N. Vizcaya gov’t squeezes Aussie mining firm
BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya–The provincial board on Wednesday continued to add pressure on a foreign company here when it initiated a resolution withdrawing its support to the firm’s gold-copper project over its “blatant” refusal to pay quarry taxes to the local government.
The 13-member Sangguniang Panlalawigan (SP) voted to pass on first reading the resolution filed by board member Edgardo Balgos, which also took to task OceanaGold Philippines, Inc., an Australian firm, for the “unfulfilled promises” as well as human rights violations allegedly committed against the people of Didipio in Kasibu town.
Observers who witnessed Wednesday’s SP deliberations, however, noted that the resolution could be a bluff, an arm-twisting strategy to compel the company to negotiate with the provincial government.
The board’s move came on the heels of a pronouncement by Gov. Luisa Cuaresma on Friday that she was withdrawing her support to the project, including all large-scale mining activities in the province.
During a dialogue with Director Horacio Ramos of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, Cuaresma expressed lament that mining projects being pushed by the national government has caused conflicts among tribes in the province, and that she was taking the blame for the company’s broken promises.
For his part, Balgos slammed OceanaGold for acting like a “tigasin (bullies)” and “treating Didipio as its kingdom” by destroying bridges and roads that were being used by villagers, then preventing them access to areas that used to be public places.
He echoed earlier complaints of the illegal demolition of private houses within the proposed 425-hectare mining site, which were done without the owner’s consent.
Checkpoints set up by the company and manned by its security personnel were being used not to ensure safety of villagers but to harass them, he added.
Balgos said the withdrawal by the SP would put the project in jeopardy for failing to obtain social acceptability required under the Local Government Code of 1991.
Section 27 of the code states that no project or program shall be implemented by government authorities unless prior approval of the local council concerned is obtained.
The local governments of Didipio village and Kasibu town have repeatedly denied their endorsement of the OcenaGold project.
The SP was set to approve the resolution outright on Wednesday without the requisite three readings but members expressed concern as to the possible negative consequences of the resolution on the province should OceanaGold abandon its US$117-million investment.
Sought for comment, OceanaGold officials, however, expressed optimism that the present controversy “will be resolved soon”.
“We are aware of these as a consequence but are still in the opinion that (provincial officials) will come to their senses and respect the FTAA (financial and technical assistance agreement) signed by the Philippine government with OceanaGold,” said Ramoncito Gozar, vice president for communications and external affairs.
The FTAA is one of the means provided by the Mining Act of 1995 by which a foreign company can be allowed to explore, develop and exploit the country’s mineral resources.
Since May 6, Cuaresma and a number of provincial officials have been holding post at the project site in Didipio village, stopping any movement of heavy equipment belonging to OceanaGold and its quarry sub-contractor, Delta Earthmoving Corp.
The provincial government is attempting to collect some P30 million in sand and gravel taxes, invoking its authority to regulate quarrying activities within its territory, as granted by the local government code. It also said Delta was operating without a business permit.
On April 9, Cuaresma issued a cease-and-desist order, which OceanaGold and Delta refused to honor, citing the pronouncement of Environment Secretary Lito Atienza.
In a letter, Atienza told the governor that OceanaGold need not pay quarry taxes because it was exempt under the FTAA it has entered into with the Philippine government.