Clock ticking

Mine firm in N. Vizcaya braces for workers’ strike

(Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 29, 2014)

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya—An Australian company operating a gold-copper project in upland Kasibu town in Nueva Vizcaya province has alerted employees about an impending strike by members of a workers’ union over wages.

Brennan Lang, general manager of the Didipio project of OceanaGold Philippines Inc., said employees who are not members of the union would be asked to change their schedule or perform functions in anticipation of the vacuum that would be created by those who would join the picket line.

“All department heads have been tasked with developing contingency plans to maintain operations in the event of a strike,” he said in a memorandum circulated among workers last week.

The work stoppage at OceanaGold Didipio mine loomed after members of Pun-oh-ohaan Hi Kiphodan (Kiphodan) labor union, the only recognized workers’ group of the Didipio project, voted last week to proceed with the strike.

Image

In this 2013 file photo, mine workers at OceanaGold Philippines, Inc.’s gold-copper project in Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya undergo routine security check before entering the mining site in Didipio village. The company is preparing for a possible strike that will be staged by the workers union as should final attempts at negotiations continue to fail. Photo By Melvin Gascon

Failed negotiations

The Jan. 20 balloting came more than a month after the union filed on Dec. 10 a notice of strike in the Department of Labor and Employment, following failed negotiations.

Lang said workers who do not report for work, regardless of whether they joined the strike, would not receive their wages.

The union has at least 80 members, mostly Didipio residents, out of the 350 workers of OceanaGold.

The impending strike is the latest problem to hit the Didipio mining project, which began commercial production in 2013 amid continuing opposition from the antimining community led by the Catholic Church in Nueva Vizcaya.

The dispute stemmed from disagreements between Kiphodan and OceanaGold over terms of the three-year collective bargaining agreement, mainly provisions on the workers’ compensation and other economic benefits.

P12 vs P32

In previous talks, union members demanded a P32 per day across-the-board wage increase, or about P1,000 a month, but OceanaGold offered an increase of only P12 a day, to go along with other forms of remuneration.

The offers, however, may no longer hold up for the remainder of prolonged negotiations, Lang said in a memo.
“In declaring a bargaining deadlock, the union has effectively rejected this offer and the company cannot guarantee that all or any of the above benefits will be part of any final agreement,” he said.

In a phone interview, Wendy Nicano, Kiphodan union president, said they rejected the company’s offer because it was too meager for today’s living standards.

“We studied [our numbers] carefully and concluded that we really cannot go below P1,000. If the company has reasons for the offer, we too have our own reasons [to reject it],” she said.

Cheaper gold

In his memo, Lang cited the financial distress that the company has been going through as the reason it cannot grant the union’s P1,000 demand in wage increase.

“The company has suffered from a 27-percent decrease in the price of gold over the past year. In order to reduce costs and remain profitable, the company has laid off 40 percent of our exploration department staff in the Philippines, and our New Zealand staff has accepted pay reductions,” he said.

Even OceanaGold’s corporate leaders in Melbourne in Australia have agreed to a 5-percent salary cut earlier this year, Lang said.#

Armed, dangerous

Antimining villagers bare threats from gunmen

KASIBU, Nueva Vizcaya–Residents in an upland mining community here on Thursday denounced the alleged atrocities committed by armed men, who have been securing the ongoing earth-moving activities of a foreign mining company.

The villagers, mostly Ifugaos, called on the Commission on Human Rights to investigate the use of armed men from the Philippine National Police’s provincial mobile group (PMG) to secure the entry of OceanaGold Philippines Inc., an Australian firm, into private lands in the area.

Residents here have been protesting the entry of the firm, which is attempting to conduct large-scale mining for gold and copper in Didipio village despite its failure to obtain the consent of the local community.

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Backlash

Anti-mining villagers fight back, sue DENR-Vizcaya chief for abuse

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–The provincial chief of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) here was charged for alleged abuse of authority before the office of the Ombudsman for supposedly using his position to harass anti-mining residents to push the interests of a foreign mining company.

Eight anti-mining villagers from upland Didipio village in Kasibu town said Roberto Apigo here abused his authority by summoning complainants for alleged violation of forestry laws, a criminal act, but later turned out to be an arm-twisting strategy to force them to vacate their lands.

“Under the guise of an investigation for violation of the Revised Forestry Code of the Philippines, what (Apigo) intended and attempted to accomplish was an ‘administrative dialogue’ in which he tried to facilitate the sale of complainants’ lands to a corporation,” the complaint said.

The complainants, who are officers and members of the Didipio Earth-Savers’ Multi-purpose Association, a people’s organization, have refused to sell their rights over their lands which occupy portions of the primary impact zone of the proposed Didipio gold-copper project.

Mine operator OceanaGold Philippines, Inc., a 100-percent Australian firm, has been attempting to buy access to lands in Didipio to start its construction phase, amid stiff opposition from residents there.

Claiming it is acting as agent of government, OceanaGold has been buying access to private lands in the area, invoking the constitutional power of the state to forcibly acquire private property for government projects.

The DENR, on the other hand, has been trying to eject villagers whom it found to be occupying what it classified as forest lands by filing criminal charges against them.

Desama officials had earlier denounced DENR for filing charges against their poor members, in order to satisfy the needs of a foreign mining company.

“If they would eject us from our lands and charge us for occupying these because these are supposedly forest lands, then they should not allow a (OceanaGold) to occupy it,” said Peter Duyapat, Desama president.

In December 2006, complainants received a “Notice of Violation and Summons” issued by Apigo, which required them to personally appear before him on January 9, 2007.

In that summons, the complainants were warned that their failure to attend the “hearing” shall be deemed a waiver of their right to be heard, and a ground for the filing of criminal cases against them.

But complainants, then assisted by lawyer Mary Ann Dela Peña of the Legal Rights Center, attended the supposed hearing, but said they were surprised to see the presence of OceanaGold officials.

Apigo purportedly told the group that should they agree to voluntarily leave their lands, the DENR would no longer pursue the filing of criminal charges against them.

“(Apigo) gravely abused his office when he issued strongly-worded legal processes so complainants–simple, peace-loving people who respect the law–would be threatened to attend a proceeding, which turned out to be different from that stated in the summons itself,” the complainants said.

“(He) also acted contrary to law as it is a known legal principle that criminal cases may not be subject to compromise,” they added.

Sought for comment, Apigo downplayed the charges, saying it was the handiwork of non-government organizations who want to derail the Didipio gold-copper project.

“We (at the DENR) were just doing our job. The complaint has been referred to our legal department and I assure you that everything will be put in order,” he told this writer.

In a letter, the complainants’ counsel had formally asked Apigo to cite the legal bases of his actions but he reportedly never responded.

The DENR official eventually filed criminal charges against the complainants for alleged illegal occupation of forest lands, after the complainants refused to agree to a settlement.

In your face

Tribe leaders tell DENR chief of bribery, fraud by mining firm

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–Local officials and tribal leaders in an upland town here on Wednesday revealed to visiting Environment Secretary Lito Atienza the alleged bribery and deception committed by workers of an Australian company trying to explore their lands.

In a dialogue with Atienza, Kasibu Mayor Romeo Tayaban and six village chiefs disclosed how officials and employees of Oxiana Philippines, Inc. supposedly connived to push the firm’s exploration project in Pao and Kakidugen villages.

“Their common strategy is to call the people to a banquet at the village center, then let them sign an attendance sheet. We later found out that these were used as supporting documents as proof of of the people’s support for the mining project,” he said.

Geologists from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) have been entering Kasibu without giving the courtesy to local officials, Tayaban said.

“There were those who came to my office saying they were getting water samples from our rivers for a geologic study. But we were shocked later that they were actually looking for ore-rich sites,” he said.

Village chief Mariano Maddela of Pao said Royalco has allegedly been using a relative as conduit and offer him P180,000 in exchange for his support to the project.

“I just wish that the company stops all these foolishness and go home because as long as I am the village chief, [the company] can never enter our barangay,” he said in the dialect.

Pao occupies the proposed 5,873-hectare exploration site granted to Oxiana, now known as Royalco Resources Limited.

Asked to comment on the allegations, Joey Nelson Ayson, Royalco country manager, said: “That is not true.” He did not elaborate.

Royalco’s permit, issued in 2000 to Oxiana, was extended in July by MGB this year amid allegations that the extension was illegal because the maximum two-year period has already expired.

Tribal leaders blamed the lure of money offered by Royalco to some members of the Bugkalot tribe for creating envy and distrust among their people.

Documents from the National Commission on Indigenous People stated that the company has agreed to pay as much as P4,000 to 14 members of the Bugkalot tribe while 19 others were to get P3,000 a month, both as the firm’s “liaison officers”.

“The company is taking advantage because to our people, P4,000 is already a big amount, so they agreed,” said Lucas Buay, chair of the Kasibu Inter-Tribal Response for Ecological Development, a people’s organization.

Felimon Blanco, village chief of Paquet, said non-Bugkalot tribes were angered by their exclusion from the “sham” consultation process conducted by the NCIP.

He expressed concern that the peace covenant entered into by Bugkalot natives and migrant tribes there, through a blood compact their forefathers did in 1950s, would be annulled if conflicts start to arise among tribes due to the mining controversy.

Tayaban lamented that the mining issue has caused divisiveness among his people, who used to live peacefully despite belonging to various indigenous groups.

“We are now a divided town. Members of the same family, tribe or even neighbors are fighting because they are either pro- or anti-mining,” Tayaban said.

In his response, Atienza said he will order an investigation into the allegations of the tribal leaders.

“If you are saying you were not consulted, I will tell the company to include you in the consultation process. If it’s true that the process was not followed, I will personally make sure that it will be followed this time,” he told the tribal leaders.

Rejection

Move to oust mining firms gains ground in Vizcaya

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–The campaign against large-scale mining intensified here after the provincial board on Wednesday moved to oust two foreign companies that tried to operate gold-copper mining projects in two upland towns.

In a resolution, the Sangguniang Panlalawigan asked President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to stop the exploration activities of MTL Philippines Inc., a British company, following its rejection by residents in Runruno village in Quezon town.

Also on Wednesday, Board Member Edgardo Balgos denounced in a privilege speech the “terrorism” being committed by OceanaGold Philippines Inc. (Ogpi) in its attempt to start its gold-copper project in the village of Didipio in Kasibu town.

In issuing the resolution, the board gave credence to a petition by farmers’ groups opposing the project, fearing a repeat of the 2006 tragedy that killed 13 people and rendered families homeless as mudslides buried houses and farmlands in the village.

“Most of the petitioners who are dependent on agriculture as their primary source of income are alarmed and troubled that their farmlands will be buried in mud, rocks, sand and gravel as what happened during the onslaught of Typhoon ‘Paeng,'” the board said.

It cited the findings of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) that declared the vulnerability of the area to flashfloods and mudslides, which may be worsened by ongoing mining activities.

“The provincial planning and development office [also] expounded on the potential social and environmental effects of mining in the province wherein mining claims encroach on settlement and [ancestral domain claim] areas, critical watersheds, protected lands and hazardous areas,” the board said.

Lawyer Nena Santos, MTL counsel, declined to comment on the board resolution. Santos, however, referred the writer to a resolution of the Quezon town council that supposedly denounced the provincial board resolution.

In July, Governor Luisa Cuaresma asked former Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes not to renew MTL’s expired exploration permit, and instead asked the national government’s help to rehabilitate the area.

Reyes, however, renewed the permit before he was transferred to the Department of Energy.

‘Deceived’

In his speech, Balgos accused Ogpi of violating the six conditions set by the board when it issued its endorsement of the project in 2005. These included road development in the area and jobs for locals.

Because of the unfulfilled conditions, Balgos said: “My message to OceanaGold is this: Leave Didipio. Leave Nueva Vizcaya.”

The company, he said, has promised the board several times that they will improve the roads leading to Didipio.

“But what did they do? They improved the road from the Quirino side,” Balgos, chair of the SP committee on legal affairs, said.

Because of this, according to Balgos, Didipio residents would now rather buy their basic commodities and other needs from markets in Quirino, instead of those in Nueva Vizcaya.

This is because travelling using the newly-improved Quirino route is now easier, faster and cheaper, he said.

The promise of jobs was likewise not fulfilled, Balgos said, because OGPI has been importing miners from Benguet, supposedly because locals lacked the skills.

“How can they say that our people are unskilled when many of them had small mining as their source of livelihood for generations?” the official said.

Balgos also called for an investigation into the alleged illegal entry of OGPI into the nearby village of Papaya, where the company has been starting to conduct exploration without obtaining the consent of local communities.

Ramoncito Gozar, Ogpi vice president for communications and external affairs, on Thursday asked to be given time to respond to Balgos’ statement.

Smacked

DENR chief gets rebuff over Nueva Vizcaya mining

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines — A unified call from local officials, church leaders and residents to reject three mining projects in the province greeted the visit here of Environment Secretary Lito Atienza on Wednesday.

Catholic Bishop Ramon Villena, along with tribal folk from upland Kasibu town, asked Atienza to revoke the permit issued to Oxiana Philippines, Inc., an Australian firm, to explore an ore-rich area in Pao village.

Small miners also disclosed the alleged deceit and manipulation allegedly resorted to by workers of OceanaGold Philippines, Inc., also an Australian company, to convince landowners in Didipio in Kasibu to sell their lands to the company.

Provincial board members presented to Atienza a copy of their resolution asking President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to stop the exploration activities of British firm MTL Philippines, Inc. in Runruno village in Quezon town.

Atienza was here to dialogue with Villena and tribal leaders from eight upland villages in Kasibu, who have led their people in setting up and maintaining a road blockade since July 2 to prevent the entry of Oxiana, now known as Royalco Resources, Ltd.

He also separately met with local officials and Department of Environment and Natural Resources personnel.

During the dialogue, Atienza admitted he was “overwhelmed by the deluge of complaints and statements rejecting large-scale mining projects here.”

He, however, made a pitch for mining, saying “our country was bestowed with natural resources that must be used for its own development.”

He urged the tribal leaders to look at the “overall picture, and to consider the ways to help uplift the conditions of the greater number of people.”

“Not all countries have these minerals. China may be a big country, but it does not have as rich resources as the Philippines. We are poor, but it’s because we have mismanaged our government, we have mismanaged our resources,” he said.

Atienza cited the experiences of Arab countries, as well as New Zealand and Australia, which supposedly became progressive because of the “wise use” of their natural resources.

He said, however, the tribal leaders raised valid issues that the DENR must look into, including the selective consultation among landowners and the supposed defective conduct of the free, prior and informed consent for projects in areas occupied by tribal groups.

But Villena rebuffed Atienza’s statement that likened the country’s mining resources to those of oil-rich Middle East nations.

“(Let’s) look at Iraq right now. They may have all the oil, but there is no peace there, there’s always violence. So where’s the development?” he said.

Villena, whose diocese covers Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino, said he was “deeply hurt” that the entry of foreign mining projects has divided the people in upland communities, most of them belong to tribes.

“The most expensive social cost of mining is when families are wrecked. Development is good, but it must not only be done for profit, but for the center of development which is human dignity and human life,” he said.

The bishop was led to tears as he recalled how a number of those in the barricade, including women and children, were hurt after Royalco workers dragged them away from the road.

“If one life will be sacrificed because of mining, then this will be the greatest tragedy in Nueva Vizcaya. You cannot take any life for the sake of a foreign investor,” he said.

Citing allegations of corruption among DENR personnel, Villena assailed officials who, he said, were bribed by the company to get their mining permit and be allowed to push through with their mining activities.

Drive goes pffftt

Crackdown fails to drive out N. Vizcaya small miners

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–Government agencies launched a crackdown on illegal mining this week, but this has failed to drive out small miners from their tunnels in Kasibu town, according to reports reaching this writer.

Residents said about 200 small-scale miners had gone back to reopen the tunnels in Barangay Didipio, which environment officials and policemen closed down in a three-day operation that began on Oct. 8.

The miners returned after officials of Oceana Gold Philippines Inc. (OGPI), a foreign mining firm, allegedly failed to provide assurance that they would be paid for property that were either lost or damaged in the crackdown, the villagers said.

“They’ve closed down our tunnels, so where are we supposed to get our daily sustenance? All that company officials were saying was that they were first going to study our claims,” said one miner, who asked not to be named for reasons of safety.

Personnel of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, escorted by about 120 policemen, mounted the crackdown against a group of men who have been supposedly mining illegally on Dinkidi Hill, site of OGPI’s proposed gold-copper project in Didipio.

Clarence Baguilat, environment director in Cagayan Valley region, said members of the Task Force Didipio were sent to clear the mine site of illegal miners and to allow the development of the project.

Roberto Apigo, provincial environment and natural resources officer, said the team padlocked ball mills used in the illegal mining operations, and blocked about 20 tunnel entrances with planks of wood.

The villager said the miners returned to the site at dusk on Oct. 10 to reopen the tunnels and cut the steel chains that were wrapped around the balls mills.

The miners were demanding payment for the cost of the materials that they had spent in constructing the tunnels, their tools, and the body of ore that they had already dug up and had stored inside the holes.

Demanding payment

“Some of the government personnel knew that we were reopening the tunnels, but they did not prevent us because they understood our position,” one tunnel operator said.

OGPI officials, however, said the company would not grant all the miners’ claims for payment.

“The [crackdown] is a government operation to stop illegal small-scale mining in the province which we are not a party to. We [will not] compensate their closed tunnels or [their] displacement,” said Ramoncito Gozar, OGPI vice president for communications and community relations.

The company has been offering jobs and livelihood for the miners who will be displaced by the operation in the spirit of partnership, but they have refused it, he said.

Apigo declined to comment on the re-opening of the small miners’ tunnels.

Senior Supt. Segundo Duran, provincial police director, who leads the police contingent of Task Force Didipio, said some miners insisted on reopening the tunnels after receiving word that the provincial government was inclined to give them small-scale mining permits.

Vice Gov. Jose Gambito, former chair of the provincial small-scale mining regulatory board, confirmed this.

“I think [the miners] have filed their applications. If they are qualified and allowed by law, why [can’t they be given permits]?” Gambito said.