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- We got watches from Mindex

In a phase when Mindex is in dire need of local support for their planned nickel project in Oriental Mindoro, the company has been handing out money and gifts. Politicians at all levels of local authority have received watches, local politicians have had study tours paid for, beauty- and song contests have been sponsored, and journalists have received offers of money to write in favour of the company. Nothing but bribes and violations of the law, say the opponents, while Mindex defend themselves by stating that this is how the Philippino culture is.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.

In a phase when Mindex is in dire need of local support for their planned nickel project in Oriental Mindoro, the company has been handing out money and gifts. Politicians at all levels of local authority have received watches, local politicians have had study tours paid for, beauty- and song contests have been sponsored, and journalists have received offers of money to write in favour of the company. Nothing but bribes and violations of the law, say the opponents, while Mindex defend themselves by stating that this is how the Philippino culture is.

By Harald Eraker

- I received this gold watch as a gift from Mindex in January this year. The same kind of watches were handed out to all municipal politicians here in Victoria, says Luis Castillet, one of 8 elected politicians in the Victoria municipality, and shows his gold coated Citizen watch to NorWatch.

- I too got a watch from the company. I accepted the gift to be able to prove that they are trying to buy support for their project plans, says Edwin A. Gariguez, advisor to the major of Victoria, Alfredo O. Ortega.

The two are not the only ones who have received watches from Mindex. During the visit to Mindoro, NorWatch had it verified that politicians and other centrally positioned individuals at all levels in the province, including the indigenous population, have received watches from the Norwegian company.

The opponents are of the opinion that Mindex is practising bribery of politicians at a stage in the project phase when the company is eager to solicit support for their project. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), presently under preparation by Dames & More, is not only to evaluate whether the project is environmentally sound, but also whether the project is socially acceptable. Therefore, the local authorities at all levels have been asked to sign a statement of endorsement for the project. Many therefore think that the timing of presenting gifts is not a coinsidence. According to lawyers with whom NorWatch spoke, the gifts of watches are in fact against the law. Mindex, the presenter of the gifts, may be prosecuted for bribery, while the politicians may be taken to court for corruption. At the same time, many point to the fact that even though this form of bribery often is well known, the cases rarely end up in the courts due to lack of proof.

Philippino culture
Mindex, on their part, do not deny having presented people with gifts of watches. The fact is confirmed both by the company's local representative in Mindoro, Domingo Bae, and the Country Manager Arne Isberg. However, they deny that this may be seen as bribery.

- These were Christmas presents, and there is a tradition here in the Philippines to give presents at Christmas and birthdays. To us, this is a sign of friendship, says Domingo Bae, who was the one handing over the watches.

- In this country, you have to give presents for Christmas, it is a part of the culture. We have to accept this, it is impossible for us to come here and try to impose Scandinavian norms on the people. Also, these were cheap watches, costing only NOK 300. Corruption is not as dangerous as it seems in this country; it is not possible to buy support, says Arne Isberg in a meeting with NorWatch in Manila.

Isberg adds that local authorities and the population will be given full opportunity to voice their opinion on the nickel project after the EIA has been finished and is circulated for public comment. At the same time, he admits that the more statements of support the company can get in the present phase, the better.

Other people who were confronted by NorWatch with the issue of watches as gifts, were obviously much less confident that everything was alright. During a meeting with some of the members of the provincial parliament of Oriental Mindoro, there was much uneasiness when NorWatch brought up the issue.

- No, no, its not like that - we cannot be bribed. These watches were only Christmas presents. Also, these watches cost only 3000 pesos (about NOK 650). Don't you think we could afford to buy such watches ourselves? said one of the members of parliament, evidently disconcerted.

The issue of the watches has made many people on Mindoro angry, and even made priests take up the issue in their sunday sermons, condemning the gifts as immoral. However, according to the project opponents, this is not the only way that Mindex has tried to buy support.

Free study tours
From May 16th-20th this year, around 20 Barangay leaders (elected leaders of districts within the municipality) from the Victoria municipality) with family members took part in a study tour to Bagiou City. The city, located in the Cordillera mountains in the northern part of the Luzon island, is known as the place to go on a holidays - especially for rich people.

- Most of us are rice farmers, and the idea was that we would visit different agricultural projects to study waste management and use of fertilizers. This was the first time we went on such a field trip. It was organised by our Barangay-federation, but we were told it was free for us, as Mindex paid for the arrangement, says Pablo B. Bulagay, one of the Barangay-leaders who participated in the tour.

- When I heard that the trip was for free, I frankly asked who paid for it. The answer I got was Mindex. In the beginning, I said I would not come, because the Mindex name sounds bad in my ears. Still, at the last minute, I joined in on the trip anyway. But it was of little use to me, says an other Barangay-leader, Honorato P. Sanque.

Mindex says to NorWatch that they only partially financed the trip. However, if the company was hoping that this sponsorship would make these two Barangay-leaders more positively inclined towards the company's plans for a nickel-project, their hope was in vain. After the trip, both Barangays passed resolutions against the project.

Miss Victoria
During the NorWatch visit to Mindoro, constantly new stories about various types of sponsorship in the region kept emerging.

- During last year's city festival in Victoria, I was the leader of the organizing committee. Due to lack of money, I said that we could not afford the annual beauty contest, which we usually arrange during the festival. Therefore I was much surprised to see, during the festival, that a beauty contest was arranged after all. Then, I was told that Mindex had entered as a sponsor for the contest, says Luis Castillet - the same man who earlier showed the gold coated watch that he got from Mindex.

Also, he says that he was recently invited to be a judge in a song contest in Victoria.

- When I handed over the trophies to the winners, I could see that they were all inscribed with the message: "Sponsored by Mindex", Castillet says. NorWatch was also taken to a church in San Teodoro, where a new house for the priest was being built.

- Here, Mindex pays for the cost of labour. And, as you can see, on top of the gate to the churchyard there is a message saying that the gate is sponsored by Domingo Bae, the local representative of Mindex on Mindoro. The priest who accepted the financial support for his house, became unpopular among other people in the church, says the leader of ALAMIN, Evelyn Catcha. She refers to the fact that th church in the Philippines has made a declaration against strip mining altogether.

- People have seen all the good things that follow in the wake of our investments. This is nothing but envy from those who have not been working for us or had a share of the benefits stemming from us, says Isberg in a reply to the allegations that Mindex plays a dirty game.

Debt of gratitude
- What you are telling is an old story. In the Philippines, we have a saying that goes "Utang na loob", which means "debt of gratitude". If you have received gifts or benefits from someone, it is a matter of shame to refuse the donor what he later requests, even though it may imply a personal loss. This is deeply rooted in our culture. Gifts from Mindex to politicians or to the Mangyan elders therefore are particularly binding on the Philippines, says lawyer Vincente Paolo B. Yu at Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center of Manila, which represents the Philippine branch of Friends of the Earth.

The head of Mindex in Manila, however, defends the company's contributions to the local community.

- This is how the entire society works here. They ask us for contributions to festivals and the like. If we don't contribute anything, then they'll be angry at any rate, says Arne Isberg, and shows a letter from the authorities demanding documentation of what social and environmental projects are supported by the company.

- It is not true that the law orders the mining companies to contribute financially to the local communities while engaging in exploration activities and while soliciting the local authorities' support for full mining operations. If the company is granted a licence for such operations, then they have to submit 1% of the revenue for local community development projects, says the lawyer, Yu.

To write in favour of Mindex
According to journalists that NorWatch has spoken with, there are circumstantial evidence that Mindex has employed dishonest methods also when it comes to the media. Earlier this year, the Mindoro Media Bureau was launched in the provincial capital, Calapan City of Oriental Mindoro. According to a press release from the agency, "the MMB is the first PR firm and news agency ever launched in Oriental Mindoro". However, before this press release was sent to the media, the bureau distributed another press release regarding the Mindex project. This was done as early as at the bureau's founding convention. The press release had nothing but very nice things to say about the nickel project.

- We observed how the press release was handed to journalists accompanied by a heap of bank notes. As for myself, I got the press release and more than 1000 pesos on my desk, together with a message that I should get the story on the air on the TV-station for which I work, explains one of the journalists, who wants to be anonymous, because of fear of being blacklisted in press circles.

- I have been working in the media since 1987, but never have I seen so much money around as what the MMB has to spare, adds one of the other journalists.

Both of the journalists think that the distribution of the Mindex press release at the MMB's founding convention signifies that the company is contributing economically to the bureau.

Very silent
When, a few days later, NorWatch showed the press release to the local representative of Mindex, and asked if he knew anything about it, he became very silent. For several minutes he was reading through the press release, then asked where we had gotten it from, before denying any knowledge about it.

- In all the 10 years I have been working for Mindex here in Mindoro, I have been doing all the Public Relations work. For assistance, I get advice from Dames & More, says Domingo Bae, referring to the same company that is conducting the EIA.

Arne Isberg confirms that the company has been approached by the MMB, proposing a draft for an agreement.

- We acknowledge that we do not get enough information about our project through to the people. However, we hesitate to accept hiring the MMB as information consultants. We do not know if it will make other press workers envious, and we are therefore considering hiring consultants from Manila in stead, the Mindex boss says.

Norwatch Newsletter 11/99