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PHILIPPINES: Once-idyllic island center of debate on mining

by Cyrain CabuenasInquirer (PHIL)
October 19th, 2006

On a clear day, Manicani Island looks imposing, dwarfing the other island villages of this town facing the Pacific Ocean.

In the heart of the island lies its secret: two huge gaping craters carved by heavy machinery.

About an hourlong boat ride from the town proper, Manicani is home to Hinatuan Mining Corp.

For many years, Manicani has served as a haven for people who wanted to commune with nature or check out World War II artifacts.

The island used to be endowed with various species of tropical fish, coral reefs and lush vegetation. These images of serenity and bounty led some people to stay in Manicani for good.

Mauricio Siman, 60, a native of Bohol province, was a third-year mechanical engineering student when he decided to settle in Manicani with his Samare├▒a wife in the late 1960s.

"It was like the promised land," he said. "There was abundant produce in the mountains, the sea was teeming with fish, and the islanders lived like one big happy family."

These days, Siman has no glowing account of Manicani. "The island's balding mountains and depleted marine resources no longer hold any promise," he said.

Hinatuan Mining acquired its mining rights over Manicani Island from Palawan Syndicated Ventures Inc. in January 1991. But due to low metal prices and limited demand of nickel in the world market, it suspended its operations from December 1993 to 1996.

It resumed operations in 1997 and 2001 but was met with protests by some sectors, including the Catholic clergy of the Diocese of Borongan.

In 2002, then-secretary of environment and natural resources Heherson Alvarez created a special team of representatives of the Office of the Undersecretary for Environment and Natural Resources, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau and the Environmental Management Bureau to investigate the impact of the mining operations on the island and to validate complaints of the diocese.

After a week of research, the team reported that the craters posed to threat because they occupied only 5.27 percent of the smallest village and contained no toxic elements.

Manicani Island is part of the Guiuan Protected Seascapes and Landscapes, as declared on Sept. 26, 1994 in Presidential Proclamation No. 469.

From interviews with the inhabitants, the team reported that marine life was greatly damaged by dynamite and cyanide fishing.

They said their samplings showed that siltation and destruction of fish habitats were not caused by mining operations but by other factors, such as natural geological changes.

Carlo Caliwan, 39, president of the Concerned Citizens for Peace and Progress of Manicani Island, said the minerals on the island were God's gifts to the people of Manicani, which they use.

"The Roman Catholic Church of Borongan should give a chance to the mining company to rehabilitate the area before making any judgments," Caliwan said. "We want to get employed by Hinatuan Mining because we can no longer compete with the illegal and big-time fishermen."

Hinatuan Mining president Salvador Zamora II, in a Nov. 10, 2004 letter to then-secretary of environment and natural resources Michael Defensor, said the minerals should be extracted and exported so they would generate jobs and tax revenue.

Zamora had said the company was committed under the mining laws to rehabilitate mined-out areas.

After getting an ore transport permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and approval of Guiuan Mayor Annaliza Gonzales-Kwan, Hinatuan Mining shipped 150,000 tons of nickel ore to Japan staring in January last year.

Bishop Leonardo Medroso, the former bishop of Borongan, and the rest of the local clergy had repeatedly expressed their collective stand against mining in Manicani through circulars to the faithful and letters to government officials.

Medroso had said that only the operators and a few government officials stood to benefit from the mineral deposits.

Hinatuan Mining vice president for operations Federico Ganigan said the mining operations would do more good than harm to the people of Manicani.

"Those who are against us worry only about the environmental hazards, which they claim our company would bring," he said. "But they should know that we have a covenant that we always religiously follow -- to protect the environment and to rehabilitate mined-out areas."

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