Oceana Gold: History, abuse, mining

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KATRINA STUART SANTIAGO

If I owned a mining company in the Philippines, and my mine was declared closed or suspended by the new leadership of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), I would fight back.

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I would fight back with transparency. After all, I demand it of the DENR audit; I should be able to expect it of my own mine. I would release all information on the operations of the mine, and I would allow the community, scientists and academics, media, government officials, to enter my mines, study my operations, and look at the environment that surrounds it. I would answer questions that have been asked all these years. I would be thankful for those years when the DENR didn’t care enough, and accept that regulation is now the name of the game. I would up and leave.

I wouldn’t operate like it’s business as usual, while the suspension is in place. That would be foolish, when the nation’s eyes are on the mining sector.

But then again, I’m not Oceana Gold which, despite years of protests, countless studies and reports, and now a suspension order, continues to operate in Nueva Vizcaya (Bulatlat.com, 3 March) like it hasn’t done anything wrong at all.

Destroying the environment
Oceana Gold is an Australian-New Zealand company that started operations under the Financial or Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) in 1994, with the government of Fidel V. Ramos. The villagers of Didipio strongly resisted the mine’s intrusion, and with “legal struggles and financial problems” it was only in 2013 that Oceana Gold was “able to ship out its first 5000 tons of copper-gold concentrate” (Nov 2013, GreenLeft Australia).

The 765-hectare open-pit mine of Oceana Gold required the cutting down of thousands of trees and the destruction of a biodiversity corridor in the Sierra Madres (GreenLeft Australia). The open-pit mine replaced the Dinkidi Mountain. Wildlife and sea creatures disappeared, the river was polluted (Sept 2013, PinoyWeekly).

In 2013, it was already found that “mine tailings have been dumped in huge ponds, a mixture of toxic waste, including arsenic, radioactive material, sulphur, mercury and cyanide. The tailing pond has been moved without any review of the leaks into the water supply.” With their water source polluted by Oceana Gold’s mining activities, “Rice fields are filled with silt and the river is the color of sardines. The rice plants are stunted and diseased because of the silt and toxins in the water used for irrigation.” (GreenLeft Australia)

Two years after, in a 2015 scientific assessment by AGHAM, it was found that “the river in Didipio shows elevated heavy metal (copper) and turbidity in Didipio River (below the mine).” According to Australia-based organization Action for Peace and Development in the Philippines (APDP), “Residents report skin irritation after contact with water from the river (Feb 2015, Business Mirror).

It was also found that “Oceana Gold refused to acknowledge or respond to residents’ concerns about the release of sewerage water into the river adjacent to homes in Didipio,” as the mine “requires residents to ‘prove’ its violations” (Business Mirror).

Violence Against the People
Oceana Gold of course knows that proving the mine’s violations requires a huge amount of money, not to mention proper government support, neither of which the people of Didipio have.

After all, mines do best at ensuring the impoverishment of communities they invade. In Didipio, where farmers used to be able to till their own lands and sustain their families with their harvests, Oceana Gold’s intrusion has turned farmers into laborers. Four years ago they earned P50 per hour, as revealed Simeon Ananayao, community relations officer for Oceana Gold (PinoyWeekly).

To make matters worse, “local hires” were paid lower than those from Manila, who are also given benefits (PinoyWeekly). When a local engineer started being active in the workers’ union and speaking against the Oceana Gold management, he and the union president were dismissed from their jobs, in a “clear case of union-busting” (PinoyWeekly). When the workers staged a protest rally, the police promptly dispersed them (GreenLeft Australia).

While big landowners sold their land and left, a majority of Didipio’s villagers were displaced from their homes, to wooden houses outside the mine complex gates. Some landowners charge Oceana gold with cheating, too: “They thought they were signing for a loan and that their land was the collateral. Instead, they were told they had sold the land to the company. The contract was in English, which they didn’t understand.” (PinoyWeekly)

The 2015 investigation found that “residents of Didipio experience the heavy-handed tactics of company lawyers when these residents seek action on OceanaGold’s failure to honor the company’s commitments to buy lots, pay compensation, provide scholarships or offers of employment” (BusinessMirror).

Under the government of Noynoy Aquino, in 2015, environmental protections were removed and the size of Oceana Gold tripled (GreenLeft Australia), it then started exploratory drillings (Business Mirror). Its FTAA covers 37,000 hectares of land (GreenLeft Australia).

And just to drive home the point of how un-regulated, and spoiled! Oceana gold is,“ The company, however, claims a five-year tax exemption under the FTAA, while undergoing a ‘recovery period.’” Yet that year they exceeded their per annum target. (PinoyWeekly) Still no taxes paid.

Justification and basis
In February, Oceana Gold shot back at the DENR suspension saying that it “is unjustified nor has any basis in law” (3 Feb, Manila Standard).

Well, what about the justification and basis in the community itself, in the environmental degradation, the loss of our forests and mountains?

No matter how Oceana Gold spins it, its history is replete with proof of its irresponsibility, investigations on it, protests against it. That is not only enough reason to close it down. It’s also enough reason for Oceana Gold to tone down its arrogance.

Because all that proves is how defensive they are, and that just makes them even more suspicious.

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