bill that recognizes the role of mining in national industrialization, a pillar of national development, especially with the absence of Filipino-owned industries that the people should be benefiting from.

Unfortunately, bureaucrat capitalist and landlord interests dominate Congress until today, with a supermajority of Marcos Jr.’s allies in the House of Representatives. The bill had to be refiled again and again, with the most recent refiling on June 30, 2022. It was not approved at the committee-level until February 10 this year.

We have a long way to go in this regard, for while such pro-people policies are non-existent and unenforced, expect more communities like Sibuyan to be under the gaze of exploitative mining firms that take advantage of the industry, run it for profit, and leave us with nothing for very little.