Tension is high in this small, wooden house. The T’bolis, an indigenous tribe, filling the room are watching curiously as their tribal leader talks to NGO representatives. Most T’bolis are unfamiliar with Filipino, the national language, yet they know what this is all about. It is about their land, their future. Standing on moist, clay ground, they warm their hands with a cup of native coffee in the cool mountain weather. Unaccustomed to so many new faces, a child eating steamed sweet potatoes hides behind his mother.
1991, a group of a coffee plantation company representatives came to the town. The T’bolis claim the representatives talked about logging and concrete roads. However, they didn’t speak of forest clearing for the plantation. For over a decade, the T’bolis of the small mountain town Barangay Ned in the province of South Cotabato have been fighting the Dawang Coffee Plantation. But this coffee plantation has the legal permit from the state: the Department of Environment and Natural Resources granted it by virtue of an Industrial Forest Management Agreement called “IFMA 22”. Afterwards, the company security guards forced the T’bolis to flee their homes. A child and an elder had died during the flight. The IFMA 22 permit is valid until 2016.
Five years ago, the T’bolis decided to come back, just to discover that the plantation had been enlarged and is now cutting off some of the access roads that lead from village to the school. The T’bolis feel helpless, says Datu Victor Danyan: “The government who is supposed to be protecting us are the ones giving our land away.” Danyan is a T’boli, a tribal leader, is dressed in tubao, a native head scarf and a Che Guevara shirt. He is also the chairperson of the T’boli-Manubo Sdaf Claimants Organization TAMASCO. The organization wants to fight for the T’boli rights to their own land and ancestral domain. To achieve this, the TAMASCO has invited representatives of three NGOs to inform them about their problems. His face is red while he speaks.
For 7 years, without their farms and livelihood, the T’bolis lived in poverty. Mothers bartered their clothes for sugar cane to feed their babies. They finally came home to reclaim their land, amid the threats of the coffee company, their life has not become easier. And coffee turned out not to be the only reason, why investors turn their eyes towards the fields and lands of the T’boli.
In 2007, the governor of South Cotabato, Daisy Avance-Fuentes protested when suddenly several mining companies started coal exploration in different areas of the province. The companies did not have any permits from the local government, nor from the T’boli and Christian residents. The mining company Daguma Agro-Minerals admitted that they had done “surveys”. The goal was to verify the viability of coal deposits.
Two years later, the Department of Energy awarded a coal operation contract to the construction company DMC Construction Equipment Resources Inc. The same Consunji family that owns the coffee plantation. The area that was converted into a mining area has the size of 3000 football fields, it covers boundaries of the provinces Sultan Kudarat and South Cotabato. It also overlaps with the ancestral lands of the T’boli.
The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act gives the indigenous peoples the right to use their lands according to their customs and traditions. But the Philippine Mining Act contradicts the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, mineral resources are owned by the State and that the government can therefore grant mining contracts to companies. This is provided they get a free, prior and informed consent from the claimants of the ancestral domain.
The T’boli are not the only people affected by the new rush for coal in Barangay Ned. An hour ride on muddy mountain paths away from the T’boli town Datal Bonlangan lies the town Kibang, a Christian community who migrated there a few decades ago. The town lies within the area that was declared for mining.
The thick forest that surrounds houses in Kibang makes the air cool and refreshing. Seated in the middle of a long dining table, the beautifully aged wood shines under the fluorescent light. “They say that power supply in the province is not enough. But we use solar energy and this is enough for us. We don’t need the coal.” says Yellen Zata. Zata is the head of the anti-mining group HUKOM. Many in Kibang have since sold their property to mining corporations.
In 2010, Governor Daisy Avance-Fuentes declared a ban on open pit mining to protect the landscape of the province. She vows to continue this ban during her term, which ends in 2016.
President Aquino also signed an order that is supposed to stop new mining. From 2012 on, government agencies are not allowed to issue new mining agreements until new revenue sharing schemes have been designed. But in October, a revision declared national laws superseding local laws. That means that mining companies in the Philippines who got their permits earlier can continue with their operations. It also threatens the open bit ban of Governor Avance-Fuentes.
About three hour ride north from the two small towns of Datal Bonlangon and Kibang lies the the headquarters of the mining company Sagittarius Mines. The company plans to open a new mine right on the spot. With $6 billion, it’s the single largest investment in the Philippines, and promises 9,000 jobs during construction, 2,000 during operation and scholarships to children of company employees. This new mine is the reason why the coal from Barangay Ned is so important. It needs the coal to fuel their operations. In the mine, called the Tampakan project, the Sagittarius Mines company is looking for gold and copper.
The T’bolis and the small Christian community of Barangay Ned could call themselves blessed, with rich soil, making them self sufficient in food. But they also could call themselves cursed. Because it is exactly for those rich resources above and below their soils that companies and investors are threatening their lives and livelihood.