Battle rages

Town’s fight vs Australian mining project goes to SC

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya — Officials of upland Kasibu town have elevated to the Supreme Court their appeal to stop an Australian mining company from pushing its project there for its supposed failure to get the consent of local communities.

Kasibu Mayor Romeo Tayaban and members of the municipal council on Thursday took their petition to the high court, as the company, now named OceanaGold Philippines Inc., continued what the officials called the “illegal implementation” of its mining permit.

The officials sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) to stop the demolition of villagers’ houses in Barangay Didipio, site of OceanaGold’s planned gold-copper mining project.

OceanaGold, formerly the Australasian Philippines Mining Inc. (APMI), is the transferee of a financial and technical assistance agreement (FTAA) originally granted by the government to Climax Mining Limited, also an Australian company, in 1994.

The 1987 Constitution prohibits foreign companies from exploring, developing and exploiting the country’s mineral resources. This, however, was allowed by the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, through a number of means, including the FTAA.

This writer had sought Ramoncito Gozar, OceanaGold vice president for external affairs and communications, for comment, but he did not take calls to his mobile phone.

Lawyers from the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center Inc., a non-government organization, said they were asking the high court for a TRO or preliminary injunction to prevent the implementation of the FTAA, including the demolition of houses, until the case had been resolved.

“Despite non-consent, the FTAA is still being implemented. Permits are being issued in favor of [OceanaGold]. Didipio residents’ lands are being acquired by the company,” said lawyer Mary Grace Ellen Villanueva.

The project was approved by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and has since begun its predevelopment stage despite failing to get approval from the village council of Didipio and the municipal council of Kasibu.

It started to buy access rights to more than 400 hectares of farmlands and private lots in Didipio to accommodate its proposed production site. Many villagers have agreed to sell their lands while others have rejected the company’s offers.

OceanaGold demolished 14 houses from December 2007 to Jan. 12, even though many of the owners have not yet been fully paid.

Kasibu officials were invoking the Constitution and the Local Government Code of 1991 on the autonomy of local governments, and the need for national agencies to conduct consultations and obtain prior approval from local communities before any project or program could proceed.

In a resolution dated August 7, 2005, the local town council asked the DENR to “issue an order to stop or prevent any and all operations of (OceanaGold) with respect to the Didipio Gold/Copper Project as it results in the unlawful implementation of the FTAA.”

“Since then, respondents have unjustifiably failed to respond to the demand,” the petitioners said.

In early January, a group of residents from the adjacent village of Papaya drove out OceanaGold workers and equipment, as they tried to start drilling activities in the area.

Papaya is covered by the company’s 21,000-hectare FTAA, roughly the combined land area of Quezon City, Makati and Mandaluyong.

The Supreme Court petition assails the ruling of the Regional Trial Court branch 91 that dismissed its December 2006 petition, for the petitioners’ supposed failure to raise their objection before the mines arbitration panel, a body composed of officials from the DENR and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, as provided for by the mining act.

However, the petitioners argued: “This case involves a question of law, which demands the interpretation of pertinent provisions of the Constitution and the Local Government Code of 1991. It is settled that regular courts have jurisdiction to resolve questions of law.”

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