The Alangans: Forest Tribe on the Verge of Mining
By Knut-Erik Helle (text and photos)
The wild rice stands bright green and fresh on Ramil Baldo’s shifting-cultivation field. His mother, Auring Pagong, helps clear the weeds. The Alangan tribe of the Mangyan indigenous population grows sweet potatoes, manioc, beans and a series of fruits in rotation on their shifting-cultivation farms. After about 2 years they let the jungle repossess the field and cultivate a new area after having burned down the vegetation and trees.
“We have always practiced this form of farming. This is where we have grown up, and this is the land we want to pass on to our children. The forest is fruitful here”, Ramil Baldo recounts. “We love this forest”, he adds and continues weeding among the wild rice.
The forest has provided the Alangans with all they need. Rattan and bamboo are used to twine useful plates, baskets, and carrying sacks. Traditionally they also make clothing from the bark and plants they find in the forest. Hunting for boar and forest birds provides meat. Several rivers with chilly, crystal-clear water run through the lush jungle.
An Animated Forest
The indigenous forest population on Mindoro is animist. For them nature is animated by spirits and must be treated with holy respect. The rivers are protected by the god Alulaba. The forest and its diversity of plants are watched over by Kapwambulod.
“Kapwambulod gives life to the diversity of the forest”, Ramil Baldo explained. The indigenous forest people consider themselves a part of the diversity of nature. They believe that disturbing the natural condition of the forest can have serious consequences.
According to the Mangyan tribe, mining operations will be especially detrimental, both spiritually and physically.
“We fear that nature will be disturbed and turn against us. Our harvests can dry up and die. That is what we fear”, Maximo Baldo, Ramil’s father, explained. “Our ancestors have lived here for many generations now. I take care of my father’s grave. His wanted us to take care of the forest. That was his last wish”, Maximo Baldo elaborated.
A Fight for Life
The Baldo family and the other Alangans are facing a fight for their lives to keep the jungle that the indigenous population has lived on for twenty generations. This fight they share with the few indigenous forest populations remaining on the planet. It is a fight for the right to live in balance with nature and maintain their traditions at a time when pressure from modern society around them is increasing.
The Alangans are firmly determined to fight for their rights and the inheritance from their ancestors against the partly Norwegian-owned mining company Crew Minerals.
“No matter what happens, we shall fight for the territory we have inherited. We shall not let anyone destroy our jungle”, Ramil Baldo said firmly.
His father is also worried. “If they proceed with their plans for mining operations, what will happen to us? We didn’t invite them here to our land. They just came”, Maximo Baldo said.
The company Crew Minerals plans to start mining the valuable metal nickel in the forest people’s jungle in 2011. Constantly increasing prices have made nickel highly sought-after, and the metal is used, among other things, to produce steel and other important metal alloys. The mining operation Crew Minerals is planning on the Alangan territory will be an open-cut mine.
After they have removed the topsoil, they will take away approximately 10 m of nickel-containing sediments and transport it to a factory on the coast which will separate out the nickel. The approximately 100 sq. km planned mining area on Mindoro is located in the heart of the indigenous forest population’s jungle. When the mining operations start, the Alangans will have lost the right of disposal of their land and the forest they are dependent on.
The Rich against the Poor
With support from the Catholic church on the Philippines, Ramil Baldo went to Oslo to plead the indigenous population’s case at a meeting with Crew Minerals and investors.
“When we went to Oslo with our message, I saw that everyone was rich. Nevertheless, they are interested in our territory. They still want to take it away from us. What will remain for us if they take our forest?”, Ramil Baldo asked Norwatch. He is extremely concerned about what the future of his people will be like.
“We are poor, and still they wish to destroy the land we have inherited from our ancestors”, he continued and shook his head dejectedly.
Baldo has seen the test drilling now in full swing in the Alangans’ forest. A hundred workers with several drilling rigs are in the process of taking ca 15-m-deep samples from then nickel-containing sediments.
“When I saw that the mining company had started working in the forest, I became frightened. I felt the forest’s own fear. This is not what our ancestors wanted for the forest”, the tribal leader said. “The mining operations will just make rich people richer”, Baldo believes.
Desecrated Burial Sites
In 2000 Crew Development Corporation bought up the Norwegian company Mindex ASA. It was Mindex that applied for a license to test drill for nickel in 1995. Two years later the company received the permissions they needed from the authorities in order to start up. The conflict with the indigenous population came to a head when Mindex took samples in the middle of one of the burial sites where the Alangan ancestors are buried.
“I almost started to cry when I heard that they had desecrated the site. Mining is an industry that does not respect our culture. They should not have desecrated our burial site. We have all been taught to respect our burial sites”, Ramil Baldo recounted.
In accordance with Philippine law, Mindex also had to have permission from the indigenous population involved in the area to start the test drilling. The leaders of the indigenous people placed their thumbprints on the document that gave the company the authorization it needed, but Ramil Baldo claims they were lied to and deceived. “We did not know that it involved an agreement about mining operations. That we only found out afterwards. We object to such trickery and misleading”, he declared.
The same year that Crew bought up Mindex ASA, the company’s camp in the mining area was burned down by the Communist guerrilla, the New People’s Army (NPA). Pablo Ilao, one of the company’s local supporters, was veritably executed. When the police arrived, they were met by an ambush, and several policemen were killed.
The Communist guerrilla on the Philippines dislikes that foreign mining companies withdraw great resources from the country. They believe that the mining operations should be in the hands of the Philippine people and be operated on a smaller scale than the multinational mining companies plan for.
After the bloody assault on the nickel project, Crew utilized the opportunity to accuse its worst local adversary, the anti-mining organization ALAMIN (Alyansa laban sa mina), of having strong connections with the guerrillas. The accusation was put forward by Crew in a letter to former Philippine president Joseph Ejercito Estrada on 12 July 2000.
The Catholic priest and ALAMIN leader Edwin Gariguez questions the accusations. He does, however, believe that Crew has contributed to an increased militarization in the Mangyan people’s area.
Until recently the indigenous tribe that was opposed to the mining project has had a military camp next door to the village’s houses. Several of the indigenous people fled the village, and many of the children in the area stopped attending the school that the Catholic church operates 30 m from the military camp.
“The indigenous population is afraid to be caught in the cross fire if the Communist guerrilla were to attack the soldiers. We can only wonder why the army had to place the camp right where the opposition to the mining operation is strongest among the Alangans”, Edwin Gariguez underscores. The trenches that the soldiers constructed with sandbags face only the village houses. A series of abuses of the Mangyans on Mindoro by the military has previously been documented.
The popular resistance to the mining operations in the Philippines is very strong. The Catholic church in the country is extremely critical, together with a united environmental movement and many who have experienced the consequences of mining operations. The local authorities in several provinces have instituted long moratoriums against any form of mining operation. Despite this, the country’s national government, headed by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, has actively promoted mining operations on the islands with regard to multinational companies and investors.
The Alangans on Mindoro are backed up by the local government in their fight against Crew and the plans for mining operations.
“All senior state officials, mayors, and congress members in this province are against mining operations on Mindoro”, Governor Arnan Panaligan of the Oriental Mindoro province told Norwatch. In 2002 the province introduced a 25-year moratorium against mining operations on the island. They will use this moratorium to stop Crew Minerals. “We are now working to prosecute Crew Minerals for breach of our moratorium against mining operations”, Panaligan related. He is willing to challenge the country’s national government.
“The company will insist that the national government has given permission for test drilling for nickel on Mindoro. We are prepared to go to court and feel certain that we can defend our legislation. We are fighting for our environment and the welfare of the local population here”, the governor established.
The Ministry of Justice on the Philippines claims that the local moratoriums run counter to the country’s constitution. It is up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the local moratoriums are legally valid, which may take many years.
The remaining forest on Mindoro and the unique biodiversity of the species that live there are under great pressure. Many of the species are endemic and are only found on the island. A total of 79 animal species are only found on Mindoro, and 74 plant species also live only there. Many of them are on the international list of endangered species. One of these is the tamarau buffalo, a species of tree frogs, and a special species of owls.
Crew Minerals’ planned mining operation covers approximately a fifth of the remaining forest on Mindoro. The previous deforestation of the island has been catastrophic. In the 1950s the forest covered a million hectares on Mindoro. Today only 50,000 hectares remain for the unique and endemic biodiversity.
The mining area is, moreover, located in the heart of the suggested nature preserve Mangyan Heritage Park and has been designated by the authorities as an area with “extremely high priority” for plants, animals, and birdlife.
The Philippine department of environmental and natural resources has also voiced harsh criticism of Crew Minerals’ mining project.
“How will it benefit the country to be short-sighted and only think about money, when irreparable damage to the environment will cost human life, health, and the livelihood of our farmers and fishermen and threaten the food security of our people”, Heherson Alvarez, former head of the Ministry of the Environment, told the newspaper Philippine Star in 2001 in connection with the temporary withdrawal of Crew’s concession for mining operations. The company regained the concession in 2004.
One of the reasons that the authorities temporarily withdrew Crew’s concession was that the suggested mining area is located in an important watershed for four large rivers that provide the water supply to 70% of the province’s rice fields and fruit tree plantations. The province Oriental Mindoro is the third largest producer of agricultural products on the Philippines. Those opposed to the mining fear that deforestation of the area will lead to further and more destructive floods and, moreover, that erosion and drainage from the mining area will pollute the water.
“The area suggested for mining operations is a watershed, and mining in a watershed is, according to the law, prohibited. If we were to have large-scale mining operations in this area, it would intensify the problem of flooding in our province. That would create great problems for the population and the important agricultural areas here”, Governor Arnan Panaligan claims. Mindoro is known as “Manila’s food supplier”, and large floods can contribute to entire crops being lost.
Mindoro’s neighbouring island, Marinduque, is an example of how destructive mining operations can be. The Canadian mining company Placer Dome made close to a billion dollars by mining copper, silver, and gold on Marinduque. After 16 years of mining operations the poverty-stricken local population is left with an environmental and health catastrophe. Two large rivers are biologically dead, and the population still gets seriously ill because of the poisonous dust that blows down into several villages from the now deserted mining area. Naty Nagutom’s family only just saved themselves when many million tons of poisonous mining tailings rushed down Mogpog River on Marinduque after a dam collapsed in 1993.
“My husband managed to tie our two children to his body with a rope. If it hadn’t been for that rope, they would have been taken by the tailings, which took all our belongings and destroyed our house”, Nagutom related. Two children lost their lives that day in the masses of poisonous tailings. Livestock, crops, and houses were taken by the tailings. Fourteen years later Mogpog River is still biologically dead, and the water is poisoned by heavy metals that cause serious rashes.
“We were almost wiped off the map because of mining operations. We implore all provinces and authorities to refuse mining operations. Don’t let them come. We have lost our livelihood. There are no fish in the river, and our fields are poisoned”, Nagutom warned. Placer Dome left Marinduque without cleaning up after themselves or paying compensation. The court cases for the environmental disaster are still queuing up for the multinational mining company Barrick Gold, which bought up Placer Dome. Despite 16 years of mining operations, Marinduque is still among the poorest of the poor provinces on the Philippines.
Far from the Jungle
The nickel mining project on Mindoro is coordinated at Crew Minerals’ headquarters in Oslo. New reports show that there is 18 percent more nickel than previously believed in the mining area. At full capacity the company expects a production of 60,000 tons nickel yearly.
“Resistance to our mining project is due to lack of information”, Hans Christian Qvist, the managing director, claims. He believes that irresponsible mining operations in the past have coloured the opinion of many on Mindoro. The company will use the time until project up-start in 2011 to provide good information and to show the entire picture.
Qvist is not afraid that local moratoriums against mining operations will stop the project. “Local moratoriums are disallowed by the national government. Previously, we had to have a series of authorisations from local governments, but not any more. Now everything takes place at the national level”, the managing director explains. He believes modern mining operations can be important for the Philippines and a way out of poverty for the country.
“The Philippines possesses 20 percent of the world’s nickel. This can be like the oil has been for Norway”, Qvist believes. According to the managing director, the mining project will provide 2000 jobs at full capacity. The local economic consequences of the mining project will extend far beyond just the jobs, Qvist relates.
“The project will benefit the population of Mindoro: improved infrastructure, water supply, and sanitary conditions; education possibilities; and access to health services and microfinance projects. The Mangyans will get back land areas that are more suitable for agriculture because potentially poisonous cobalt, chrome, and nickel will be separated out of the soil.”
In accordance with Philippine law, 1 percent of the investments in the mining project must be used to support the local population.
Can Stay On
According to Hans Christian Qvist, it is not given that anyone must move from their traditional habitat because of the mining operations. “They can maintain their current life while they have work at the project and schooling for their children. The company will also enter into new agreements with indigenous populations who will be affected by the project. The mining project will also value the environment highly and find solutions for the environmental challenges posed by the project”, Qvist promised.
Whether this is sufficient for the Alangans is another question. They will have limited access to the jungle they are dependent on for their shifting cultivation. To constantly have to change dwelling place within the jungle as the mining operations advance is against their culture. They are not nomads. The essential thing for them is the destructive intervention in the jungle, a destruction that has a deep spiritual meaning. The forest in the mountains of Mindoro is the last bulwark for the Alangans against the modern world that surrounds them. They no longer have another place to go to.
HISTORY: Driven Away by the Conquistadors
Seven hundred years ago the Alangans and the other Mangyan tribes lived along the coast of Mindoro. In the 1600s they were driven up into the mountains by the Spanish conquistadors, who colonized Mindoro and the rest of the Philippines.
On Mindoro the Spaniards attacked villages, ravaged settlements, forced the forest population into Christianity, and robbed them. Three hundred years of suppression and forced labour followed. To struggle against the militarily superior conquistadors was useless for the peace-loving Mangyans.
In 1896 the Filipinos revolted against the Spanish colonial masters with military support from the United States in the Spanish-American War. The Filipinos declared themselves an independent republic in 1898. Just a year later, however, the Americans were granted right of disposition of the Philippines through a treaty entered into in Paris.
Life was no easier for the indigenous forest people on Mindoro under the new colonial masters. The Americans quickly saw the potential of the hardworking and suppressed Mangyans. Many indigenous people were used as cheap labour on the American sugar plantations on Mindoro. Moreover, the Americans established isolated reservations for the Mangyans modelled after the reservations for the indigenous populations in the United States.
After centuries of suppression and exploitation, the inaccessible mountains in the interior of Mindoro became a last bulwark for the indigenous forest population. In recent times their jungle areas have become constantly smaller after devastating logging and pressure from new residents who need agricultural land on the island.
Norwegian Owners of Crew Minerals
Among the 20 largest investors in Crew Minerals ASA there are all of 13 Norwegian companies and funds.
Umoe Unvest AS
A. Wilhelmsen Capital
Aweco Invest AS
Vollvik Invest AS
Mons Holding AS
DNB Nor SMB VPF
First Securities ASA
Loj Holding AS
Terra Vekst VFP
Stiftelsen Statoils Pensjonskasse
Nordea Fondene AS
(Source: Crew Minerals, WWW.CREWMINERALS.NO., 26 August 2007)
(First published in Norwegian 23 Sept 2007 - Folkevett Magazine)