Tampakan: The Trampled Voice of the People

by Louie Ramirez & Sundy Grace Taguinod

According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Philippines, which is in charge of granting mining corporations licenses to explore mining regions and begin operations, the Philippines possesses an estimated $840 billion in undeveloped mineral resources. Mining is incredibly vital to society in many ways, but it also has certain downsides. Mining creates employment and revenue, stimulates the economy, and supplies us with important resources such as metal ores for a variety of applications. It may be the sole source of work, income, and livelihood for some people in several underdeveloped nations.

Large-scale mining is destructive because it involves clearing thousands of hectares of rainforests and agricultural lands, deep excavations to extract minerals, the use of toxic heavy metals and chemicals to process mineral ores, and the consumption of millions of liters of water – all of which have a negative impact on the lives of Filipino citizens with grave disregard for their right to health, life, food security, livelihood, and a decent standard of living.

Open-pit mining specifically is responsible for considerable levels of water usage as well as water waste. Environmentally, the negative impacts of open-pit mining  includes many types of air, land/soil, and water contamination; it also generates potentially hazardous/toxic tailing waste, which can leach toxic compounds, heavy metals, and contaminants into the environment.

What is open-pit mining?

Open-pit mining, or open-cast mining is a surface mining technique of extracting rock or minerals from the earth by their removal from an open pit or borrow. This type of mining is distinct from long wall mining, which requires burrowing into the earth. When deposits of economically viable minerals or rocks are discovered near the surface, open-pit mining is exploited; that is, when the overburden (surface material covering the valuable deposit) is relatively thin or the material of interest is structurally unsuitable for tunneling (as would be the case for sand, cinder, and gravel). Quarrying refers to open-pit mines that generate construction materials and dimension stone. Comparably, open-pit mining is economical when the deposit is not very deep or when the terrain is sandy or fragile, making underground mining impossible. Labor expenses are cheaper, both in excavation and transportation, and heavy gear may be used. It does not require artificial illumination and permits the use of any type of explosive. 

The fight over metal mining in the Philippines has been especially heated since 1995, when the government passed a mining legislation that allowed multinational development firms access to the country’s huge gold, copper, and nickel deposits, which are among the world’s greatest. The goal was to stimulate foreign investment and new job creation. 

The next year, however, Filipinos realized how environmentally hazardous a projected rise in open-pit mineral mining would be. On March 24, 1996, a tailings pond at the Marcopper open-pit copper mine on the island of Marinduque, southeast of Manila, burst. Millions of tons of poisonous mining waste rushed down the Boac River, drowning villages, destroying the river, and polluting the sea 27 kilometers (16.7 miles) downstream. The mine was closed down by a Canadian corporation. It is currently one of the Philippines’ 14 abandoned open-pit mines, surrounded by acres of barren and eroded hillsides and large pools of hazardous acidic water tainted with high amounts of heavy metals. Following severe rains in August 2012, an even larger tailings accident occurred at the Philex copper and gold mine in Benguet, some 315 kilometers north of Manila. 20 million tons of mining tailings flowed into adjacent waterways from the ruptured tailings pond.

Despite this disaster, the country is likely to see a new open-pit mine in operation soon. Located in the southern Philippine province of South Cotabato, the Tampakan copper-gold project is touted as the largest undeveloped copper-gold minefield in Southeast Asia and among the biggest of its kind in the world. A week after the dreadful national elections on the 9th of May 2022, 11 board members of the South Cotabato province voted to lift the provincial ban on open-pit mining, with no explanations. Even though in February of the same year, an informal survey conducted by the Office of the Vice Governor of South Cotabato showed that a majority of people are against lifting the ban: a solid 12, 137 wanted the ban to remain while 499 wanted the ban to be lifted. To add, the local Catholic Church also earned 100,000 signatures for the ban not to be removed. This just goes to show that the voice of the people of South Cotabato was not heard, and the leaders of the provincial board made a crucial decision without their input The decision to lift the ban on open-pit mining will affect not only the current residents of South Cotabato and neighboring provinces, but also future generations.

Why oppose the Tampakan Project?

While open-pit mining may be the most economical form of mining, governments shouldn’t be making decisions based on economics alone. Whatever economic benefit the Tampakan Project has, it will come at the cost of human rights violations and environmental damage. Opposition to the project started in 1995, when the project was marred by the  displacement of local communities, lack of consultation, misinformation, threats and harassment, and the failure to secure free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from the Bla’an people, one of the indigeouns peoples whose ancestral lands would be affected by the project. 

In  2008, local stakeholders cited that the that the planned mining operation would lead to the pollution of the nearby downstream Lake Buluan and upstream Liguasan Marsh, damaging farmlands and fisheries and seriously impacting the food source for the wider Muslim and indigenous populations while destroying their livelihoods. This eventuality could lead to major social unrest. The 2008 report recommended that mining in the area should be banned, considering the risk of pollution, erosion, siltation, and continuing devastating flash floods and landslides. The potential huge negative impact on food security, seismic geohazard and presence of armed conflicts were also cited. For a further context, the pollution would be even worse the longer the mining process continues, with the worst of the effects happening after the mining activities end and the mines are abandoned. It is a long-term process with even more long-term effects that are possibly irreversible.

In addition to the long-term environmental damage, the project has also been linked to human rights violations. At least three incidents of extra-judicial killings are directly linked to the mining project. In August 2012, Juvy Capion and her two sons were killed by what military operatives described as an “armed encounter”, but evidence points to it being the murder of unarmed civilians. In January 2013, Kitari Capion was killed by elements of a paramilitary group, on his way back home while riding a motorcycle. In October 2013, the highest-ranking elder/leader among the Bla’ans, Anting Freay, was killed by military elements, again invoking a “military encounter”.

This history should not be neglected. Rather, it should serve as a lesson that the Tampakan project should not be opened again, not when it endangers both the environment and the lives of the Filipino people.

Bottom line: 

Allowing open-pit mining to operate imposes tremendous strain on the health, food security, and right to life and livelihood of those living in the proposed mining site. Local communities suffer from displacement, respiratory sickness, loss of farmland, and loss of livelihood as a result of mining firms. Mining firms’ claims to offer scholarships and livelihood to impacted people, particularly indigenous tribes, are palliatives in comparison to the immense environmental harm and long-term severe health effects of unsustainable mining methods. A mined-out environment will take a long time to recover. It does not always heal. Remediation initiatives may not always result in the restoration of the area’s biodiversity. Species may go extinct forever.

Government officials who approve such mining projects fail to consider these impacts. Rather, they are concerned with the profits these projects generate. We Filipino citizens must vehemently resist the implementation of these projects, and demand better from our government.

Photo credit: Jack Prommel via unsplash

Published by yacaphilippines

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines is an alliance of individuals, youth organizations, and student councils that advocate for immediate youth-led global climate action. The Fridays for Future of the Philippines.

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