By Harald Eraker
The dramatic developments in the conflict surrounding the Mindoro Nickel Project, formerly wholly owned by the Norwegian company Mindex before it fused with the Canadian Crew, took place on July 4. Early in the morning, a group from the National People's Army (NPA) threatened one of Crew's drivers into driving them in a company car to the Villa Cerveza village. The village lies at the foot of the mountain area where Crew is planning an open-cast nickel and cobolt mine.
Village headman Pablo Ilao, who has been a strong supporter of the nickel project, was then summarily executed, and the guerilla forced the driver to take them to the mine site. Here, Crew staff engaged in prospecting was asked to gather their personal belongings, after which two buildings in the company camp and one vehicle were set on fire.
When the guerillas realised that no-one from the company management were at the mine site, they took various equipment from the camp and withdrew after letting the driver off in Villa Cerveza. However, police driving to the scene to investigate the incident was surprised by a NPA ambush. Eight policemen were killed and five others wounded, among them two civilians, when one of the police cars ran over a landmine and the guerillas opened fire.
After exchanging fire for several hours, the guerillas seized police arms and ammunition and left the scene believing that they had all been killed. However, three policemen and two civilians survived by playing dead.
Philippine newspapers say this was the second major clash between the NPA and police on Mindoro in a week, and that the NPA has not had that much activity on the island for the last decade.
The following day, Crew's country manager in the Philippines, Arne Isberg, sent a letter to Philippine president Joseph E. Estrada. NorWatch has obtained a copy of the letter, in which the company tells about the "alarming incidents" related above. Luckily, he writes, the guerillas were not aware that one of the company's foreign geologists was in fact at the site when the NPA attacked.
In the letter to the president, Isberg writes that the police are unable to deal with the law and order problems on their won, and demands that the government once more deploy military forces that can give the company the protection it needs. According to Isberg, Mindex earlier co-operated with the army's Taskforce Seagull on law and order issues in the area. NorWatch has not been able to learn what was involved this co-operation. According to Isberg, the Taskforce Seagull presence kept the situation on Mindoro calm until what Isberg refers to as the Victoria massacre.
Victoria is the capital of the Victoria municipality, where the company has its 9,700-hectare mining concession. According to Tita de Guzman of ALAMIN, the campaign against the Mindoro Nickel Project, this was what happened during the Victoria massacre: Two drunken soldiers from Taskforce Seagull and one civilian went berserk in a billiard hall, killing seven people aged from 14 to 42 years, and wounding two others by shooting them at point-blank range while they were lying on the floor.
The massacre led to a storm of protest on Mindoro. The country's president, as well as the chief of defense, immediately went to Victoria and ordered Taskforce Seagull out of the area.
Now, Crew is demanding that the military be deployed again to protect the property and activities of the company. People on Mindoro and international support groups fear, however, that this will only increase the militarisation and violence in the area.
Ties to the guerillas
Many are indignant over Arne Isberg's insinuation that the ALAMIN is associated with the guerillas. In his letter to the president, he quotes "well-informed sources" as claiming that the ALAMIN, a "controversial NGO" and a strong opponent of the project, is tied to the NPA. De Guzman writes to NorWAtch that they are "angry and alarmed" over these accusations, but that they will not be cowed by them. "Who is scared, now that Oriental Mindoro (...) is standing strongly together to raise a solid opposition to the Mindoro Nickel Project?", he writes.
One of those who have thrown all their weight behind the opposition to the project plans is provincial governor Rudolfo G. Valencia. As a reply to president Estrada's public support for Crew's project, the governor sent the president a long letter on July 20 this year. The governor demands that the project be shelved on environmental, social, and legal grounds, and asks the president to intervene.
No-one knows for sure what motives the NPA guerillas had for attacking the Crew project on July 4. According to Arne Isberg's letter to the president, their "well-informed" source has said that the guerillas carried out the killings as revenge for the Victoria massacre.
ALAMIN, however, says to NorWatch that local newspapers think the attack was because village headman Ilao was paid by the military to be an informer, and that he had prevented representatives of the indigenous people living in the Crew mining area from taking part in demonstrations against the company.
When NorWatch visited Mindoro last year to examine the nickel project, Ilao's wife said that both she and her husband are supporting Mindex (Crew). The couple was criticised for accepting gifts from the mining company and doing their bidding (see NorWatch 11/99).
Norwatch Newsletter 8/00