Geo-Tagging Reveals Mining Threats on Philippine’s “Last Ecological Frontier”

29 January 2010 | News story

A field update from the ALDAW Network (Ancestral Land/Domain Watch)
Between July and September 2009, a mission organized by the Philippines-based Ancestral Land/Domain Watch (ALDAW) and the Centre for Biocultural Diversity (CBCD) at the University of Kent traveled to Southern Palawan in the Philippines. The mission was led by Dr. Dario Novellino (CBCD researcher and CEESP member). Palawan is part of the “Man and Biosphere Reserve” program of UNESCO and hosts 49 animals and 56 botanical species found in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The mission's actual ‘matching' of collected GPS data to photographs shows that the Mineral Production Sharing Agreements (MPSA) of two mining firms [MacroAsia and Celestial Nickel Mining and Exploration Corporation (CNMEC) now operated by Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC)] in the Mt. Gantong (a remarkable biodiversity hotspot) overlap with precious watersheds endowed with creeks and springs providing potable water to the local indigenous communities and lowland farmers. More importantly, under the ECAN Guidelines of the Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan (Republic Act 7611), such areas are part of the so called “core zones” of maximum protection where industrial extractive activities are not allowed. At an altitude of about 500m ASL the mission reached indigenous settlements inhabited by very traditional Palawan having limited contacts with the outside. Their sustenance totally depends on the available forest resources, and it consists of a heterogeneous economy where sustainable swidden cultivation is integrated with foraging and the collection of non-timber forest products (NTFPs). Overall, the mission moved from an elevation of a few meters ASL to an altitude of about 670m ASL, where one of the furthermost Palawan settlements is located. The geo-tagged images were then loaded into ‘Photo GPS Editor' and displayed on satellite Google map.

All upland Palawan interviewed during the ALDAW/CBCD mission have declared that they have never been consulted about the entrance of mining companies in their traditional territories. According to indigenous representatives, the Palawan branch of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) – the government body mandated to ‘protect and promote the interest and well-being of cultural communities' – is now siding with the mining companies.

On August 2009, the mission proceeded further south to the Bulanjao range, in the Municipality of Bataraza. Geo-referenced visual documentation was carried out in this ecologically diverse mountainous area whose vegetation consists of a unique type of forest growing on ultramafic/heavy-metal rich soils. The area is home to at least four plant species that are classified as vulnerable and two of them have already been included in the IUCN Red List. In spite of its unique ecological features, the Bulanjao range has been subjected to mineral exploration and development by the Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation (RTNMC). RTNMC is a Filipino-Japanese partnership holding a mining concession area of about 5,265 hectares. RTNMC and its partner, Coral Bay Nickel Corporation (CBNC) need to mine nickel ores as part of the expansion of their new Hydrometallurgical Processing Plant (HPP) project. However, one the conditions specified in the Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) issued to them in 2002, is that “core zones” should not be included in the areas of mining operations and, this, of course includes the Bulanjao range.

Starting at an elevation of about 40m ASL, the ALDAW/CBCD mission followed the mining road to reach the highest portions of the Bulanjao range. Geo-tagging evidence indicates that erosion on the mining road, criss-crossing the mountain range, is occurring also at low elevations. During the rainy season the water creates deep clefts on the roadsides, hence penetrating the soil and fostering road collapse. No mitigating measures have been put into place to reduce erosion. A huge crater-like excavation has been found at 566m ASL. and land slides, induced by road construction, have been documented around the sources of the Sumbiling river, at almost 900m ASL. The latter is the most important water source for both lowland farmers and indigenous communities. Marylin Samparan , a local IP living in the area told the mission: “time will come when our children will no longer recognize the names of trees, the footprints of animals, the birds' songs. This will be the time when the forest will be gone, the mining companies will be gone, the rivers will no longer flow…and us? We will still be here”. On 15 August 2009, the mining road had already reached an altitude of 859m ASL – and its location was determined through the following GPS coordinates (+ 8.59322548 N Latitude and + 117.36516571 E Longitude). Mission findings have now been compiled into two geo-tagged reports that can be downloaded through the following links:

CEESP members are highly encouraged to support the ALDAW/Survival International Campaign for Palawan (Philippines' last ecological frontier) and the rights of its indigenous inhabitants. Please contact Artiso Mandawa, ALDAW ‘national campaign coordinator' (aldawnetwork@gmail.com) to request a copy of the ‘concern letter' to be sent to selected political figures in the Philippines. Posted letters (via 'snail mail') have shown to have an impact on Philippines' authorities, while e-mails are generally dismissed. Therefore, if possible, we suggest sending letters through post. Alternatively, for those who are unable to send their communication via regular mail, an ‘action letter' can be sent electronically through the Palawan webpage of Survival International.