Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume 2, Number 30              September 1 - 7,  2002            Quezon City, Philippines

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Bulatlat.com Special Report ON MINING part II: Mount Diwalwal

Entry of Huge Mining Firm Turns Diwalwal into Powder Keg

(Second of a series)

A local mining firm has been accused of driving out small miners often, it has been further alleged, with the use of goons. But its owners have denied the accusation charging, in addition, a local paper with libel.

By Daisy C. Gonzales and Carlos H. Conde


MOUNT DIWATA, Compostela Valley Province -- Things started to change for the worse in Diwalwal when the big mining company that had rights over the mining area realized that it was losing out big time on Diwalwal's golden opportunities. It had to do something fast to regain control of the area. 

The 729 hectares that encompass the gold-rush site were within the 4,491-hectare exploration permit owned by Marcopper Mining Corp., a mining company partly owned by the Canadian Placer Dome and notorious for the mining disaster it wrought on Marinduque in 1996. The 4,491 hectares are, in turn, within the 184,000-hectare timber license agreement awarded to Picop Resources Inc., once Asia's largest paper mill. 

In 1986, Marcopper applied for a prospecting permit before the then Bureau of Forest Development (BFD), later gobbling up the area that had been claimed by a former mayor of Monkayo. Many contested Marcopper's rights to explore, which was granted in 1988 under Exploration Permit 133. Apex Mining Corp., for one, questioned it all the way to the Supreme Court. 

Marcopper won that fight but the victory was somehow pyrrhic because by then tens of thousands of miners from all over the country had congregated in Diwalwal. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the miners held their ground. The availability of guns proved to be advantageous to them. As one writer said, Marcopper was "forced off the mountain at gun point."

Marcopper did a comeback in 1994, two years after the Supreme Court ruled the rights to explore in its favor.  This time, however, Marcopper transferred its rights, for one peso, to a company called Southeast Mindanao Gold Mining Corporation, in an attempt to remove any vestige of Marcopper's claim of the area. The small miners are convinced, however, that Southeast is owned by Marcopper. After all, its president is Nicanor Escalante, Marcopper's treasurer.

And in an apparent attempt to consolidate Southeast's hold of the area, Southeast entered into a memorandum of agreement with a local mining firm called JB Management and Mining Corp (JBMMC) on Sept. 26, 1995. JBMMC is owned by Joel Brillantes, a former military intelligence operative who is now the town mayor of Monkayo, where Diwalwal is located. Brillantes rose from being a small miner into a multi-millionare. (He says that when he became mayor, he divested his interests in JBMMC to his brother Joselito.)

Picop, meanwhile, petitioned the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to turn its current TLA into an integrated forest management agreement (IFMA), which would have allowed them not only to continue logging the 184,000 hectares under its TLA but mine these as well.

Small miners in Diwalwal considered this move as part of Southeast's alleged machinations to ensure control of Diwalwal, which fell within Picop's TLA. They are convinced that if Southeast, which, according to them, has no legal basis to operate in Diwalwal because Marcopper's permit was nontransferable and that, in the first place, Marcopper failed to comply with its exploration requirements, Picop could get control of the mining area through its TLA. If this TLA is turned into an IFMA, Picop could gain rights to mine the area. Alvarez, however, denied Picop's wishes; this is said to be the cause of the present conflict between Picop president Teodoro Bernardino and the secretary.

According to the nongovernment and Ateneo de Manila-based Environmental Science for Social Change, Bernardino is also a top official of Marcopper. Bernardino is also widely known as having mining interests, through Marcopper, in Marindugue and Negros. Morever, according to ESSC, Picop's vice chairman is Joost Pekelharing who is also Marcopper's chairman.

At any rate, the joint venture of Southeast and JBMMC escalated the violence in Diwalwal. From 1999 to this year, according to Franco Tito, barangay chairman of Diwalwal, close to a hundred miners and residents have been murdered. The smoking of tunnels also became more frequent.

Widely regarded in Diwalwal as the attack dog of Southeast, JBMMC has been accused of harassing the small miners in an attempt to force them out. If Southeast succeeds in doing that, Diwalwal, according to the Mount Diwata Coalition, would be turned into an open-pit mining area while small miners will either be banished or end up as mere laborers.

During Estrada's time, DENR secretary Antonio Cerilles mediated in the conflict between Southeast-JBMMC and the small miners by creating the so-called Cerilles Line that demarcates the 729-hectare area: tunnels controlled by JBMMC on the one hand and tunnels owned by the other miners on the other. But JBMMC allegedly knowingly encroached into the other miners' tunnels, thus setting off conflicts inside and outside the tunnels.

According to DENR documents, investigators from the department's Mines and Geosciences Bureau were routinely refused by JBMMC when they made site inspections to check allegations of poisonous smoke coming from JBMMC's Victory tunnel, which is located at the bottom of Diwalwal. As Tito put it, "smoke can only come from below and below the Australia tunnel is the encroaching Victory tunnel." Because of one such incident, the DENR, in a memorandum dated January 29, 2001, even recommended reprimanding JBMMC for "unsafe acts (emitting smoke from burned rubber) that endanger the lives of the miners working on the upper level."  

Adding to JBMMC's muscle is the military and the police, which are widely regarded as favoring, if not outrightly working for, JBMMC. The former regional director of the PNP, Chief Supt. Eduardo Matillano, never made secret his contempt toward Tito and the other miners. Records from the Commission on Elections also indicated that the military openly campaigned for Brillantes in the last election.  

Hundreds of police and military personnel have been deployed to Diwalwal and the surrounding areas. JBMMC's security forces would oftentimes join the military and the so-called Picop Infantry Battalion (PIB) in their operations. The latest of this was the participation of JBMMC's Black Ninjas in the Army's dispersal of the miners at the Tagmanok Bridge.  

Even the New People's Army, after an investigation, is convinced that JBMMC is behind all this mayhem. In an August 10 statement, the NPA's Roel Agustin II said the "crimes" in Diwalwal pointed to Brillantes and Picop's Bernardino as the culprits.  

Agustin also implicated four supervisors from Southeast-JBMMC's who, the NPA said, headed the smoke poisoning last July 25 using 20 acetylene tanks and rubber tires. "Even a miner named Edgar Vistal who helped the victims was salvaged," the statement said.  

The "ambush" and burning last August 7 of a dump truck owned by JBMMC, in which a child was killed and tossed into the flames, was blamed by the NPA on JBMMC's Black Ninjas. It was a move, the NPA said, meant "to taint with blood" the protest actions going on at the time against Southeast-JBMMC.  

Brillantes has been blamed repeatedly for the violence in Diwalwal and the alleged machinations to boot out the small miners so Southeast could complete its takeover of the area. Brillantes has denied the accusations, even filing libel suits against Tito and the staff of the Sun.Star Davao, which reported Tito's allegations against Brillantes.

"It is already a public knowledge that (Tito) keeps on attacking me as the alleged culprit of the crime which I never committed, and this libelous article indeed seriously tortured me and my family. This could not happen without the willing participation of the reporters and therefore all of them shall be held criminally liable," Brillantes said in his complaint against Tito for alleging that the mayor ordered the most recent smoking.  

Brillantes' actions as mayor, however, only bolstered the suspicion against him. Early this year, he issued a cease and desist order against the small miners, using as a justification the pollution of the Naboc River. He also asked the courts to issue a temporary restraining order against mining. (The judge who heard the petition for a TRO was later on murdered by still unidentified men.) 

Most of Diwalwal's 40,000 residents, however, are convinced that Southeast wants them out so it could have the gold for itself. Erwin, a small miner, says "they really want us out of here." A gay beautician who has been living in Diwalwal since the '80s says he has put up three parlors because of Diwalwal, but now, all that might go for naught "because of Southeast." Bulatlat.com

(Part One: Diwalwal Folk Caught in the Grip of Violence, Greed)

(Next week-- Part Three: Will the DENR's formula for Diwalwal work?) 

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