Saturday, January 28, 2006

Lawmakers Trek Mountain To Inspect Canadian Mining Firm In Southern RP

CONCERN FOR SUBANON: Siocon town Mayor Ceasar Soriano gestures as he speaks privately with Ifugao Rep. Solomon Chungalao, while Rep. Mujiv Hataman looks on, in Mount Canatuan in Zamboanga del Norte on Friday, Jan. 27, 2005. Above, Soriano talks with TVI Resource Development Phils., Inc. advisor John Ridsdel.(Zamboanga Journal)

SIOCON, ZAMBOANGA DEL NORTE (Zamboanga Journal / 28 Jan) A group of lawmakers and environmentalists inspected a Canadian mining firm in the remote southern Philippine town of Siocon, where a group of indigenous Subanon people is opposing its operation.

Ifugao Rep. Solomon Chungalao headed the inspection Friday on Mount Canatuan near Zamboanga del Norte province, where the TVI Resource Development Phils. Inc. is operating.

Chungalao together with Reps. Joel Virador and Mujiv Hataman trekked to the mining site and interviewed the locals about the TVI operation.

A group of Subanon villagers accused TVI of polluting the rivers and encroaching into their ancestral land they considered as sacred. They said sustained gold mining would destroy Mount Canatuan, home to the indigenous tribe in the province.

TVI officials strongly denied the allegations and even offered the inspectors a tour of the mining site and see for themselves the firm’s pro-environment and economic initiatives.

TVI started its mining operations in 2004, nearly a decade after it obtained its Mineral Production Sharing Agreement with the government in 1996. It is currently into gold and silver mining and plans to extract copper and zinc this year.

"The area is clean and it's far from what we had expected it to be, but we are concerned about the plight of the indigenous people and how they can benefit from the operation of TVI. We need a sustainable livelihood program for the Subanon people," Chungalao told the Zamboanga Journal.

Chungalao's group also held a dialogue with Subanon representatives and officials from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the National Commission on Indigenous People, Mindanao Economic Development Council and the leaders of the local Council of Elders and Siocon town Mayor Ceasar Soriano.

Italian missionary and environmentalist Fr. Sebastiano D'Ambra, who heads the Silsilah Dialogue Movement, was also there.

Soriano also suggested a second meeting next month to unify two groups of feuding Subanon people -- one supporting the TVI and the other opposing its operation -- in the province.

Chungalao, himself a member of an indigenous community in Ifugao province, said TVI should provide more benefits to the Subanon people. "There should be a security for the Subanon people. They need education program, sustainable livelihood projects, among others. And TVI should give more to the locals, like putting up a trust fund for the Subanon people or make them stock holders of TVI," he said.

“We know and understand the concerns raised by our Subanon brothers about our operation. And we have repeatedly said that TVI operates under strict environment safety compliance. This is the reason why we strive to be an industry leader and we take the best approach to environmental management,” Eugene Mateo, TVI president, said.

He said TVI has spent over P130 million since 2004 for its environmental management initiatives, and is allocating P80 million or more for this year.

Mateo said they welcome any proposal to expand the membership of a multi-monitoring team to include the representatives of the church, farmers' and fishermen groups, as well as the Subanon.

"Our doors are open so that people will see their fears are unfounded. We hope their visit to our mine site will pave the way for a continuous and productive dialogue," Mateo said.

The Siocon Subano Association, Inc., (SSAI), the largest group of indigenous people in Zamboanga del Norte is also supporting the mining operation. Its legal counsel, Subanon lawyer Pablo Bernardo, said TVI has spent millions of pesos in community projects in Siocon that included schools, clinics and bridges, to benefit the locals.

TVI noted that it had entered into a production sharing agreement with the government even before the Subanon people obtained their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) under the Indigenous People's Rights Act in 2003.

SSAI is recognized by the National Commission on Indigenous People as the legal representative of Canatuan CADT holders. TVI signed a memorandum of understanding with the SSAI in October 2001 to develop their ancestral domain as a gesture of good faith.

But Virador questioned TVI's operation, saying, it violated the rights of the Subanon when it encroached into their so-called ancestral domain. He said many Subanon families were displaced by the mining operation. "We have reports that many Subanon families were evicted from their homes, and we will investigate these disturbing reports," Virador said.

American Jay Nelson, TVI's mine environment manager, denied the accusation and said some Subanon villagers who sold their properties to the mining firm kept coming back and asking for more money. "We paid them a lot of money, but some of them kept coming back and were asking for more money, and we cannot just pay them over and over again," Nelson said.

Hataman also expressed concerns over the effects mining operation has on Mount Canatuan. "Development comes with a price, but if the locals say they are for TVI and development, then there is nothing we can do except to strictly monitor the mining operation and ensure that it will not pose any hazard to the people and their environment," he said in a separate interview.

The influential Silsilah Dialogue Movement also suggested that TVI should be sensitive to the local culture and take criticism as a way of improving its services to the Subanon people.

"Silsilah does not espouse a confrontational approach to the resolution of controversies or conflicts. It believes in dialogue as a philosophy and an approach and it is in this context that Silsilah has chosen to be the voice of the Subanon in this particular situation," D'Ambra said.

TVI claimed to have the support of the majority in Canatuan, which has a population of several thousands. It currently employs more than 650 mostly Subanon tribesmen, plus several hundreds more in other indirect services.

"We should be thankful to the TVI and because of them we now have schools and health clinics, and roads and bridges. They are like manna in heaven. Do not believe when some say TVI will destroy our sacred land or poison the rivers because that is a lie, just look around you and you will see that there is no truth to that," Elmi Sagado, a 39-year old Subanon villager, said.

Local villagers said TVI has provided them development projects. "Many of us now have access to television because TVI provided us electricity. We can now eat at least three times a day because many of us have jobs in the mining site," said Percival Note, a miner.

"Now, a large part of Mount Canatuan also has access to wireless Internet and cellular phone services, thanks to TVI, aren’t that amazing? The advent of technology is now here. In the past, we would have to walk for days up and down the mountain, or ride a horse just to send a letter or buy a newspaper in the town center, now we can send urgent matters through SMS on our cell phones," Note said.

Yulo Perez, TVI general manager, said this year's capital investment for the Mount Canatuan project is about P170 million and that the operating cost alone is expected to reach P600 million. "This is a lot of investment, but we don't sacrifice the safety of the people and the environment over our mining operation," he said.

Last year, Perez said they paid more than P6 million in Subano royalty tax, aside from over P16 million in other government taxes.

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