The B’laan people are one of 18 Lumad indigenous groups living in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. With a population of around 450,000, they are largely concentrated in the provinces of South Cotabato, Davao del Sur and Sultan Kudarat. Most of them are still engaged in subsistence farming, with corn and rice being the main produce. Originally, the B’laans lived on the fertile plains but were slowly forced to move to the mountains when the government started bringing in majority Cebuanos and Ilonggos from the central Philippine islands during the early 1900s.

Map of South Cotabato. Image from Wikipedia
Map of South Cotabato. Image from Wikipedia

South Cotabato is known as the food basket of Mindanao because of its fertile lands and diverse agricultural products. In 2016, South Cotabato was the third most economically competitive province in the Philippines. The province’s population is a mixture of descendants of Cebuano and Ilonggo settlers from the Visayas area, Moslem peoples, and Lumad peoples belonging to the B’laan, Manobo and T’boli groups.

The province is blessed with bountiful mineral resources. Tampakan town in South Cotabato has one of the largest undeveloped copper and gold deposits in Southeast Asia. A large number of B’laans live in the mountainous parts of the town, and they consider Mount Bulol as a sacred mountain for their tribe. When one visits the town, one is struck by how quiet and serene the municipality is.

Underneath this seemingly peaceful exterior, however, is the fact that Tampakan is the battleground of a war that has raged for decades. 

Checkered past

The Tampakan Copper-Gold Mine Project in the uplands of the town has changed hands several times since exploration in the area commenced. In 1990, the Western Mining Company (WMC) started exploring around the Tampakan highlands after an invitation from the Tampakan Group of Companies, a consortium of small-scale miners based in the province. Their areas of interest were in the ancestral lands of the indigenous B’laan people. In 1995, two months after the enactment of Republic Act 7492, or the Mining Act, WMC was granted a financial and technical assistance agreement (FTAA) by the Philippine government. The FTAA initially covered an area of 99,387 hectares located in four provinces, four municipalities and nine barangays. In line with the provisions of the Mining Act, the FTAA gave WMC the right to explore and commercially exploit, as well as completely own, the land granted to it for 50 years.

Image from Sagittarius Mines
Image from Sagittarius Mines

In 2001, WMC transferred its FTAA to locally-owned Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI). The following year, Australian company Indophil Resources bought shares of the mine project. In 2007, Swiss-based Xstrata Copper gained 62.5% controlling equity interest of the project as well as management of SMI. In 2013, the company Glencore merged with Xstrata, creating the fourth largest natural resources corporation in the world. Glencore Xstrata, as the new company was called, gained control of the Tampakan project as well. In the middle of 2015, however, Glencore Xstrata completed the sale of its interests in the Tampakan project to the local Alcantara group through its subsidiary Alsons Prime Investment Corp. (ACIP), which by then also had controlling interest over Indophil. The sale facilitated the return of the Tampakan project, as well as management of SMI, into Filipino hands.

Public-private partnership

From the onset, the Philippine government has given, and is obliged to give its assistance to ensure the operation of the Tampakan project. The ease by which WMC obtained its FTAA just two months after the legislation of the Mining Act in 1995, despite the lack of consent from the affected B’laan people in the mining site, is a testament to the willingness of the government to give necessary permits to mining companies like the WMC.

In 1997, the La Bugal-B’laan Tribal Association of Columbio, Sultan Kudarat challenged the constitutionality of the Mining Act, asserting that its provisions regarding 100% foreign ownership of land as well as other provisions of the said law are going against the 1987 Philippine Constitution. In 27 January  2004, the Philippine Supreme Court (SC) declared the Mining Act unconstitutional, thereby voiding the FTAA issued to WMC and other foreign mining companies.

Former House Speaker Jose De Venecia, Jr and former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Image from Presidential Museum and Library
Former House Speaker Jose De Venecia, Jr and former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Image from
Presidential Museum and Library

Upon hearing of the SC decision regarding the Mining Act’s unconstitutionality, former House Speaker Jose De Venecia “decided to mount a strong campaign to get the Supreme Court to reverse itself.” De Venecia was speaker of the House of Representatives when the Mining Act was passed. The law’s primary sponsor in 1995 was then-Senator Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was the country’s president when the SC had reversed its own decision in 2004.

The original FTAA text states that the national government must “ensure the timely issuance of necessary permits and similar authorizing documents and lifting of impending regulations or reservations for the use of surface of the contract area.” An apparent case of collusion between the government and SMI resulted in the issuance of the mining company’s environmental compliance certificate (ECC), a document necessary for the mining operations to move from exploration to extraction.

In a feasibility study, SMI shareholder Indophil stated that the only viable and most profitable way for the company to extract copper and gold from the ground was through open pit mining. In response to this, the South Cotabato provincial government passed the Environment Code explicitly banning open-pit mining within the province’s territory in June 2010. Prior to this, several municipal councils had already banned SMI from operating in their areas of jurisdiction. In January 2012, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources denied SMI’s application for an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC), citing the South Cotabato Environmental Code as basis.

No cases were filed by SMI in court to challenge the local Environment Code. Instead, it brought its case to then-President Benigno Aquino III. By 6 July 2012, Aquino issued Executive Order (EO) 79, which gave the national government the authority to decide on the issuance of permits for mining companies. On 4 February 2013, the Office of the President through Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa, Jr. released a memorandum criticizing the DENR for its failure to issue SMI’s ECC and directing it to immediately grant the company’s request. By the end of the month SMI had its ECC.

Former President Noynoy Aquino's Executive Order No. 79.
Former President Noynoy Aquino’s Executive Order No. 79.

In another case of government power and influence wielded to clear the way for these big miners, the three municipal mayors of Kiblawan, Tampakan and Colombio signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) in 2008 with SMI to create Task Force KITACO. The MOA tasked the three municipal governments with recruitment of paramilitary forces into the Citizen’s Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU) to serve as investment defense forces for the Tampakan mine while SMI provides the funds for equipping, training and provisioning of recruits.

Corresponding actions and decisions of SMI, its owners, the national government, and several local government officials has had a profound, and mostly negative, impact on the lives of the B’laan people in the area.

Blood-stained gold

In 1995, WMC was granted its FTAA for the Tampakan project without consulting the B’laan people to be affected by the operation. WMC submitted a list of signatures of people supposedly giving their consent to the project one month after the granting of the FTAA, thus violating the law which stipulates that the FPIC must be acquired by the company prior to the issuance of any mining permit. In addition, many of those who signed lamented the fact that they were not properly informed as to the method WMC will use in extracting mineral resources as well as the possible effects of mining operations on their ancestral lands and ways of life.

The FTAA originally covered over 90,000 hectares of B’laan ancestral lands. If the exploration advances to the extraction phase, the open pit mine will cover 10,000 hectares of land, the size of 17,000 basketball courts in width and a depth of a 160-storey building. 5000 people living in the mine site will have to be resettled, endangering the livelihood and culture of the B’laan people, whose traditions and way of life are intricately connected to the land.

Showing its resolve to claim the ancestral lands of the B’laan for its mining operations, the SMI handpicked representatives from the B’laan people and created resettlement committees that did not represent the majority of the affected people. By early 2012, SMI started posting notices around the mine site that it will start the registration process for those who wish to avail of compensation for resettling outside the mining site. The notice was written in Bisaya, a language not many of the B’laan people understand (aside from the fact that many of the B’laan people do not know how to read). The notice also stipulated that those who do not avail of this registration process will not receive anything from the company. Many of the B’laans did not register for resettlement and instead took action against the company’s resettlement policy.

A meeting with Sagittarius Mine's resettlement committees. Image from Sagittarius Mine
A meeting with Sagittarius Mine’s resettlement committees. Image from Sagittarius Mine

The Philippine Army and the Task Force KITACO set up several military detachments in the area to protect the mine site as well as maintain peace and order in the area. In fact, these military and paramilitary groups supported by SMI routinely targeted the indigenous B’laan for harassment and intimidation.

“The military has become a tool of SMI to force us to agree to the company’s wishes,” attested B’laan leader Minda Dalinan, secretary general of Kaluhhamin (Kahugpongan sa mga Lumad sa Halayong-Habagatang Mindanao or Unity of Indigenous Peoples in Far-Southern Mindanao).

“Instead of protecting us, the military and SMI have blood on their hands. They are responsible for killing many of my people,” she added.

Juvy Capion, an anti-mining activist, was killed by suspected elements of the Philippine Army on October 18, 2012. Contributed photo
Juvy Capion, an anti-mining activist, was killed by suspected elements of the Philippine Army on October 18, 2012. Contributed photo

At least 10 B’laan people have become victims of extrajudicial killings in connection to the SMI-Xstrata mining operation in Tampakan. All of the killings were done allegedly by the Philippine military, the paramilitary CAFGU and Task Force KITACO. On 18 October 2012, Juvy Capion, 27, and her two sons Jordan, 13, and Janjan, 8, were allegedly killed by members of the Philippine Army’s 19th Infantry Battalion (IB) in their house in the Bong Mal community. Juvy, who was pregnant at the time, was the wife of B’laan anti-mining resistance leader Daguil Capion and was also a vocal critic and leader of the movement against the Tampakan project. The army denied that Juvy and her children were victims of extrajudicial killings and instead called the incident a legitimate encounter between state security forces and tagged the Capions as armed resistance fighters.

In another incident, men in uniform shot and killed Fulong Anting Freay, 60, and his son Victor, 16, on 23 August 2013. The elder Freay is a fulong–a tribal chieftain–and is considered one of the most respected elders in the Bong Mal B’laan community. Many of his clan members are involved in the anti-mining resistance movement of the B’laans. One of Freay’s wives is also a sister of Capion. Freay’s body was riddled with 17 bullets while his son received 18.

Indigenous resistance

These violations of indigenous rights, however, have not gone unchallenged.

At the onset, the B’laans have opposed the proposed mining operation in Tampakan. In 1997, 7000 people joined a caravan against the approval of the WMC’s FTAA for the mine project. The La Bulol-B’laan Tribal Association also challenged in court the validity of WMC’s permit as well as the constitutionality of the Mining Act of 1995.

In December 2010, hundreds of B’laans trooped to the national capital of Manila to demand government action regarding the Tampakan mine project in the first Lakbayan of Mindanao Indigenous Peoples. In October 2011, hundreds of people assembled to form Kalgad, an organization of B’laan people living inside the projected mine site. Kalgad members joined the second Lakbayan in December 2011, highlighting their continued resistance to the SMI-Xstrata mining activities. In March 2012, the residents of Bong Mal barricaded all major roads leading to SMI’s campsite as a sign of protest against the company’s plans to resettle the indigenous residents of the area.

In October 2016, about 300 B’laan people again joined the Lakbayan to the capitol to pressure the government to junk the Mining Act and revoke SMI’s mining permit. On 1 December 2016, hundreds of B’laans were camped out in the Mindanao State University campus in General Santos City in protest of the continuing SMI operations.

A B'laan woman (left) joins other Lumad during the Manilakbayan (Journey to Manila) in October 2016. About 500 B'laans joined the protest caravan in Manila, Philipppines to demand justice for abuses committed by Sagittarus Mines, Inc. Mark Ambay III/IPMSDL
A B’laan woman (left) joins other Lumad during the Manilakbayan (Journey to Manila) in October 2016. About 500 B’laans joined the protest caravan in Manila, Philipppines to demand justice for abuses committed by Sagittarus Mines, Inc. Mark Ambay III/IPMSDL

Frustrated with government’s selling out of their ancestral lands Daguil Capion and dozens of B’laan warriors armed themselves and declared a red pangayaw (tribal war) against SMI and government forces for violating the rights of the B’laan people. Capion was a former community relations officer of SMI who became disenchanted with the company after witnessing how the company repeatedly abused his fellow B’laans.

“If SMI or its supporters have been telling the outside world that everything is smooth in the mines development site, that’s not true,” he said in an interview in the same hut where his wife and two children would later die.

Capion and his people were responsible for a series of attacks against SMI facilities and personnel between June and July 2012. This includes the killing of an SMI security consultant and a police escort inside the SMI mining tenement on 20 June 2012. This attack came after another offensive his forces made on June 17 that killed an SMI security guard.

Supporting the call

Church officials, human rights activists, indigenous rights advocates, environmentalists and government officials have also joined the B’laans in the fight against SMI and the Tampakan project. Alliances and organizations such as the Alyansa Tigil Mina, Tampakan Forum, Socskargends Agenda, and Panalipdan Tampakan have been formed to combat SMI and national government policies on mining that adversely affect the B’laans. These alliances also provided much needed support to the Lumad as well as exerted additional pressure on government units and provided machinery for the anti-Tampakan mining campaign.

In 2006, the municipal council of Buluan in Maguindanao province declared its opposition to SMI’s operations. In June 2010, the provincial government of South Cotabato passed its Environment Code that banned open-pit mining within its provincial boundaries, effectively banning SMI’s operations until this Environmental Code was circumvented by the national government. In August 2011, the Matanao municipal council also joined the fight against the Tampakan project by declaring its opposition against SMI’s continued operations. On 30 June 2013, more than 200,000 people had signed a petition to stop the SMI from mining in Tampakan.

In addition, SMI and the Tampakan mine project have also come under fire from the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which in 2013 reiterated its stand against foreign large-scale mining and launched a series of tactical offensives against the company. This has put additional pressure on SMI as well contributed to the violence in the area to a certain extent.

We will kick them out

Due to the strong opposition as well as the legal hurdles that Glencore Xstrata faced in relation to Tampakan, the company gave up its control of the mining project to local company Alsons Prime Investment Corporation (APIC) in mid-2015. Despite the controversies surrounding the project, SMI executives vowed to continue its plans of getting the Tampakan mine project operational by 2018.

The company faces an uphill battle however, as the B’laan people continue to resist the project both legally and with arms. In October 2016, 500 B’laans again marched to the capitol alongside thousands of other Indigenous Peoples in the country to protest the continuing exploration in the Tampakan area, and support for the B’laans and against the mine project has continued to pour in. Additionally, the NPA commitment to drive out large-scale foreign mining companies from Philippine soil stands despite on-going peace negotiations between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), an umbrella organization of which the NPA is a member, and the Philippine government.

Furthermore, opponents of the project have found a new ally in the person of the Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, known as a staunch environmentalist and anti-large scale mining advocate.

“I don’t really like Tampakan at all. There will be no Tampakan mine operations under my term,” Lopez said in an interview.

True to her word, by August 2016 SMI’s ECC was suspended along with several other companies in a nationwide crackdown launched by Lopez against erring mining companies who failed to meet environmental, health and social standards.

Kaluhhamin’s Dalinan lauded Lopez’s move but said this was but a step in the right direction.

“My people have suffered enough because of this project. It is time to kick SMI out of our lands for good,” she asserted.

The original article was first published by the Mindanao Interfaith Institute on Lumad Studies with the support of the European Union and Healing the Hurt project of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines-Northern Mindanao Region.

Mark Ambay III is Research and Information Officer of the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL). He is also associated with KATRIBU National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples and Assert Socio-Economic Initiatives Network of the Philippines. Read more of his work on his blog and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


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