Church, NGO leaders move to prevent mining bloodshed
BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya—Leaders of the Catholic Church and non-government organizations have stepped into a broiling mining controversy in upland Kasibu town here involving tribal folk who have been blocking the entry of a foreign mining firm into the village.
They have raised concerns over a possible face-off between 1,000 villagers and 50 policemen involving the implementation of a court order that allows the entry of equipment to be used by Oxiana Philippines Inc., an Australian firm.
On Friday, provincial sheriff Voltaire Garcia and Senior Supt. Segundo Duran, provincial police director, travelled to the site to implement the injunction order, which prohibits villagers from further barricading the road leading to the exploration site in Pao Village.
Hear no evil
In a statement, Bishop Ramon Villena assailed Oxiana for refusing to listen to the sentiments of the oppositors who have been barricading the road since July 12.
“Yes, Oxiana claims they have in their possession legal instruments that would legitimize their entry to Pao. But what about the voice of the people? Will we close our ears to their cry and continue with the mining activities in utter disregard of their voice?” Villena said in a statement.
From 300 in the last few days, the number of protesters has grown to about 1,000, mostly tribal villagers from Pao, Paquet, Kakidugen, Biyoy, Cataraoan, Camamasi and Dine who continued to guard the barricade after learning of the court’s issuance of an injunction order.
Their leaders, who asked not to be named for fear of being cited in contempt of the court, said they would continue to block the road because it traverses a private land, the owner of which was opposed to mining.
“If it becomes necessary that we will go back to our headhunting practices, then so be it,” a Bugkalot chieftain said in the dialect.
The villagers, composed of Bugkalot, Kalanguya and Ifugao, have been opposing the entry of Oxiana, citing possible hazards that its operations would bring to their environment.
They have also been questioning Oxiana’s exploration permit issued in 2000, the period of which was extended without consultation with the affected local communities.
This writer tried but failed to reach for comment Joey Nelson Ayson, Oxiana country manager, and Lourdes Dolinen, liaison officer. They did not respond to requests for interview sent through their mobile phones.
Environment NGOs, including Alyansa Tigil Mina and Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (PNE), also joined the bishop’s call for government agencies to pave the way for a peaceful settlement of the standoff in Pao.
“We call on government to heed the call of indigenous communities living in the area to respect their beliefs, culture and way of life,” said Merly Calubaquib, provincial manager of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement.
“Oxiana is riding roughshod over the residents because government is turning a blind eye on the IP’s legitimate grievances,” she said.
But as the company, with the help of government, showed determination to enter the area through force, villagers continued to fortify their positions, sources said.
Lucas Buay, an Ifugao and chair of the Council of Leaders of the Kasibu Inter-tribal Response Towards Ecological Development (Kired), said two barricades have been set up in Paquet Village.
The group also fenced off the private lots that OPI wants to use as access, while others have also started planting vegetables in the surrounding areas, to support the villagers’ food needs in the event of long-drawn standoff.
Religious services have also been held regularly at the barricade site, which were being officiated by local pastor Lito Manaic, Buay said.
Sympathetic groups from the province’s lowland towns, entry points for the company’s loads of equipment, have been closely monitoring the movements of Oxiana, and relay these to the barricaders, the Ifugao leader said.
Ronald Gregorio of Legal Rights Center for Luzon, also an NGO, called on the provincial and local leaders “to listen to (their) constituents’ pleas and desist from forcibly dispersing the human barricade now ongoing at Kasibu.”
“We fear for the safety of the communities who are peacefully assembling and merely exercising a legitimate right to protest,” he said.