We must follow the lead of the Church in condemning our government’s intent to risk environmental destruction by mining in the Philippines.
I had never visited the Philippines and had no plans to do so. But my friendship with Fr Tom Hennegan who was parish priest in Clapham led me to meet Fr Frank Nally who had previously served in the Philippines. And meeting Frank meant getting to hear about the problem of mining in the Philippines. A few years ago he brought some people to see me and we agreed they should go to see Rio Tinto who were working to clean up their image. And after a time Rio Tinto withdrew from the Philippines. But then in early 2006 Frank came to see me and said that things were getting worse with smaller and more ruthless companies applying for licences to mine in remote and ecologically fragile areas that were sacred to indigenous people.
He told stories of terrible corruption and of opencast mining that led to polluted rivers, dangerous landslides and loss of livelihoods. Yet despite this, the Philippine government and the World Bank were pushing for a big expansion of opencast mining funded by foreign investment. I suggested that he apply to Cafod and Trocaire for funding and recruit some MPs and MEPs from Britain and Ireland to visit and help to highlight the problem.
And thus it was, with my mind and desk weighed down with the terrible events in Gaza and Lebanon that when Parliament went into recess, I boarded a plane for the Philippines. During the 20 hour long journey, I read alarming briefings about the threat and consequences of mining. I also read a paper sent by Amnesty International calling on President Arroya to do more to halt political killings.
Frank met me in Manila and told me that when we visited Mindanao I should not give my real name because kidnapping was a problem. We then had a thorough briefing with NGOs representing indigenous people, human rights, environmental and conservation interests. They explained that applications for open cast mining had been made for 30% of the territory and that these coincided with most of the most remote, ecologically precious lands in this country of great natural beauty.
And then we went wearily to the Colomban house in Singalong St in Manila. They had plenty of spare rooms because there are fewer vocations but over a beer before bed each evening I found myself amongst some of the most radical and ecologically sensitive Christians that I have ever met.
We spent a couple of days in Manila visiting the Ombudsman, the Chief Justice and the Pontifical University where even members of Opus Dei were up in arms over the threat of mining. The Chief Justice, who is also a devout Catholic, explained that the Supreme Court had reversed its decision against the Mining Act because it provided a framework of law to regulate mining. The Ombudsman – who was a recently appointed woman – acknowledged that there were major problems of corruption and asked for the ammunition to enable her to make useful enquiries.
On day three, we flew to Mindanao, a southerly island of great beauty and many mining applications. It has a sizeable Muslim community and a Muslim insurgency of many long years. From the 60s onwards, settlers from other islands had been encouraged to come to Mindanao and the indigenous population had been pushed inland, living with the forests denuded by illegal bugging and dependent on the gifts of nature that surround their sacred mountains.
Our first meeting was with a Catholic project that had gathered local people, lowlanders and indigenous to tell us about the misbehaviour of the Canadian company TUI who had displaced the tribal leader Timuay Annoy despite his having been awarded the title to his ancestral domain by a previous President. We also met a family whose house and rice fields had been bulldozed from beneath them. In a later meeting with the diminutive but vigorous Bishop Jose Manguiran, he spelled out his deep anger at the misbehaviour of the company and his determination to acknowledge the authority of the Timuay and make clear that Mass should not be said within the mining area.
The Bishops of the Philippines have taken a united and powerful stand against the mining proposals. They have said “The right to life of people is inseparable from their right to sources of food and livelihood. Allowing the interests of big mining corporations to prevail over people’s rights to these sources amounts to violating their right to life”. When we met Bishop Gutierrez back in Manila, he told us that when the President asked his advice, he told her that the people trust the Church and do not trust the Government and that her mining plans would cause her great trouble. Ti was notable and impressive that the Church is standing strongly alongside the subsistence farmers and the indigenous people. And not striving to convert the indigenous but showing full respect to their sacred stories and rituals.
On our second day in Mindanao – where we stayed at another Columban house – we left early for Mass in Midsalip where Frank was previously parish priest. Mass took place in a big, open sided church. Instead of a sermon Frank and I explained the purpose of our visit. We then met in a packed room with the local Subanen people who told us how their right, entrenched in law, to give free, Prior, Informed Consent to any mining proposals on their lands was being suborned by bribery and intimidation. It is of course easy to bribe very poor people and the sense of fear amongst those who were resisting the mining proposals was palpable. We agreed that we would test the Ombudsman’s promise with a complaint about how their right to be consulted and freely consent had been twisted and denied.
Our later meetings, first with activists and then the whole community in the Church revealed a people living in dread of 70% of their municipality being taken over by mining. Our mining expert Clive Wicks, was utterly shocked that applications were being considered for open cast mining that would take the top off the tallest mountains and therefore poison all the local rivers and bring destruction to rich agricultural land. In addition to this, the community had a longstanding complaint that local municipal officers were paying themselves the salaries to which officials in Manila were entitled and thus using all the funding provided for the municipality, leaving nothing for services. A complaint to the local Ombudsman had been turned down and the case was now before the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the malpractice was spreading to other municipalities. We suggested that the people might consider asking the Bishop to complain to the Ombudsman about the spreading corruption.
From Midsalip, we travelled to Libay where a large mine run by Philex Mining had been closed down because of large scale land slips which destroyed houses and rice fields. En route we called to talk to a small scale miner who along with 1000 others had been displaced by a mining company who showed us where he had been shot in the leg whilst on a picket. He said that 1000 good livelihoods had been replaced by 500 mine employees from elsewhere. Libay in Sibutad was a beautiful bay with a mountain behind it. The people told us that when the mine was open, the bay was muddy, the fish, mangrove and shellfish all died. The mine was closed after seven years and the bay gradually restored itself. But the mining company continued to encourage small scale miners to engage in open case mining. They were using cyanide to extract the maximum gold from the rock. The consequence was that a man’s rice field was growing less rice, his legs were covered in black blotches from his work in the rice field and even their washing water which came from a well made their skin itch. It seemed the cyanide had got into the water table. In addition, farm animals were thin and infertile. And land slips were a continuing threat. They asked us to help them prevent the mine from reopening as it had applied to do.
Our final days in Manila were taken up with meetings with a Senator and Congress people who explained how rife was corruption, violence and intimidation and made clear their fears for the future of the country. The British Ambassador set up a very useful meeting with the Chairman of the Chamber of Mines, representatives of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and of the President’s office. The Governor and Parish Priest from the beautiful island of Mindoro joined the meeting to tell how their whole community opposed the mining proposal submitted by Gew, which is a British based company, which would destroy their plans to expand ecotourism. The Chairman of the Chamber of Mines kept assuring us that bad proposals would be refused but if this was so, many of the applications would have been immediately refused rather than encouraged and supported by those in authority.
At our meeting with the World Bank, I challenged the country representatives to explain how the proposals for mass mining would benefit the economy. Foreign companies were being offered low taxes and quick repatriation of profits and local economic effects were job destructive. Having encouraged mining so strongly, Bank officials washed their hands of current developments, and said they had limited influence and were trying to counter corruption.
My visit to the Philippines was deeply moving. The land is so beautiful, the people so friendly, the Church so courageous and the risks to poor people’s livelihoods and fragile ecosystems so serious. I found both the Bishops and the Columbans magnificent. But victory will not be easy. The government is determined to drive its proposals forward. The Church will resist. Lots of people will get hurt and precious lands will be damaged irreparably. Our taxes are funding the World Bank and EU programmes in the Philippines. UK companies are planning to mine. And all the companies hope to raise funding in London. We are increasingly conscious of the threat to the future caused by our misuse of the environment. In the Philippines the threat is stark and immediate. The Church is committed to trying to prevent this destruction. This campaign deserves all the support we can muster.