Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 104-108.

The Philippines: A Country for Sale

Cordillera Peoples Alliance Chairwoman, Minnie Degawan, addresses a gathering held in the community of Fidelisan, Mountain Province. The banner in the back reads "Tribal War - Stop Genocide". Some community leaders have warned that "although mines are not tribes, the people will declare tribal war against them."

While revisiting the Philippines last year I was travelling and viewing the panoramic scene from a bus on my way from Pagadian City to Ozamis City, in the southern island of Mindanao. I pondered what I had seen and heard over the last two months. The outrageous beauty, magnified now by the quickly declining sun, created myriads of reflections on the waters of the rice fields, leaving the beholder in awe.

Going up the crumbling road carved out through the mountains by PADAP (Philippines Australian Development Assistance Plan) in the early 1980's, the beauty of this country almost lured me into a sense of security and serenity that seemed to belie the alarming stories I'd heard from my friends - stories of the mountains being sold off to British (RTZ), Australian(CRA), American and Canadian companies for mining.

I was forced back to relive the reign of terror of the Marcos years, which regrettably did not end there. We were inspired by the Peoples' Power demonstration in Manila, which ultimately forced Marcos to leave the country. We began our own Peoples' Power Picket to save trees in the parish of San Jose, Midsalip, in the diocese of Pagadian. I remember now that this was during the presidency of Corazon Aquino. We successfully maintained a 5-month round-the-clock picket and blocked the road to stop the illegal logging of trees in the only remaining forest, which is also the watershed for the Pagadian area. The picket was eventually supported by all the surrounding parishes and raised the level of awareness of the environmental issues that are central to the socio-economic life of the area.

The logging company at the time used an armed fanatical paramilitary group, the Kurotong Baleleng, who at gunpoint terrorised the picketeers and routed the picket-line, destroying all our posters, placards and paraphernalia. It was the eventual death of two Philippine Constabulary men - sent to bolster the local police force and to ensure peace and order at the picket-line - at the hands of the Philippine Army, that forced the suspension of the company's 'Timber Licence Agreement' (TLA).

Luckily for us the local police force and the Provincial Commander of the now defunct Philippine Constabulary supported the action of the people, because they too were concerned by the effects of the illegal logging.

However, the District, Regional and National Offices of the Bureau of Forest Development (BFD) sided with the Logging Company. That all the beautiful Forestry laws were broken by Sunville Timber Products Inc. [the licensees] was completely ignored by the government - and this is no wonder, considering the culture of corruption that existed and continues to exist in the government.

The wealthy company bought a lot of public administration and media support but the battle was won by the persistence of ordinary people despite the intimidation, terror and fear they were subjected to. Warrants of arrest were issued for me and eight other leaders, including the Chief of Police of Midsalip [!], for "ursurpation of public authority". It was another attempt at intimidation but the Court was forced to do justice to the long campaign that was gaining momentum. It was only in December of 1988 that the Timber Licence of the offending company was finally cancelled.

We are now into the final year of the Presidency of Fidel Ramos, Aquino's successor. Cory had to fight for political survival against several attempted military coups. Ramos, a general of the Philippine Constabulary in the Marcos era and Minister for Defence in the Aquino government, has had an easy term of office and has been able to pay a lot of attention to the ills of the Philippine economy.

The generation of electricity (coal and oil fired, multi-purpose hydropower, gas and geothermal), the requirement of industry, is being "fast-tracked" by the government in a craze to fuel NIC (New Industrialised Country) status by the year 2000. "Philippines 2000" is the ill defined Ramos Plan which many feel spells disaster, not only for the people but for the integrity of the very fabric of the tropical environment of soil, trees, air, water.

That the very survival of the Philippines environment itself is at stake is well documented. The danger is desertification; agri-business eats up the best land to provide cash crops for the world market, and puts bananas, pineapples and palm oil on our tables while the Filipino peasant continues to go landless and hungry. Cut flower and asparagus production is the newest addition to the export-imposed, import-dependent economy.

The country is threatened enough by the other demands already being made on its resources; not only by a large and growing population, but by the encroachment of foreign fisheries. This diminishes the food supply of a population which depends primarily on fish for protein, and forces the Filipino fishermen to engage in dynamite fishing, causing irreversible damage to the coral reefs.

Too often we can blame the victim for short sightedness while we ignore the real causes of the degradation of our planet. It is the rules of the international financial structures that compel 'underdeveloped' countries to penalise their poor, in order to repay the unpayable loans that the poor never benefited from in the first place. We should ask "Will there be any future for generations to come if we do not take these institutions to task now?" Political will is what is needed to change the injustice of this system.

It was amusing to read in a Filipino Daily that the IMF (International Monetary Fund) is concerned about the environmental impact of the macro-economic plans of the Ramos government, when it is they who direct operations and lay the ground rules in the first place. Nor was I surprised, as I read on, to find that the IMF would not however be putting any obstacles in the way of these government plans. They play both sides; that of the critics and of the criticised. The World Bank/IMF has also been credited with forcing the Philippine government to open Filipino fishing waters to foreign trawlers in the early 1980s, with the disastrous consequences described above.

I was very perturbed when I was told of the impending invasion of the Philippines by mining companies. I researched what I had been told by the people in Midsalip, and by the Subaan'n Tribal Peoples there, and realised that at least half the total area of the Province of Zamboanga del Sur has been divided into blocks, each containing more than 81,000 hectares.

Each of these blocks is subject to a "Financial Technical Assistance Agreement" (FTAA) with foreign mining companies. The areas covered are mostly the ancestral lands of indigenous tribal peoples, and are the last remaining tropical forests of the country and western Mindanao. In the Philippines the overall FTAA scenario is devastating. Northern Luzon is also covered as are all the other islands of the country.

We expect the Third World to adhere to 'sustainable development' while we send our mining magnates to meet in Singapore, to force Asia to open its gates and liberalise its laws.

The Philippines have just made this scandalous concession, opening the whole country to global rape in 1995. Other countries in Asia, in Africa and South America are expected to do the same. The financial institutions that poured billions into the Marcos coffers as he raped a nation, must at some time take responsibility for that and for the greater crime now of forcing the Ramos government, hungry for money for development, to open the forests and mountains, the rivers and seas, and the indigenous peoples themselves, to wholesale mining operations that scrape the very bowels out of the country.

Let us consider the 1995 Mining Code. It was, to no small extent, initiated from sources external to the Philippines. Because of the country's large debt, and the legitimate [?] desire of the post-Marcos Filipino Administrations to acquire funding to develop their economy, western interests now take unfair advantage, knowing full well the stranglehold they have over the Philippines because of the debt issue.

This leverage was used to ensure that a scandalous mining law was pushed through Congress. Pressure was used not only by the powerful mining groups but even by some of the international financial institutions and development agencies, who are mandated [in theory] only to promote and support sustainable development.

The Mining Code, which became law in March of 1995, gives foreign companies the right to 100% ownership of mines, 100% repatriation of profits and 50 year leases. It calls the actual inhabitants of the land "surface dwellers". Tropical Exploration Philippines Inc. (TEPI), a member of the CRA Group (which recently merged with its parent company, RTZ), has applied for a licence to explore and mine in the very parish where I worked.

The area is mostly the home of the Subaanen Cultural Community, who are alarmed at the prospect of their lands being opened to mining. They are frightened of the prospect of their lands and forest being further destroyed by the incursion of a mining company and are united in defence of their lands.

That it was described in Messianic terms of "the mountains being laid low" is no joke for the people but a signal of disaster to come. As I skimmed the daily newspapers I could not help noticing the array of environmental disasters in Luzon, Negros and Mindanao already causing havoc, poisoning rivers, seas and people with mercury and cyanide.

The disaster at the Marinduque mine of the Canadian Placer Dome company in March 1996 was the worst and most ominous of the last couple of years: mine tailings actually burst through the holding area and left the local river and countryside heavily polluted.

That the same scenario, of threats and intimidation and the use of paramilitaries, will repeat itself, as TEPI press against local resistance to mine gold, is not beyond the bounds of possibilty in the Philippines.

We need only look at the past record of multinational agri-business and other corporate incursions into the Philippines. British Palm Oil is such a case. Backed by money to buy off officials, and by government forces, paramilitary fanatics and lawyers, they threaten, kill and sow fear among the people, and prevail in their corporate target to maximise profits and keep their western shareholders happy. In the process they divest local inhabitants of their lands and livelihood, thereby violating the human rights of the whole citizenry of an area.

The ore feels homesick.
It wants to abandon the minting houses and the wheels that offer such a meagre life.
And out of the factories and payroll boxes it wants to go back into the veins of the thrown open mountain, which will close again behind it.
- Rilke

At least 30% of the entire land mass of the Philippines is now under these FTAAs. The definition of the inhabitants as mere "surface dwellers" enables the government to claim total ownership of all the minerals within the territory of the Philippines, not only on public but also on private lands. And only the big foreign mining companies have the vast capital needed to undertake the extraction of these minerals, ostensibly 'on behalf of' the government.

The people of Midsalip have been told to expect only that the environmental "impact [when mining begins] can be minimised, if not avoided..." TEPI also claim that "Prior to the conduct of any exploration activity, [we identify] sensitive areas which should be protected and also adopt appropriate procedures to minimise environmental disturbance and facilitate rehabilitation".

These quotes are taken from the letter by Henry P. Aqupitan, TEPI's Exploration Manager, asking for permission from the Director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau "to conduct exploration and mining operations in the Municipality of Midsalip, Province of Zamboanga del Sur including the SCC (Subaanen Cultural Community) areas". They are disturbing and misleading.

I have italicised the words 'can' and 'should' from Aqupitan's letter, words which when taken literally or legally belie any commitment to environmental protection in an area which wholly needs protection from any further mechanical intrusion. The area still needs time to recover from the impact of the illegal logging which was condoned by the government for so long. A healthy, protected forest is the best resource for the health and economic life of what is still a largely rural, agricultural based community.

The claim to ownership by the State of all minerals is based on the 1987 Constitution (Article Xll Section 2). This is the subject of the 1995 Mining Code. However, the same article also promises ancestral land to the Indigenous Cultural Communities (Article Xll Section 5).

State policy as laid down by the Constitution makes it incumbent upon the government to "protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature", (Article 2 Section 16). So, why has a law not been enacted to enforce the claims of the tribal Communities to their ancestral claims? Why are the remaining forests and environment, so essential to the Philippine ecology, not aggressively protected in the same way as the mining law was rushed through?

In its quest for 'NlChood' (Newly Industralised Country status), the Ramos Administration is depleting the resources and minerals that could be used to benefit the Filipino people and their social, cultural and economic life. [There are many small-scale indigenous miners who will probably be squeezed out by the Mining Code.]

By acceding to international pressure to open the country to open-cast mining, the Philippine environment, already severely degraded, has been placed in a terribly vulnerable position.

But we do live in hope, and take on the responsibility to change policies and make transparent to the world what is going on. The Filipino Bishops wrote a Pastoral letter in 1988, What Has Happened to Our Beautiful Land?, and reflected on the ecological destruction of the country. They mentioned the efforts of Midsalip as a sign of hope then because of the struggle against illegal logging.

Since then thousands, indeed millions of Filipinos have woken up to a realisation of the interconnectedness of the fragile tropical environment. They realise that a certain percentage of forest cover is essential for maintaining healthy water tables and rivers. They have learned - through bitter experience - that there is a connection between the degradation of their natural environment and the increasing number of droughts and floods. They realise that when there is balance there is fresh cool air and rain comes at the right season, there is little soil erosion, no drought or floods or landslides or siltation.

From mountain to sea there is harmony as the birds fly freely and the fresh clear mountain waters meet the sea, kissing and mingling with the salt water, keeping the mangrove trees alive and well to provide food for fish. The farmer and fisherman is happy. However, this now is history and the dream of a new story and new relationship with the earth awaits.

Mindanao was still forested in the 1930's, when people from the northern islands, because of the continual refusal of the government to have a genuine land reform programme, were promised settlers' land on the southern island of Mindanao - the Land of Promise - Yuta nga Saad.

So there are many people alive today who have actually seen with their own eyes the result of deforestation and its impact from mountain to sea. Midsalip used to have abundant fish in her rivers and the climate was less hot and humid. Today soil erosion is rife and the rivers only appear in the rainy season, while the droughts get longer and longer and the hot season lasts longer.

A new way of living harmoniously can be learned by listening to the indigenous people and absorbing their understanding of the earth. We must learn again that it is planet Earth that is God's cathedral. The chirping birds and flowing streams praise their Creator. [1] The smallest insect and plant in all their diversity tell us a story of dependence and interconnection. The various colours of people, and diverse ways of speaking and knowing and believing point to a beyond that is Diverse and Divine.

We need to tread gently on the earth, to take off our shoes and realise again that the ground on which we stand is holy. That ground may be an insect or a culture or a language, a person, a people, a sea, a tree, a mountain, they are all holy. We must bring back the sacred into our vision of the soil, the air, everything. The only one who is a foreigner on earth is the person or group who does not recognise that we are dependent on the earth and its interconnectedness.

Some hope remains because the Philippine Government froze all but two of the 70 mining applications for FTAAs last year, because of the outcry from opponents of the Mining Code. However, the law has not been abolished. Some cosmetic surgery or window dressing has been done, by giving more attention to the people and the environment affected in the "Implementing Rules and Regulations" (IRR). The changes are not nearly enough. Now the government is set to give out eight licences in February of 1997. The people still demand that the Mining Code itself must go. Then, the rights of the indigenous peoples and the environment must be safeguarded in law.

Existing forest cover (12%) is less than is recognised and recommended for the sustainability and healthy balance of a tropical environment. That the FTAAs between the Government and Mining Companies incorporate the remaining forest area of Western Mindanao, the Cordilleras and Indigenous Lands is alarming to say the least, and warrants the strongest protest of individuals and organisations to both the Philippine Government, the British and Australian Governments, and the Mining magnates involved.


[1] Some readers may such sentiments hard to accept, but the writer is a Catholic priest, and chooses to express his love for the natural world in these terms. Does that lessen his commitment? I don't think so - Catholics have been at the forefront of the (often extremely dangerous) battle against environmental destruction in the Phillipines.

For further information, contact:

Cordillera Links
C/O 111 Faringdon Rd
Tel/Fax: 01367 718889
(Produce the excellent newsletter 'Tong-Tongan')

Methodist Clubland
54 Camberwell Rd
Tel: 0171 277 4852

PARTiZANS [People Against RTZ and its Subsidiaries]
218 Liverpool Rd
N1 1LE
Tel: 0171 609 1852

"We are going to impose our agenda on the coverage by dealing with issues and subjects that we choose."
- Richard M. Coen, Senior producer or CBS political news.

"Our job is to give people not what they want, but what we decide they ought to have."
- Richard Salant, Former president of CBS news.

Do or Die DTP/web team: