“All communities in the world will be able to organize, and stop all projects that are against life.”
by DEE AYROSO
MANILA – A recently-concluded international conference held here gave firm footing to environmental activists linking arms across the world to fight the same mining giants – like many Davids coming together to bring down a Goliath.
“This conference gives space to strengthen networks against monsters represented by mining companies,” said Maria Antonia Recinos, a young community journalist from El Salvador.
Recinos was one of at least 140 delegates from 29 countries who gathered at the International People’s Conference on Mining (IPCM), held in Quezon City from July 29 to Aug.1.
Many of the delegates came from formerly colonized countries that now bear witness to the destruction and plunder by mining giants, while some came right from the home base of those big companies. They all shared a common courage, and hope, in their fight to make corporations and governments accountable for environmental crimes.
Although they brought with them grim stories of human rights violations, destruction of communities and ecosystem in their respective countries, the IPCM also served as a well of courage, as the delegates raised each other’s spirit, and strengthened their dedication, as they head back to their own struggles.
“This convergence of various experiences of resistance and struggle, gaining lessons from victories as well as defeats, has brought us inspiration and hope, and has given us steadfast resolve to stop the further onslaught of imperialist mining plunder and greed against the people and the environment,” said Clemente Bautista, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment coordinator, in a media release at the end of the conference.
Voice of victory
Among the “monsters” Recinos referred to is OceanaGold, a Canadian-Australian transnational corporation (TNC), present in her home in Sta. Marta village, Cavañas state in El Salvador.
OceanaGold took over Pacific Rim, a Canadian TNC, whose exploration for gold in El Salvador was revoked by the El Salvadorian government in 2008. In retaliation, OceanaGold sued El Salvador for $301 million.
“Even only in the exploration stage, 20 water systems dried up in the process,” Recinos told Bulatlat.com. As early as 1990, the San Sebastian river in La Union was already contaminated, she said.
This was confirmed in an environmental assessment by the government in 2012, which found cyanide and iron contamination in the San Sebastian river.
In 2008, then El Salvador President Antonio Saca denied all applications for mining permits, in a de facto ban on mining in the country, to protect its water supply. El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Latin America, with more than 6 million population in 21,000 square kilometre of land. A high percentage of its surface water contaminated, caused by decades of metallic mining by big, foreign companies.
OceanaGold sued El Salvador at the World-Bank tribunal, International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (Icsid), initially for its violation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta). It later shifted its grounds for complaint, claiming El Salvador violated its own investment laws.
Recinos said the mining company put up El Dorado Foundation, which funded schools and fiestas, to convince the state to give permission to continue mining. The foundation even offered to give $8,000 a month to her community station, Radio Victoria, to publicize the company. The staff of Radio Victoria firmly rejected it.
Then in 2009, the attacks on the station started.
“The station was robbed,” Recinos said. Electronic equipment at the station were stolen and destroyed.Threatening text and calls against the staff began pouring in. “It’s because Radio Victoria was one of the radio stations informing the people of the impact of OceanaGold,” she said.
“Radio Victoria put microphones on communities, this caused the radio to be chased and threatened by the enterprise,” she said.
By the end of 2009, three activists were murdered: Marcelo Rivera, who was abducted and found dead in June; Ramiro Rivera, who was shot dead on Dec. 20, and Dora Recinos Sorto, eight months pregnant, who was shot dead on Dec. 26.
Recinos said that although she was spared from receiving threats, she felt trauma, “being in a role where people are attacked.” Many of her colleagues received threats, she said. At present, there is still no legislation banning mining in El Salvador, and OceanaGold is still there, waiting to resume operations.
Recinos, however, said their struggle continues. “We are a small country, but big in resistance and hope,” she said.
In the Philippines, OceanaGold is the same TNC whose mining operations in Didipio village, Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya had been confirmed to have caused high levels of copper concentration in Dinaoyan river in the immediate vicinity of the mines.
The company continues to operate, in spite of a recommendation by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights for its withdrawal in the community, after finding it guilty of human rights violations.
‘We have bones too’
“We are an island of gold, floating in a sea of oil, powered by natural gas, but the people are poor,” said Patrick Yepe Loambaia, 48, an indigenous Duna of Lake Kopiago in Hela province, Papua New Guinea, in his presentation at the IPCM.
In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the indigenous landowners face Barrick Gold, the corporation which took over the mining operations of Placer Dome, the same Canadian mining transnational corporation (TNC), accountable for the Marcopper mining disaster in Marinduque in the Philippines.
Lombaia was a former accounts manager of Placer Dome corporation from 1989 to 1995. Now the director of the Papua New Guinea Mining Watch Group Association Inc., Lombaia said he transformed into a human rights advocate after the company accused him of siding with the landowners who sought compensation from the company.
“I decided to quit a good-paying job and stand up for the rights of the people, because government allows companies to dump all toxic waste into the rivers of the country,” he said at the conference.
Landowners refer to the dominantly indigenous peasants who occupy 97 percent of Papua New Guinea’s lands, with only three percent owned by the state, Lombaia said. Eighty percent of PNG’s 7.6 million population live in the rural areas, and depend on the river systems.
“The land is borrowed by the state for the 20 years of mine life, while people live in poverty with the rising cost of living,” he said. “My people heavily rely on the Porgera river, which has lost all economic activity.”
Various groups have also documented grave human rights violations, such as killings, gang rape and torture, committed by Barrick Gold security guards and state forces against the population, who had to resort to scavenging at the mine dump site after loss of livelihood due to the pollution.
In 1996, Lombaia became the executive officer of Porgera River Alluvial Miners’ Association (Prama), which negotiated for compensation from the Porgera Joint Venture (PJV), which Barrick Gold co-owns with the state. The PJV offered 750,000 PNG kina ($300,000), which Prama rejected.
The PNG environment and conservation ministry then ordered the payment of 15.2 million kina ($750,000), but Prama again rejected it because 6 million kina would go to landowners who were not party to the negotiation, and were inserted by the PJV, Lombaia said.
Even as the case was pending, PJV started paying selected landowners, Lombaia said.
The company’s action enraged other landowners, who then stormed Placer Dome’s headquarters.
“We organized ourselves, we armed ourselves to fight the company, to pressure it to stop the payments,” Lombaia said. Four people were shot dead by the police who moved in, and dozens were arrested, including Lombaia. He was detained for six months on arson charges.
At present, Barrick Gold has sold 50 percent of its shares to the Chinese mining company Shinjin, and Lombaia said Prama had filed for a court order to stop its further sales. As for the compensation case, Lombaia said they are set to arrive at an out-of-court settlement this August.
Lombaia was one of the IPCM delegates who visited the community affected by OceanaGold’s mining in Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya, where like in PNG, peasants suffer the same loss of livelihood due to mine tailings contamination in their farms and water.
“The state has responsibility to protect its citizens. The state should look into it, if the citizens are benefiting from the projects, the impact on the surrounding, if its conducive to the people or not,” told Bulatlat.com.
Asked if he was threatened by the company or government in the past 20 years of his struggle, Lombaia told Bulatlat.com: “They have bones, but I also have bones, why should I fear?”
The IPCM delegates broke into interchanging laughter and amazement in the presentation of Benedictine Sister Stella Matutina, of the Defenders and Advocates of Environment, Creation and Patrimony in Mindanao (Panalipdan Mindanao) on July 31.
The feisty Matutina was even able to make light of the trumped-up charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention filed by the state forces against her, Ryan Lariba, another IPCM delegate, and 21 other progressives in Mindanao, in connection with the Lumad evacuation.
“We are also (endangered) species, they’re trying to kill us, you know the loss of biodiversity because there are very few sisters now you can see in the street,” she joked.
The cheery nun included in her presentation a picture of her hand, rust-colored after dipping in the nickel laterite-contaminated water, which she said moved her to tears. The color was hard to wash off, she said, just like the mining giants, which “resurrect” in spite of suffering assault from armed rebels.
“Finding ways how to stop mining, it’s like (suntok) sa buwan, I don’t know how you English that,” she joked again.
In reaction, a delegate asked others at the conference to raise their hands in solidarity with Matutina.
“These are the hands that are with you, and I want to assure you, that we will continue to fight this together. This is what we need to show the world, and this is why we have to stick together,” said Daniel, a delegate from Ghana.
For El Salvadorian Recinos, she said being with other environmentalists, who are also weathering attacks and hardship, makes her feel at home. “I feel like I’m in a community,” she said.