OCEANA GOLD STAY OUT In Didipio! The Continuing Story Of Indigenous Resistance To Large Scale Mining In The Philippine Highlands

Posted: March 20, 2012 in Communities Of Resistance
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By: T Ron Woods

In the village of Dinaoyan, Fernan sits outside his simple wooden house, with his children on his knee while chickens run around us and tells how he was on his way home one night, when his car was stopped by armed security guards.  They fired a shot into the number plate of his jeep then arrested him at gunpoint and took him to the police station where his driver’s license was confiscated and he was held for no reason until the next day.

This was in April 2009 – Fernan is of the the Ifugao people who live in the Barangay Didipio in the lush tropical rain forested mountains of the Barangay Kasibu, Nueva Viscaya region of Northern Luzon. The Philippine government has sold this area to Oceana Gold, an Australian based mining company who bought the rights to unrestricted exploitation of the area in 2008. However Fernan and his fellow villagers have been resisting mining companies since in 1995 when, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo passed the long anticipated and highly controversial 1995 Philippine Mining Act or Republic Act 7942 allowing, in accordance with IMF and WTO demands, 100% ownership of Filipino natural resources by foreign multinationals.  This sparked a feeding frenzy of profiteering across the mineral rich islands, causing massive ecological destruction and displacement as traditional farmers were forced off their lands and into lives of poverty in the cities trying to eke out a living as street vendors, working long hours for minimum wage or turning to crime to barely survive in the shanty towns which ring the metrocentres and megamalls of the sparkling new Filipino affluence.

Previous mining companies, Australasian Philippines Mining Inc. and Climax-Arimco, had already been successfully evicted as the local people came together in resistance as the organization DESAMA – Didipio Earth Savers Movement Association.  The first the villagers knew of this new sale to Oceana was when mining employees guarded by a large police escort turned up and started demolishing their houses.

Graphic video footage of shocked people being restrained by police as their houses were being torn down in a second attack featured in a documentary aired on Australian TV – Oxfam Australia.  This, combined with popular protest, action by environmental groups and investigations into Oceana’s shady financial dealings and escalating human rights abuses was enough for investors to lose confidence and Oceana has currently suspended operations due to lack of funding.

The company does however maintain the fenced off site, offices, housing and a small army of heavily armed private security guards.  We pass checkpoints every hundred meters or so as we enter the village and while concluding our interview, two shotgun wielding men in Sagittarius Security uniforms casually stroll through Fernan’s front garden, past the house, the chickens and his sons wooden basketball board.

We pass through more checkpoints and barbed wire fences where guards lounge around with shotguns and M16s.  This is daily reality for the people living on this mining lease which covers the whole

37,000 hectares of the valley, the forest and rivers off which the Ifugao  people have lived since they migrated there in the 1960s, where they have survived as farmers for the last fifty years with no government support in terms of infrastructure, basic services, roads etc.

The constant threat of violent eviction hangs over these people.  As we continue down the muddy trail our beetlenut chewing guide Lorenzo, part of the DESAMA organization, and points out a large family home nestled amongst the rain forest.

Oceana Gold Guards‘Here we barricaded for two months to stop the mining’ he announces proudly as a smiling older couple come out to rearrange the wind twisted anti large-scale mining banner hanging out the front.  He also points out concrete walls and shiny corrugated iron roofs of a small settlement, looking markedly different from the local timber built houses. ‘These were built by outsiders’ he says contemptuously, ‘as soon as they heard Oceana was buying buildings to house miners they came in and started building these, they were just here to make money, they don’t care about the area’.

We pass a larger security post with housing behind the barbed wire and several more armed guards then come to a river.  It’s surrounded by rice paddies where people are busily sowing seeds.  Rice, as in much of the Philippines, is the major crop for the village, along with citrus, bananas, various root crops in the lush mountain forest.  Growing crops as subsistence farmers with a small amount of surplus sold at local markets, if these people lose their land they will have no choice but to leave or starve, or get displaced in the slums of the cities.

Next to the river we can see more wooden village buildings and some livestock.  Here Lorenzo stops and swinging his arm in a broad semicircle announces ‘this is supposed to be where they will put all the tailings.  They will flood this whole area and build their tailings dam.’

To process gold in large scale mining operations, the raw product is washed with cyanide then rinsed in water. So the incredibly toxic slag piles which result will be processed and dumped in a ‘mine tailing dam’ by the river.  Here the frequent heavy rains of the wet season will wash the poison into the groundwater and the river.  This will poison the water source not only of the community here but also of several local towns and the larger city at the foot of the hills, Santiago, potentially affecting thousands of people.  Most of the residents of these places are unaware and unwarned of this threat.

We are now well within the bounds of the land occupied by the lease and crossing the river smell wood smoke as we walk through another village to come to a handsome raised wooden house surrounded by fruit trees and stock pens.  Barking dogs greet us and two cats prowl close to the kitchen fire as we are welcomed into the home of Jose Buya.  He was highly active in DESAMA however he is currently unable to participate so much as he injured his spine falling from a tree and is unable to undertake the strenuous dirt track walk to the meetings.  His and his family’s passion remain undiminished however.

They tell us how they were part of the two month barricade on the road near DESAMAthe house we saw earlier.  Late summer 2008, almost 200 people were defending the area from a second demolition attempt.  In response, Oceana sent in 150 armed security guards backed up with 250 Filipino military troops.  They surprised the barricaders by travelling up the river instead of the road and at dawn assaulted them with batons and gunfire.  The whole village area was overrun and people were told they could not even enter their homes to fetch their few possessions as demolition teams tore them apart.  One man, Emilio Pumihece was shot in the attack – he survived but was so traumatized he and his family have since left the area.

After the second demolition barricades were built around the remaining communities, however by 2009 the security forces had established a compound within the area from which they launched a third attack.  This time 150 security guards and 100s military attacked.  As troops fired teargas from the hills overlooking the fortified villages, the security forces stormed the defences.  While people choked in the CS clouds their homes were set on fire as mining crews moved in and demolished more. Many people were injured in this attack also.  Not long after this Oceana was forced to pull out, but the history and the threat of new violence remains like a cloud over these people’s lives.

Conflict in Didipio

We leave this home and head up to talk to the former head of the Barangay who, unlike the current captain, is strongly anti large-scale mining and was the previous head of DESAMA.  The current captain was bought off with 30kg of gold so most of the people no longer trust or respect him.

On the way we hear the dynamite blasts and, as we cross more rivers, see the tunnels and panning operations of the small scale local miners while waiting for the season of harvest of their crops.  Part of the community, the Barangay has no problem with these family operations which make no significant drain on water resources and bring a little extra money  into the local economy with no displacement or mass destruction involved.

We pass more rice paddies, irrigated off the network of rivers in this region and climb a steep hill up to a small settlement surrounded by thick rainforest.  Here we pass several houses before meeting the ex-captain.  We sit in the shade of the trees outside his house and eat Pomelo (a delicious giant citrus) as he talks of the raids, his love for the land and his fervent resistance against the displacement, violence and destruction of large scale mining. He declines to be formally interviewed due to ill health, but does provide us with more insight into the strength of this community.

When we return to the main village a smiling woman joins us at the sari-sari store and buys us a wholesome afternoon snack of chocolate cookies and fizzy drink, before inviting us to wash and have coffee at her house, a fancy one by local standards, perched on a small hill overlooking the hall in which we are staying.  We gratefully accept and over jam and bread the conversation takes a turn for the weird as she asks us first if we are from Greenpeace and then ‘why do you care what happens, it’s not your land’.

We attempt to explain our ideas of social justice and our feeling that a story like this needs to be told, especially as we come from the same country (more or less) as the mining company involved.  We leave not long after and Lorenzo, waiting in the hall, tells us ‘don’t trust that woman, she’s supposed to work at the small clinic Oceana setup to try make us think they are good – she is pro mining, she is a traitor and a spy.’

This just serves as a perfect example of how divided this community and others like it are over the mining issue.  Typically those who help the companies, especially in the early stages are bribed with gold, cars, and positions of authority and low level administrative jobs.  All token pittances compared to the profits the companies expect to make but almost unheard of riches and opportunities for subsistence farmers in a small mountain community.

This process creates massive social divides as a small new elite form in the community and spurred by the promise of further rewards, become spokespeople for the companies and informants on the groups which form to protect their lands and livelihoods.  Typically factions form and infighting begins, it’s not uncommon to see family members on separate sides in the often violent clashes between pro and anti-mining groups.

This of course totally undermines the tight social bonds by which these communities function and this combined with the ecological ravages and displacement caused by the mining can be the death blow for them.

However fortunately in Didipio this is not the case, although there are divisions, and despite the fact the Barangay captain has been bought off, resistance is strong – as the relatively large turnout and spirited discussion at the community meeting in the hall showed.  Most people here realise that to allow Oceana or any other mining company to displace them from their land is to lose their livelihood, lifestyle and culture for one of extreme poverty in the cities and staunchly defend their homes while uniting in solidarity with other indigenous peoples and anti-mining organizations.

No to Large Scale Mining in Didipio

It is during this meeting that we hear of the latest insidious tactic to remove these people from their land, one we will find is not unique to Didipio.  In January 2007 eleven residents of the village, including nine members of DESAMA were served notice from the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) they had to attend a meeting regarding an investigation into their violation of section 15 and 79 of the Revised Forestry Code.  Essentially what this law, enacted in 1975, does is to criminalize any illegal state forest reserve occupants.  Section 15 defines as state forest reserve any land with a slope of 18 degrees or over.  This law then pretty much defines all mountain village dwellers as illegal occupants.  The eleven in the case were particularly targeted for illegal harvesting of wood and under the law could receive huge (unpayable) fines and probable jail time.

However when the residents, having received the notices through family and friends rather than directly from the officer as required by law,  attended the meeting they were shocked to find Oceana representatives present.  They were told the meeting was to facilitate the sale of their lands to the company so the criminal cases would not be filed.  Needless to say they left and the matter has been brought to court where the case drags on.  As was obvious from the start the law is being used to legalize a land grab by legal pressure, Oceana representatives and lawyers regularly attend the hearings, and mention it in separate, related court cases despite the fact, legally it has absolutely nothing to do with them.

Riot in DidipioAll this completely ignores that the Didipio people should be immune from such attempts at legal intimidation as they are currently under consideration for a native title claim.  Under the relevant part of section B of the Public Land Act.

Those who…have been in continuous, exclusive, and notorious possession and occupation of agricultural lands of the public domain, under a bona fide claim of acquisition or ownership, for at least thirty years immediately preceding the claim of title…  shall be entitled to a certificate of title under the provisions of this chapter.

So it becomes obvious the corrupt government of the Philippines is ignoring one law which should enshrine the rights of these people to live and work their land in favour of enacting another law to the advantage of yet another ruthless multinational mining company seeking to extract huge profits from the exploitation and destruction of the Philippine environment.  In addition, Oceana has proven their willingness to ignore human rights considerations and indeed actively violated them with a campaign of state sponsored violence and harassment aimed at displacing and destroying the original inhabitants if they object.  However as the people at the meeting made clear they will not bow to intimidation either physical or legal and are resolved to defend their lands to the end.

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