"We are sitting on gold, but where is this gold?" This elegy of an Ibaloy elder in Benguet conveys the contradiction of poverty in a land of abundance.
The Cordillera is endowed with vast mineral resources. In fact, most of the gold and copper the country produces comes from the Cordillera, particularly from Benguet. The Philippines is the worlds second producer of gold (404 pounds per square kilometer), the worlds 3rd in copper (0.75 pounds/square kilometer) and the worlds 6th in Chromite (0.57 pounds/square kilometer).
But while the mining boom of the 1980s enriched many mining corporations, the plight of the Cordillera indigenous peoples a decade after, remains the same. Thus, these people can only ask themselves: "We sit on gold, but where is this gold?"
The Philippine government recently claimed that the mining industry is in crisis, and that if this crisis did not abate, the industry might collapse totally. As a solution to the problem, President Fidel V. Ramos chose to invite foreign mining companies to invest in the countrys failing industry.
Foreign investors were at first hesitant to respond to this invitation, noting that metal production had been on the decline since the 1980s. But with the approval of the new Mining Act of 1995 (Republic Act 7942), many of them saw the privileges that they would be provided with, and thus filed several applications.
The Mining Act of 1995
Republic Act 7942, approved on March 6, 1995, is based on the premise that only foreign investors can cure our ailing mining industry.
This law is seen as one of the catalysts to attain the regimes vision of transforming the country into a newly-industrialized nation by the year 2000. But to indigenous peoples, what does this law mean?
The Cordillera Peoples Alliance has opposed the new Act, noting that it only serves to sell the countrys sovereignty to foreign corporations: "The new Act underlines the Ramos governments brazen disregard for indigenous peoples rights and welfare, as the mineral resources being offered to foreign corporations are mostly located in the territories of indigenous peoples."
The National Council of Churches of the Philippines has also condemned the new law, claiming that it would only lead to the eviction of thousands of indigenous families living in mining areas.
But instead of answering the issues raised against the Act, the government rushed to draft the laws Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR).
Two months after the President approved the Acts IRR, the Mines and Geo-Sciences Division of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) called for a "public hearing" to discuss the draft. But only the Itogon Inter-barangay Association (IIB-A) was invited to represent small scale miners organizations in Benguet.
During the hearing, however, IIB-A was able to reiterate its opposition to the new Act. The group demanded that government first pass an Ancestral Land Law before implementing any Mining Act.
But despite peoples clear opposition to the Act, its IRR was approved by the DENR on 15 August 1995. This seemed like a move meant to please foreign investors, as the approval was done only a few hours before Pres. Ramos left for Australia the country with the most number of pending mining applications.
The Mining Act: Selling-out the Country
Under the worlds present system, the enticement of foreign investors is the primary goal of developing countries. This is the economic goal they choose, the path imposed on them by the World Bank and other foreign multilateral donor agencies, in exchange for aid. But in order to lure these investors, poor governments have to guarantee their profits. Thus, for years, the Philippine government has enacted and implemented laws and policies that only cater to the needs of foreign investors. This holds true for the new mining law.
The new Mining Act fully opens the country to foreign mining firms. While the old mining law provided a 60%:40% control of equity under a leasehold basis60% Philippine owned, 40% foreignthis arrangement was modified by the new Act.
The Act stipulates that under Financial or Technical Assistance Agreements (FTAAs) the contract between the Philippine government and mining firms the mining company, whether foreign or local, can avail of a maximum area of 81,000 hectares of mineral land upon investing US$50 million. Companies can avail of these areas for 25 years, renewable for another 25 years. Worse, mining companies are granted 100% control of equity.
Foreign firms are also given additional incentives that would ensure their profits:
All these strategies are clearly biased toward fully opening up the countrys remaining mineral lands to the exploitation of foreign mining companies.
Destruction of a Land, Eviction of its People
Does the new Mining Act recognize the indigenous peoples inherent rights to their ancestral lands, to economic prosperity and to genuine social development? Does it respect indigenous culture, and the indigenous peoples right to pursue their cultural development? Does it recognize the indigenous peoples political integrity?
The new mining law can only be gauged by confronting it with these questions, and by viewing it within the context of past mining laws.
But all mining laws enacted by former colonizers, past Filipino administrations, and even the present government, have only been used to evict indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands and deprive them of their sources of livelihood.
The Mining Act of 1905, passed by the American Commission, was used by the Americans and their local cohorts to acquire mining claims within the ancestral lands of the Cordillera indigenous peoples. In Benguet, 29 Patented Mining Claims granted in the 1920s seized the mineral resources of the ancestral lands of many Ibaloys and Kankanaeys. The Mining Act of 1935 and the Peoples Small-Scale Mining Act of 1991 only served to punish indigenous people who engaged in gold-panning and other forms of traditional mining.
The Mining Act of 1995 is consistent with these past mining laws. It does not remedy the negative effects of past mining laws on indigenous peoples. Rather, it consolidates or "rationalizes" all these laws in order to ease the eviction of the indigenous people from their lands, facilitate the acquisition of the minerals on these lands by foreign-owned corporations, and pave the way for the destruction of the environment.
The Cordillera indigenous peoples have a long and grim history of experience with big mining corporations. For more than half a century, big mines in the Cordilleras caused widespread environmental, health and social problems. In Itagon, for instance, close to all of the rivers are today dried-up and contaminated by Benguet Corporations open pit mining operations. There, drinking water - and even oxygen in the atmosphere - is a luxury. Ricefields have been abandoned due to the lack of water for irrigation. Health problems naturally abound.
The implementation of the new Mining Act is expected to worsen these problems. Open pit mining is encouraged by this new law, to speed up the profits of the mining firms. But this particular form of mining operations is far more environmentally destructive than any other.
Worse, it violates indigenous peoples rights the Easement Rights granted to mining companies by the government legalizes the eviction of indigenous people from mining areas and gives people no way to assert their rights of ownership over their ancestral lands. Also, the Arbitration method prescribed by the law to resolve disputes merely defines the amount of compensation granted to occupants of lands covered by FTAAs.
The voice of the indigenous people and the local government is also undermined by the new law, since FTAAs will be regulated by the FTAA holder, who will only permit these operations when they are integrated into their over-all mining business.
Seen in these contexts, the Mining Act of 1995 threatens to wipe-out the very existence of the Cordillera indigenous peoples. For the Cordillera peoples, land is the source of lifefrom the land comes the materials needed for their production, and thus, their very sustenance. From the land emanates, and revolves, their collective culture and spiritual life. To destroy their land is to wipe-out this web of life, and the very peoples themselves.