Mining: Threat to our Tribes

By Sr. Kathleen Melia

The people of Midsalip, Mindanao, in the Southern Philippines feel threatened by the authorization given to the British and Australian mining giants RTZ-CRA to begin explanatory work on half a million hectares of their land. The bishops and Columban missionaries who work in Mindanao share the concern that the transnational’s quest for profits will destroy ancient people. Their land and their culture.

Gold has always been present in Midsalip. One can see it in the bracelets and earrings of the Subaanen women, in nuggets panned from the rivers, and in the stories of the people. According to the faith of the Suabaanen people, God placed this gift in the land for their well-being. Gold until recently was a benign companion to the enjoyed or admired, or used to buy food or clothes. In 1996 all this changed with the news that CRA-RTZ, the largest mining company in the world, was coming here to mine for gold. It had applied for contracts covering in all 500,000 hectares of Subaanen Ancestral land.

When the Subaanens learned this, they had to face many serious questions: What will happen to us when our mountains are bulldozed, our soil is destroyed, and the graves of our people buried under poisonous rubble? Where will we bathe or fish when our rivers are polluted? When the trees on our mountains are all cleared away, what will happen to the knowledge we have gathered over generations about health care and medicines? Our belians (shamans) carefully gather the roots of forest trees facing the rising sun – is this gift to be lost forever? What about our sacred mountain where God is present to our belians for the enlightenment and guidance of the Subaanen people? Can God ever come close to us again as a people when the place of his presence is destroyed?

The Subaanens talked among themselves. Despite the limitations, the majority are illiterate, they are scattered over many mountain ranges, food is often scarce – they decided to act. They went among the people to have petition letters to the President signed. At great hardship to themselves they went to Pagadian to meet the representatives of CRA–RTZ who had flown in from England and Australia. For some of the rich mining company representatives, the consultation was a ‘show’ to be got on with. For the Subaanens this journey was a sacred undertaking in the interest of the land that is theirs by right from God and from their ancestors. The message of the Subaanens was clear. “We do not want you to mine on our lands” but the representatives from the company showed little concern. In end-of-year statements there will probably never be any mention of real losers – the extinction of a people, or trees and birds and animals, the loss of a unique language and culture, the poisoning of land and air and water. Short term financial profits would seem to be more important than the right of a gentle and beautiful people to continue living in peace and harmony on their ancestral lands.

The following letter from Bishop Zacarias Jimenez of Pagadian in the Philippines was read to shareholders attending the AGM of the mining company in London by Sister Margaret Murphy.

Dear Respected Shareholders,

Greetings of Peace!

For more one year now, thousands of my country people, men and women, have been trying to let your company know that they do not wish them to mine in our lands.

The Subaanen people, indigenous to the area, have made petitions and have spoken out on radio. The Visayan people who have lived in the area for more than 50 years have also made petitions. Both communities have gone to Pagadian to meet with RTZ-CRA and to inform the company that they do not wish them to mine in our lands. Both communities have walked in protest through the streets of Midsalip. My Archbishop and three other Bishops who are concerned about he sovereignty of our country and the lives of our people, have joined with me to appeal to our Government no to sign the contracts with RTZ-CRA. I, myself, have written personally to our President.

It seems until now members of our Government here, along with directors in your company, have not been able to hear our appeal. We Filipinos love our country as you do yours. We love our land, our mountains, our rivers. Our tribal people have lived on the land here for countless generations. The land is sacred to them. They are acquainted with the different species of plants and trees, birds and animals inhabiting the tropical forest here; they have cultivated their land and here they bury their dead. The land is precious to all of us and we want to live here in peace.

Our country has a huge foreign debt so in order to attract foreign investments our leaders made a mining law which greatly favours foreign companies. In our region alone your company has applied fro contracts covering one half million hectares of the land of Filipino people. Our leaders do not seem to take into account the fact that your company’s investment will be for a short time only. For this short time investment our sovereignty as a nation and the future of our people is threatened. Since the company have the right to expatriate all the profits, you, the shareholders, will probably earn some money. However, many of our people here who own lands where all the minerals are will become paupers. Our rivers and seas will become polluted, our mountains will become deserts and our ricelands poisoned, our forests birds and animals will become extinct. The very existence of the Subaanen, a gentle and beautiful people will be put at very high risk.

Because of this, I appeal to you, my brothers and sisters. Please heed the appeal of our people here. Please do not allow ourlands, our rivers, and our mountains to be destroyed. Please do not allow your company to mine in our area.

On behalf of our people, I thank you for giving this your serious attention and for the possible action that you will take to our favour.

With deepest regret,

+Zacarias C. Jimenez, D.D.
Bishop of Pagadian