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.