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First Posted on Inside Mindanao (www.insidemindanao.com) on February 12, 2008

Tempest brewing in Tampakan, South Cotabato
By Bong S. Sarmiento

TAMPAKAN, SOUTH COTABATO—There's a tempest brewing in Tampakan.

Tampakan, a third class municipality populated by at least 33,011 people, has crept in the national and international consciousness as potentially the biggest source of untapped copper and gold resources in Southeast Asia.

Still lying in the mountains of Tampakan is a massive deposit of copper and gold, confirmed by years of continuing exploration studies.

The massive deposit of copper and gold is pursued by Sagittarius Mines, Inc., a local company that has global mining player Xstrata Copper, based in Brisbane, Australia, as top investor and another Australian firm Indophil Resources NL as its partner.

On January 1, this year, the base camp of Sagittarius in remote Barangay Tablu was attacked. The attack destroyed at least P12 million worth of buildings and office equipment.

Although the Communist Party of the Philippines had admitted responsibility to the New Year's Day incident, the first violent attack on Sagittarius, there have been no reports in the media that the raid has had the support of the B’laan, the indigenous community in the area.

"A significant number of B'laans from the area has joined the raid…a testament to the breakdown of community support to the Tampakan project, " Allan Buenavista, immediate past project manager of Sagittarius, said.

"In reality, there is now a growing discontent among the B'laans (even more among the lowlanders) in the area. What we get outside are pronouncements by [tribal] leaders who are under the payroll of the company," he added.

Mr. Buenavista, who did the initial prospects evaluation for Western Mining in 1991 and went on as one of the founders of Indophil but divested from it last year, said he came out "to tell the people of what’s the real score in the Tampakan project."

He left Sagittarius in February 2007, a month before Xstrata assumed management control of Sagittarius. He was with the Tampakan project when it was revived in 2003.

Datu Neraldo "Dot" Capion, B'laan tribal leader of Bong Mal in Kiblawan, Davao del Sur, confirmed in a separate interview that there were B’laan residents who helped the communist rebels perpetrate the attack, even if they are not regular combatants of the leftist underground movement.

"Some of those who took part in the incident even wore t–shirts marked with the words SMI (Sagittarius Mines, Inc). Some even shouted in the B’laan vernacular," said Mr. Capion, claiming those residents who took part were disgruntled workers of the company.

Kiblawan town is part of the mines development site of Sagittarius, along with Columbio in Sultan Kudarat and Tampakan town.

Mr. Capion believed the communist rebels' attack on the base camp has the support of the community "but not majority of the residents."

"There was a school constructed in our community by the company yet it ceased to function since the roads have not been maintained," Mr. Capion said, adding he has been egging Sagittarius to act on the matter for the sake of the children.

He pointed out that children have been attending class in neighboring villages where they have to walk about seven kilometers.

"If the roads will be rehabilitated and the school opened, our children would just have to walk two kilometers," Mr. Capion said, adding he has brought the matter to Sagittarius but to no avail yet even as he shows optimism it can be addressed through continuous dialogue with company officials.

A source within Sagittarius, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, also said that some of the residents who took part in the raid came from sitio Lam–alis in Barangay Datal Blao in Columbio. Datal Blao is part of the mines development of Sagittarius.

"They were those who were not given regular position [despite working for the company for years]. They were disgruntled because those who were given regular positions came from afar," the source added.

Roy D. Antonio, Sagittarius senior coordinator for corporate affairs, considered the attack on the firm’s facility as a serious security concern even as he asserted the company, which employs the services of an Australian security expert, was unaware that some B'laan residents supported the raid.

"Even the military and the police were surprised by the attack," he said in an interview in General Santos City.

The attack on Sagittarius, according to Gregorio "Ka Roger" Rosal, spokesperson of the Communist Party of the Philippines, had the singular objective of punishing the mining firm for "land grabbing, plunder and environmental destruction in response to a longstanding demand of the people to put a stop to the firm’s operations in the area."

Mr. Rosal said that mining operations in Tampakan have been "vigorously opposed" by the people since the 1990s when these were being conducted by Western Mining.

Diocese of Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez has described the burning of the firm's base camp as "an unfortunate incident and a regrettable means of welcoming 2008."

He asked the firm to abandon the project.

"The Church in general and the Diocese of Marbel in particular never condone any violent means of trying to settle any dispute or differences. But while the Diocese of Marbel condemns the terroristic act against SMI, we are not surprised by the incident," the bishop said.

"We have foreseen this to happen. Previous statements of the Diocese of Marbel cited that the presence of large scale mining would affect our peace and order situation. Any immoral activity breeds social ills," he added.

The diocesan territory includes the cities of Koronadal and General Santos and the provinces of South Cotabato, Sarangani and parts of Sultan Kudarat.

"While we called on our faithful and all sectors to always resort to peaceful means of confrontation, we also urged the Sagittarius management to rethink their presence in the region," Bishop Gutierrez said.

"What other social ills await our people because of Sagittarius’s mining activities? The message is clear. In the spirit of Christian charity, we pray to the mining company, please leave, and our people will have peace," he stressed.

In citing social ills, Bishop Gutierrez recalled the labor dispute last October where workers padlocked several facilities of Sagittarius and barricaded roads leading to the base camp in Barangay Tablu, about three to four hours uphill drive from the town proper.

In October last year, the firm's operation was hampered for about a week when some of the firm’s workers demanded for regularization. They padlocked the firm’s principal office at the down town area and the core farm in another village and barricaded roads leading to the base camp.

For his part, Mr. Antonio of Sagittarius said they have adopted new policies based on the series of consultation meetings held with community-based organizations since September last year.

"More than 600 people have been consulted through this process. We believe that the resultant system is fair and transparent and ensures that all workers are treated equally, without favoritism or discrimination," he added.

Gerardo Laviste, current resident manager of Sagittarius, also belied the company’s support base is waning, saying the company was grateful for the "steadfast support expressed by the stakeholders."

"Since Sagittarius entered the Tampakan project in late 2002, we have taken into consideration the environmental and social aspect of our operations. We are committed to constructive and participative engagement with the project stakeholders and have been guided by mutual respect and concern with the community and the environment," Mr. Laviste said in a press statement.

"Our aim is for this project to provide sustainable development for the host communities and surrounding areas. We believe that the Tampakan project is the single most promising project that could bring lasting socio–economic development to Tampakan," Mr. Laviste added.

Xstrata has the controlling share at Sagittarius at 62.5% starting in March 2007. It bought the option from Indophil Resources NL, which has 32.5% stake. The other partner, Filipino firm Alsons Corp., has agreed to sell its 5% share to Indophil as the project reaches key milestones.

Last December, Xstrata Copper released a new estimate, its first since assuming management responsibility in March, which pegged resources at 2.2 billion tons, up 10% from the last estimate declared in April 2006.

END

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