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Mining the gap: On Brooke’s Point and illegal mining

Suspended Brooke’s Point, Palawan Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano and environmental lawyer Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda unearth the truth behind their area’s illegal mining crisis.

Words by Leojave Anthony Incon

Wala akong nilabag na batas natin. Kung ang pag-uusapan ay ang ang aking mandato sa aking constituents ay ginawa ko kung ano ang nararapat,” Brooke’s Point Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano asserted in a virtual interview with the Perspective. With a heavy heart and a sigh of frustration, Mayor Feliciano shared her story a month after she received her suspension order.

Mayor Feliciano was found guilty of “oppression or grave abuse of authority” after the demolition of the illegal structures of Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC) way back in 2018. As a result of the Office of the Ombudsman’s decision that Mayor Feliciano took “undue advantage of her official position”, she was suspended for a year without pay.

The suspension was issued almost four years after INC was involved in a controversy after the company conducted clearing operations that reportedly destroyed about 20 hectares of forest in its concession area in Brooke’s Point, an agricultural town near the southern tip of mainland Palawan.

Mayor Feliciano officially accepted the order by Ombudsman filed by Palawan Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Director Virgilio Tagle last July 24. The official suspension order was being prepared three days after, according to an update from Palawan Star.

But Mayor Feliciano’s suspension was just the tip of the iceberg. Mayor Feliciano herself and Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda, executive director of Puerto Princesa-based Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) revealed how the mining industry will bury Brooke’s Point.

Paradise in peril

Dubbed as the “Growth Center of South Palawan,” the people of Brooke’s Point seek to maintain their place as an “environmentally-sensitive” municipality, all while remaining competitive in the agro-industrial economy. It is home to the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape (MMPL) – the highest mountain in the Palawan island and a 120,457 hectare protected area that is home to natural forest and watersheds.

According to Conservation International, Mt. Mantalingahan forests are valued at 5.5 billion US dollars in the ecosystem services that they provide to people. 200,000 people including the indigenous group Palaw-ans depend on it for agriculture, drinking water, and various livelihoods. Some of the communities are the Basey basey located 500m above sea level, community of Catelegyan who have decided to limit their contact with the outside to minimum and the community of Tulatula where they live on the base of areas where MacroAsia Mining Corporation planned to operate.

The landscape is also renowned for its exceptionally high floral and faunal diversity and endemism with several noteworthy species recorded during the rapid biological assessment conducted in 2007, according to UNESCO World Heritage Center.

It is home to several endangered species, such as the king cobra, monitor lizard, Palawan peacock pheasant, Palawan hornbill, and Palawan bearcat, among many others.

Mt. Mantalingahan also has strong economic growth potential with the acquisition of one of the best nickel mine deposits in the Philippines based on the data by Global Ferronickel Holdings Inc.

Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano looks through some of the chopped-off lumber from a mining site.
Photo from Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano / Facebook

As a matter of fact, an estimated 120,000 hectares of mining site covering five barangays is part of MMPL. It is protected by environmental laws such as the Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan, which states that core zones are considered off-limits for mining. Residents are worried because of the environmental abuse that can potentially happen, especially from those brought by mining companies.

“Brooke’s Point is the food basket of Palawan,” Mayor Feliciano added. “The vegetables and rice in the [capital city] Puerto Princesa are being supplied by our town. If the environment is destroyed, what will happen to the farmers? What will happen to the livelihood and future of our people?”

Mayor Feliciano received reports from the locals of Barangay Maasin that they already witnessed the adverse negative effects of tree-cutting such as severe floods and landslides.

May bukal sa area na maiinuman ng mga tao pati ng mga hayop. Pero after ng pagputol kaunting ulan lang ang tubig ay mamula-mula na ito,” Mayor Feliciano shared, recalling her experience when she once visited the area.

In 2017, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development cancelled the Strategic Environmental Program Clearance granted to INC, as 90% of the mining site is located within natural forests and the core zone where mining is prohibited.

It was also revealed that MacroAsia Mining Corporation, another mining company that showed interest in Brooke’s Point will violate the same environmental law as INC.

According to a briefer obtained by the publication from Atty. Mayo-Anda, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff revealed that 45.84% of MacroAsia’s proposed mining site are core zones, categorized based on the newly adopted and recommended Environmentally Critical Areas Network (ECAN) Zones Map (2009).

This means that the company is operating on heavily protected areas, wherein only “low-impact” Indigenous community and ecotourism activities are allowed.

A separate study from ECAN Plan Integration and Project Development Division, Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff, and Palawan Center for Sustainable Development defined the other three types of “buffer zones” the mining sites presented in the briefer.

While restricted use zones only limits the activities allowed to environmental rehabilitation and minimal recreational acts, controlled use zones allows for “strictly controlled” mining and logging operations among other practices. Finally, traditional use zones allows for other operations, such as hillside farming and industrial tree planting.

Deeper into devastation

It was in 1993 when INC first showed interest in Brooke’s Point after the Mineral Product Sharing Agreement with Celestial Nickel Mining Corporation was signed by then President Fidel Ramos, which gives a contractor the right to mine within a specific location. The agreement was further strengthened after the Mining Act that was signed in 1995. Here, all mineral resources in public and private land are owned by the state, with provisions for the rational exploration, development, utilization and conservation of these resources being listed. 

Mayor Feliciano said that it was in 2005 when more companies showed interest in mining nickel at Brooke’s Point – MacroAsia Mining Corporations (MMC) of the Lucio Tan Group, Celestial Nickel Mining and Exploration Corporation (CNMEC) and Lebak Mining, to name the companies. At the time, Mayor Feliciano was still a practicing lawyer. She further revealed how some mining companies bribed people into agreeing and approving their projects.

Noong ako ay practicing lawyer pa, may lumapit sa aking mga madre na may dalang katutubo at magpapagawa sa akin ng salaysay, kasi pala nagkaroon ng botohan among I.P. [indigenous people] communities kung sino yung may gusto ng pagmimina, sino yung ayaw. Tapos yung tao na yun, kaya siya nag vote ng “yes” ay dahil binigyan siya ng 1,000 pesos at goods,” revealed by Mayor Feliciano.

“Our ancestral land would be the first impact area if the mining operations continue here in Brooke’s Point,” Mga Kalebonan et BICAMM, a Pala’wan women’s group, said in a statement.

The INC also failed to acquire a Certification Precondition from the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) because the site covered in the mining overlaps in the Ancestral Domain of the Palaw-ans. Land grabbing also became a constant issue for the indigenous people in Palawan where people in authority bought their land at a cheap price and sold it to companies for a higher value.

Mayor Feliciano recounted how mining companies used their power and money to fund politicians in their candidacy, and in return get government support for their mining activities. She admitted that the same offer was given to her by the companies.

So sa akin, bakit kailangan ng pagsuhol, bakit kailangan ng bribery kung maganda ang proyektong ito?” she expressed.

Indeed, it is very concerning how the said companies can potentially create massive harm to the environment through their mining activities. In a study made by Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS), they found that over  430 hectares of the area to be mined comprised of primary or old growth forest; over 600 hectares of the area comprise forests which are residual and mossy forests and bushland which contains watersheds from which residents depend on for irrigation and domestic use.

Despite PCSDS’ assessment, however, MMC was still given clearance to operate in 2010.

Meanwhile, INC, which is a subsidiary of the Philippines’ second-largest nickel producer, Global Ferronickel Holdings Inc., then secured an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) in 2010. It is a document issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources – Environmental Management Bureau (DENR-EMB) that allows a proposed project to proceed to the next stage of project planning, which is the acquisition of approvals from other government agencies and LGUs, after which the project can start implementation.

Years later, then practicing lawyer Feliciano ran into office and made a dominant win in the 2016 Mayoral Elections, pushing her strong anti-mining position in the municipality.

In the same year, the DENR granted INC a yearlong special tree cutting permit as part of a mineral production sharing agreement. The permit allowed INC to earth-ball 14,439 trees and cut 13,489 trees in a 52-hectare area located in Barangay Maasin, Brooke’s Point, Palawan.

Brooke’s Point residents peacefully take a stand against MacroAsia’s mining activities.
Photo from ALDAW/CBCD (taken in 2009).

However, in 2017, the late former Environmental Secretary Gina Lopez revoked the company’s ECC after a nationwide mining audit conducted by the DENR. In August 2017, Palawan court issued a temporary environmental protection order on INC to stop all mining activities and begin the rehabilitation of the forest that they cleared.

INC then filed a motion for reconsideration, which the mayor ignored and rather met with a closure order, a cease-and-desist order, and a demolition order. The mayor then went on to order the demolition of the structures in the mining site last February 2018, accompanied by policemen and soldiers.

Actually, Mayor Jean [Feliciano] sent them notices in 2017 and they did not secure the needed local government permits and that was the factual and legal basis for the good mayor to order, to notify them of that failure. Eventually to notify them that they will soon be demolished and nothing happens so dinemolish yung structure nila,” Atty Mayo-Anda said.

Environmental lawyer Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda explained further that the DENR-CENRO of Brooke’s Point, Palawan represented by Conrado Corpuz sued the mining company with two forestry cases for violating the tree-cutting and earth-balling agreement that requires the affected trees in the area to be transferred. INC also violated the Chainsaw Act and for cutting trees that are not part of the Mineral Product Sharing Agreement.

An investigation Report by Forester David Gallema showed that partial inventory and initial scaling of cut trees outside the coverage of INC’s Special Tree Cutting Permit yielded 677 cute trees with a total volume of 104.23 cubic meter.

The forest/timberland where the cut trees were found,inventoried and scaled had an area about 1.64 hectares.

However, the suspension order stated that the cancellation of the company’s ECC had yet to attain finality at the time that Mayor Feliciano ordered the demolition. The pending decision on motion for reconsideration made the company’s ECC valid and existing.

“Without authority, Mayor Feliciano led the demolition of gates, fences, staff house and other structures in the mine site,” said the Office of the Ombudsman.

A lumber stack shows the extent of Ipilan Nickel Corporation’s deforestation.
Photo from Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano /Facebook.

Hearts of darkness

A separate assessment report released jointly by the Ancestral Land/Domain Watch (ALDAW) and the Center for Biocultural Diversity (CBDC) of the University of Kent in 2010 unearthed the threats of mining to the watersheds, core zones, and ancestral domain of Isolated Indigenous Communities in the Island of Palawan.

It was revealed that all the Upland Palaw-ans interviewed by the ALDAW/CBCD have declared that they have never been consulted about the entrance of mining companies in their traditional territories.

The NCIP of Palawan – which is the government body mandated to ‘protect and promote the interest and well-being of cultural communities’ – was actually siding with the mining companies. Local communities have been lured into believing that mining will bring prosperity to their life and they have been made to sign memorandums of agreement with the companies without being fully aware of their content.

NCIP was also responsible for creating fake and manipulative Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) that give indigenous communities’ endorsement of mining operations. NCIP has also created ‘indigenous organizations’ to override and bypass community-based decision making processes.

These fake IP leaders,” said Panglima (Traditional Leader) Pedro Sagad, “are paid by MacroAsia and do not have any right to represent our people, especially with regards to mining companies encroaching in our ancestral territories.”

According to Artiso Mandawa, Chairman of the ALDAW network (Ancestral Land/Domain Watch):none of these ‘so called’ tribal chieftains inhabit our ancestral land domain. Out of 30 of such representatives, 15 do not even belong to the Palawan ethnic group and eight of them are only half-blood Palawan. Of the remaining seven, two come from other parts of the Island, and five are lowland Palawan having no connections with the upland communities to be directly impacted by MacroAsia activities.”

Additionally, the implementation of mining activities in the uplands of Brooke’s Point is threatening the integrity of precious landscapes that are very valuable from both a cultural and biological point of view. Those territories included in the MPSA areas of MacroAsia and INC possess sacred and worship sites that are regarded by the local indigenous people as physical evidence of mythological events and are associated with important cosmological principles.

Mining operations in steep mountainous regions will have predictably adverse consequences for the food production capacity of both indigenous communities and migrant farmers and will increase the risk of landslides to an unprecedented level. Unless water catchments are protected, it has been estimated that at least 50% of Brooke’s point sustainable agriculture, which requires irrigation, will be lost. 

According to the assessment report in a joint multi-sectoral investigation by PCSDS and ELAC conducted in September 2000, residents of Barangays Calasaguen, Maasin, Mambalot and Ipilan (Brooke’s Point Municipality) complained about the mining activities in the area.

It was discovered and emphasized that all test pits seen were left open, making it hazardous/dangerous to human beings, animals and wildlife. Excavated materials that were left on the surface could be subject to severe erosion that might be toxic to plants and animals on the lower grounds

Traces of mineral elements were also observed along tributaries and waterways draining to the lowlands – particularly on streams, rivers and rice-field areas. Maintenance of the access road – particularly on providing necessary canals, stabilizing side cut through reducing slopes and rip rapping measures, and providing/adopting dense vegetative cover to control erosion – were poorly undertaken.

Mining operations will also affect indigenous peoples’ resilience and ability to cope with seasonal food shortage, decreasing agricultural productivity and climate change. Moreover, the eco-tourism potential of the area is likely to be jeopardized.

The report also exposed the lapses of the Local Government of Brooke’s Point before the term of Mayor Feliciano. In endorsing the mining exploration of both MacroAsia and INC, the Sangguniang Bayan acted in contradiction with its own Municipal Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) for 2000-2010, in which mining was never considered as a development strategy.

The barangay officials approved mining operations, bypassing all forms of consultations with their constituents. In 2007 the Sangguniang Barangay of Ipilan passed two resolutions endorsing the operation of MacroAsia in Brgy. Ipilan.

The aftermath of
Photo from Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano / Facebook

Hope is a diamond in the rough

Because of her suspension, Mayor Feliciano worries that INC will now get the needed documents and permits to fully operate and mine the area. She fears that a span of a year not in service will allow the mining company to exploit the area that she fought to protect for years.

Baka mabigyan na ng permit yung mga mining companies, dahil habang nandun ako ay ‘di sila makakakuha ng permits na kakailanganin nila. Yung papalit sa akin ay kakampi yun ng minahan,” she worried.

Mayor Feliciano also explained that the acting mayor might use the machinery and resources of the local government of Brooke’s Point for mining itself, given that more mining companies such as the MacroAsia Mining Corporation are in the race to operate in the area because of Mayor Feliciano’s suspension.

Last July 24 Mayor Feliciano officially accepted the order by Ombudsman filed by Palawan DILG Director Virgilio Tagle.

“Maayos naman tinanggap ni Mayora, kasi prior nito nagkausap na din kami at ok naman alam naman din niya kasi alam naman natin abogado rin si Mayora… simula ngayong araw yung Vice Mayor na yung uupo kapalit ni Mayora,” Tagle explained in an interview by Palawan Star.

Recently, Pres. Rodrigo Duterte lifted the moratorium on New Mining Companies Application, meaning that the government can now accept new companies applying for mining operations in the entire country, provided that they would comply with the country’s mining laws. The President believes that this will usher “economic benefit” to the country.

Meanwhile, Mayor Feliciano already filed a motion for reconsideration in the Office of the Ombudsman. If denied, she said that she will appeal it to a court.

Nakakalungkot, minsan nakakapanghina ng loob na ang paggawa pala ng mabuti para sa bayan ay ‘di lagi nasusuklian ng pasasalamat. Minsan pala ang sukli ay suspension, persecution. Pero sana ay ‘wag tayong mawalan ng pag-asa. Kung yung mga environmental defenders ay nakakaranas ng persecution ay hindi mangangahulugan na atras na tayo,” she expressed.

Mayor Feliciano remains hopeful because of the environmental concern of the residents of Brooke’s Point, as well as of her fellow environmental advocates who greatly oppose mining in their area.

“More than 11,000 signed petitions were addressed to the Ombudsman from the people of Brooke’s Point because a lot of the citizens opposed the mining. They really value their agricultural livelihood and they value the forest in their lives.” Atty Mayo-Anda revealed about the overwhelming support the mayor receives from her constituents despite her suspension.

Ang mga tao naman ngayon ay nag-iisip. Kahit ang mga ‘di ko supporters, nagsasabi na, “Mayor, ‘di kami sumuporta sa’yo pero ayaw namin ng pagmimina.” Yung aming mga kabataan din ay bukas ang kamalayan sa pangangalaga sa kalikasan. Kung ayaw niyo ng ganoong future, samahan niyo na ako ngayon palang sa aking laban,” the mayor said.

Sapagkat ipinaglalaban niya [ni Mayor Feliciano] kami na mapanatili at maprotektahan ang aming kalikasan na nagbibigay sa amin ng saganang buhay sa pamamagitan ng agrikultura, malinis na tubig at hangin, balanseng ecosystem na pinaninirahan ng biodiversity. Kaya, kung igagawad sa kanya ang suspension, para na rin kaming binalewala sa pagbibigay ng aming sagradong boto sa tatlong termino niya bilang mayor.”

The indigenous Pala’wan groups Pineuntungan Et KePelewanan (PEKP) BICAMM, and the Kabatangan Ancestral Domain ng Sampung Barangay (KAD10) expressed, in support for Mayor Feliciano’s anti-mining stance.

As of press time, both MacroAsia and INC are yet to respond to the publication’s inquiries. [P]

Photos from Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano / Facebook and Ipilan Nickel Mining Company

Design by Michael Ian Bartido

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