Friday, October 05, 2007

Sibuyan Island, Romblon

My heart seems to skip a beat. My lungs seemed to stop taking in air while I was reading this article. It seems like a scene from a telenovela but what gave this lump in my throat is the stark reality that is before me. Palpable reality.

Things that you read in the paper or hear in 24 oras evening news now seem to pale in comparison to the cold reality when you actually have met these people and your feet have touched their island.

A Murder on Sibuyan Island
By Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan
Vice-Chairman, WWF Philippines

On October 2, at 10am in the morning, a vehicle carrying personnel of Altai Mining Corporation, approached a group of approximately 150 Sibuyanon rallyists protesting against mining activities on the island. Heated words were exchanged. The vehicle driver drew his gun. A shot rang out. The vehicle's engine revved, dragging a man with it, then swerved out of control. A second shot rang out. Armin Marin, municipal councilor from Barangay Espana of the town of San Fernando, fell to the ground, dying.

A civil engineer by training, Armin spent most of his adult life in the service of his island. His first blush with public service was as kagawad of his own barangay, Espana. Then, from 1997 to 2002, he worked with WWF as a community organizer and farm supervisor, overseeing livelihood projects for poor communities in Espana and other barangays in San Fernando's northern sector. As part of his work, he dealt with farmers in the lowlands, the Mangyan Tagabukid communities in the uplands, even carabao loggers involved in illegal activity. It is said that Armin clearly understood how dependent Sibuyanons were on the exceptional ecology that characterized their island home. For him, people came first. He understood that without people's support, conservation would be a losing battle. He was a realist. After his exposure to WWF, Armin continued his service to his island, working with Fundacion Santiago on a project with the Department of Agrarian Reform, as a project supervisor for institutional development and cooperative formation. In 2004, he ran for councilor and lost. He continued his NGO work, and in May 2007, he ran again. This time around, he won. A man as large as life, father of 5 children, he saw Sibuyan evolve, from the time its economy was almost entirely dependent on illegal logging, through the years of out-migration, through the introduction of a conservation ethic. He understood that the solution was not simple. He also understood that unless Sibuyanons took it upon themselves to change things, his island home would vanish, and everything he gave his life to, would be for nothing.

Among the 7,000-odd islands of the Philippines, Sibuyan Island stands out. A 46,000 hectare island in the province of Romblon, one-third of Sibuyan is a protected area. Despite its proximity to Manila, it is one of the more difficult areas to access in the country. Having been separated from the mainland as far back as the last Ice Age, Sibuyan boasts some of the highest endemicity among all the islands of the archipelago. There are plants and animals that you find here, on the slopes of Mount Guiting-Guiting, that are found nowhere else in the world. In 1997, it still had as much as 75% forest cover, as well as the most beautiful and clean rivers. As a key site of the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS), the mountain and its park enjoyed protection under Presidential proclamation. Unfortunately, rare plants and animals do not often make a significant contribution to development in emerging economies. Many traditional products of Sibuyan, e.g., copra, abaca, basketry and a natural varnish drawn from almaciga trees, were replaced by synthetic substitutes and lost their competitiveness, reducing the island to what was described as an economic backwater. Out-migration began and the remittances of overseas workers became its main source of income.

A Dutch embassy officer once described Sibuyan as a microcosm of the Philippines. Everything you saw elsewhere in the country, both good and bad, was found here. It was no surprise, therefore, to see mining land on its shores. In July 2006, the Sanggunian Barangay of Taclobo approved the island's first endorsement of a mining application. Armin, together with many other Sibuyanons drew a line in the sand and the mining debate started.

Through the last twelve months, many things transpired. A consortium of mining companies, called the Sibuyan Nickel Properties Development Corporation Limited (SNPDC), was formed. Among the applicants for mining activity in Sibuyan are Altai Mining, Sun Pacific, All Acacia, San Roque Mining, and Pelican Resources. On the other side of the fence, the Sibuyanons against mining organized rally after rally on the island, feverishly lobbying at government offices and in Congress for support. Local anti-mining groups revealed that mining activity on the island has grown exponentially to the point where, at present, there are thirteen active mining sites surrounding the mountain and its national park. The mining juggernaut churned on, fuelling even greater local opposition. The mining debate rose in decibels.

On August 24, 2007, shortly before Secretary Angelo Reyes left the DENR, he approved five Special Cutting Permits to clear forest land for mining activity on Sibuyan. Clearance was given to cut down an estimated 59,000 trees, making up more or less 4 Million board feet of timber from Sibuyan's lowland dipterocarp natural forests. Some areas approved for cutting, sit barely 100 meters away from the core zone of the protected area. These permits included areas around the headwaters of the Cantingas, Punong and Olango rivers, water sources of Bgy Taclobo and Bgy Espana. In a world facing climate change, where all remaining forest stands provide a major umbilical toward the future, an action as severe as this is simply dysfunctional.

Everything many Sibuyanons had fought for were now going to officially disappear, through a clearance given by the very Department whose mandate it was to sustainably manage this area. The permit was reportedly issued to a consultant of Altai Mining. The proceeds from this sale would once again, leave Sibuyan and bring greater wealth to the mainland. The injustice was palpable, a sense of betrayal filled the air and the mining debate roared.

In late September, Armin Marin and many Sibuyanons, who continued to oppose mining on their island, felt it was time to speak again. On the evening of October 1, a crowd of from 150 to 300 people gathered at Sitio Olangos in Barangay Espana. Their objective was to simply to show the mining company there, that many Sibuyanons in Espana were not in favor of mining. Through the night, many speeches were delivered. The crowd thinned. But with daybreak, it swelled once again. Councilor Marin was there.

At ten in the morning, the Altai Mining vehicle approached the crowd. On board were its driver, a female staff member and two security officers. A witness, standing about 40 meters away, recounts that he heard a first shot. When he turned, he saw Armin being dragged by the jeep, held by the driver's arm. The jeep then seemed to veer out of control. A second shot, and Armin fell.

Other witnesses nearby, narrated that while the driver collared Armin with his left hand, he held a gun to Armin's mouth with his right – which is probably why the jeep veered out of control.

An official of the Philippine government lay dying on the ground. His friend, Ariel, ran up to him. He recounted that there was blood pulsing out of Armin's neck. He wanted to talk to Ariel, but could not, because blood was frothing from his mouth as well. Ariel held his hand, and applied direct pressure on the gaping neck wound. His eyes locked with Armin's and knew that his friend was going to die.

An elected public servant was shot in broad daylight, in full view of more than a hundred witnesses, by a gun-toting employee of a private company who believed that, simply because they had a government permit, they also had the absolute right to clear this ancestral forest, take away the only resources these people have, and forever alter the lives of Sibuyanons who choose to reject this change.

A line must, once again, be drawn in the sand. If sustainable development remains a sincere objective, there is a limit to everything. In the case of mining, what is that limit? It must be defined. And, if government does not have the will to make that definition, communities will. Shall we allow it to get to that? Where are the standards? They must be made public. And all who choose to venture into this business, must be transparent and remain fully accountable to abide by these limits and standards. Companies that fail to comply, must be closed down. This is the rule of law.

Our country is a patchwork of land-use overlaps. Protected areas overlap ancestral domain titles, that in turn, overlap mining claims and watersheds. We have allocated more land than we actually have. This, by its very structure, is a patchwork of conflict. Seeing this, if a mining company does not demonstrate the sincerity and capability to deal equitably, amicably and productively with local communities, it should be closed down and all its permits withdrawn. The promotion of a culture of violence is not in the strategic interest of this nation and goes against the public good. As an artifact of the Dictatorship and our recent political past, this is something we should get rid off. It is simply wrong, and positions our country as a pariah in the greater community of nations. Lasting solutions are founded on fairness, true dialogue and the establishment of mutually beneficial relationships.

Consistent law enforcement and public compliance have been one of our greatest national weaknesses for decades now. Whether in logging, or in fishing, in government contracts, tax collections or simple traffic rules – the story is the same. This must stop. We pay our taxes to ensure peace and order, a stable economy and a predictable future. This is our contract with government. It is the people's right to demand good governance and full delivery. When government calls the shots, government must make things work well. The best laws that are not enforced consistently are not good laws. They are a waste of public funds. They erode, rather than build, our nation.

In a government of the people, by the people and for the people, that is the least we deserve. And, when human life is taken, justice must be served. Although some passengers of the jeep are in police custody, Armin's murderer has escaped. How could this be possible?