MANILA — Highlighting the recent mining-related disaster in Itogon, Benguet, an environmental activist testified about the mining-related human rights violations of President Rodrigo Duterte at the International People’s Tribunal (IPT) held in Brussels, Belgium, Sept. 18.
Under the onslaught of Super Typhoon Ompong, a deadly landslide occurred in Itogon, Benguet, at the sites made more vulnerable by Benguet Corporation’s geologically unstable and abandoned large-scale mine tunnels, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) said. The landslide resulted in the death of at least 43 small-scale miners, with dozens more missing up to now.
Clemente Bautista, international network coordinator of Kalikasan PNE and an expert witness to IPT, said, “Benguet Corporation was compelled to rehabilitate their abandoned mine site in Itogon as part of the 2017 suspension order meted upon them. But the Office of the President stayed the suspension of Benguet Corporation and 27 others who were slapped with mining closure and suspension, despite their unresolved record of environmental violations. This is just one of the many mining crimes perpetrated by Duterte against the people’s right to their lands, resources, and environment.”
Benguet Corporation’s abandoned mine tunnels in Itogon became the site of a sinkhole that swallowed six houses and displaced 166 residents in 2015. A year later, in November 2016, the unrehabilitated mine also figured in a 50,000 metric-ton tailings leak. The government’s Environmental Management Bureau fined Benguet Corporation only “a paltry sum of P24 million, Bautista said. Benguet Corporation is owned by the Romualdezes, a politically prominent clan associated with the Marcoses.
Duterte came to power with the help of his reputed fiery rhetoric against mining. He somewhat cemented it when he appointed as Environmental Secretary Gina Lopez, a known environmentalist. But Lopez was soon rejected by the Commission on Appointments including by Duterte’s allies, some of whom have stakes in mining. There was also a reported strong lobby against Lopez and her mining suspension orders. With Lopez forced out of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Duterte was hit by criticisms regarding his “turnaround towards mining oligarchs”. This ‘turnaround’ includes preventing the implementation of closure and suspension orders, replacing Lopez with a former general and known mining and logging protector, Roy Cimatu, and allowing further expansion of large-scale mining projects in the country.
“If the closure and suspension orders were implemented, it would have helped ease the plight of communities suffering from water pollution, drying up of water sources, and deforestation,” Bautista said. He added that the Itogon disaster might have been averted or lessened in severity if the marching orders to rehabilitate the Antamok mine site and hold Benguet Corp accountable had been implemented.
In its website, Benguet Corporation said they are engaged primarily in mining and mineral exploration. A mining corporation since 1903, they still produce and market gold, silver, nickel ore and limestone. They operate mining projects in Benguet and Zambales provinces. The latter is another province hit hard by Typhoon Ompong through torrential flooding. Benguet Corporation has mining stakes too in other parts of the Philippines. It generates a revenue of more than P2-million per employee. It reported a gross revenue of $1.46 billion as of end-2017.“Will Benguet Corp escape accountability once again because, like Duterte, the Romualdezes who own the company are part of the Marcos coterie?” asked Bautista.
Aside from the mining operations and exploration by the Romualdezes, there have been an increasing number of commercially operating large-scale mines and mineral reservation areas under Duterte, and, as Kalikasan said in the case it filed at the IPT2018, such an expansion in mining activities has come with increasingly violent attacks against anti-mining activists and environmental defenders.
While the environmental activists are testifying against these miners at the IPT, the annual international mining conference organized by the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines is being held in Manila from September 18 to 20.
The IPT jurors, mostly renowned international human rights lawyers from different countries, are expected to announce the verdict September 19 at around 6:00 PM, Central European Standard Time (UTC+1) or around September 20 12:00 AM in the Philippines.