Twin victories: Southeast Asia’s largest open-pit mine derailed as local govt, court take cudgels for people and nature

Dec 16, 2020

Tucked in southern Philippines is the largest undeveloped gold and copper open-pit mining project in Southeast Asia. With an area equivalent to the size of 700 football fields, the Tampakan mining project spells disaster for the region’s watershed systems, biodiversity, forest cover, and agricultural lands. 

The project seemed to have been shelved years ago when a foreign corporation divested from it, after relentless local campaigning by indigenous peoples, the local church, and solidarity groups. But like a sleeping giant, it awoke in 2019. And in 2020, amid the pandemic, it was able to secure crucial permits from the national government that all but ensure its revival. This was, after all, consistent with government statements that mining would be pursued as post-recovery economic strategy. But not so fast.  Policy reversals are so common in the Philippines social movements are no longer taken by surprise — and therefore lose no time in staging a response. 

A local government council, working with solidarity groups that include the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), rescinded its agreement with the company operating the mining project. In its resolution canceling the agreement, the council stated that the project was “disadvantageous to the residents of Tampakan and unduly tied the hands of the local government of Tampakan as parens patriae [parent of the nation] to protect its people and the environment.”

Not long after, a local court threw out a motion to invalidate a local environmental code that bans the open-pit mining method in the province where the project is located. The ruling upheld the legality of the code, citing provisions in the Philippine Constitution, the Local Government Code, and an administrative order of the environment ministry. 

“Mining is a vestige of an extractivist past. The climate crisis and this pandemic, which is caused by industrial encroachment on wild refugia, should set into motion a dramatic transformation of our species’ modus vivendi. We would be foolish to disregard the signals from nature that something is fundamentally wrong with how we live. We must stop valorizing nature for profit,” said Maya Quirino, advocacy coordinator of LRC. LRC works with an indigenous community that opposes the Tampakan project.  

The mining project covers an area of around 10,000 hectares, which includes rainforest and agricultural land that will be cleared for the project.  According to a study by the Environmental Science for Social Change and the World Resources Institute, this clearing “will remove topsoil and destroy wildlife in an area with high unique biodiversity, with over 1,000 floral species and 280 recorded fauna species, of which 30% are endemic to the Philippines, and over 50 species are already under threat of extinction. The excavation itself will break into, disrupt, de-water and degrade the aquifer in the area.”

This back-to-back victory gives solidarity groups and communities reason to hope that rule of law remains a refuge for the defense of the environment. * 

For more information contact:
Maya Quirino
Advocacy Coordinator, Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC)