Citrus farmers restive over mining project
First posted 02:42am (Mla time) Mar 15, 2006
KALANGUYA farmer Palma Rafael was teary-eyed as he watched his orchard bulldozed to the ground, his flowering citrus trees flattened.
His chest ached, realizing that the land he had toiled for nearly 30 years in the mountain village of Papaya in Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya, was going to be lost forever.
His plea that the earth-moving activities be stopped was drowned by the engine's roar. Through gestures, he protested to a Chinese supervising the work. The man simply gestured back, which, to Rafael, meant: "It's OK, I'll give you money. I'll give you money."
Rafael, 50, known in the village as "Pa-ay," has realized he had made a terrible mistake. About three weeks ago, he agreed to sell his rights over his seven-hectare property, including 649 citrus trees, to operators of a magnetite mining project.
His "oma" or orchard is part of a 20-hectare forest zone that is now covered by a small-scale mining permit issued by the provincial government in January to Agbiag Mining and Development Corp.
Agbiag Mining has forged a deal with the Namnama Cabinuangan Magnetite Small Scale Miners Association, which is composed of local villagers, supposedly for the latter to provide labor for its operations to extract iron ore deposits.
It also committed to buy the iron ore at P50 per cubic meter—half of which would supposedly go to Rafael, and the other half, to Namnama.
"Agbiag" is an Ilocano word meaning "to live;" "namnama," also an Ilocano word, means "hope." But for a group that has since stood against the project, the Agbiag-Namnama magnetite venture is full of irony.
The magnetite project will serve as a litmus test on the ability of government to introduce what it claims to be "sustainable mining" in mineral-rich areas in the province, while maintaining ecological and social balance in the affected communities.
But for members of the Malabing Valley Multi-Purpose Cooperative Inc. (MVMPCI), an organization of citrus farmers from six of 30 villages of Kasibu in Malabing Valley, the project portents the death of the thriving industry of Nueva Vizcaya, touted as the "Citrus Capital" of the country.
The 17,000-hectare valley is the biggest producer of citrus fruits in the Philippines, with a daily average output of 20 tons during the six-month harvest season, or 9 million kilograms a year. It is host to about 150,000 fruiting trees and provides livelihood to about 1,000 tribal families, records showed.
Malabing Valley farmers produce the sweet Vizcaya oranges: Satzuma seedless, Hamlin, Poncan, Washington Navel, Clementine, Valencia and California varieties. There are also the juicy Red Chandler and Davao pomelo varieties.
Perfecto Sison Jr., MVMPCI general manager, says the citrus farmers are restive as they strongly believe that the Agbiag mining project will deplete the already scarce irrigation supply of rice fields and citrus orchards in the valley.
He says the mining area threatens to destroy the watershed forest that supplies the Malong, Alumadin and Pahduan rivers in Papaya, all tributaries of the Malabing River.
"The siltation that this project will cause on the rivers will kill our livelihood, especially now that we see that the mountain is being dug up, with the loose earth just waiting to be eroded," says Sison.
There are no safety measures being put in place, he adds.
Rafael sought the MVMPCI's help as he believed he could no longer trust local officials who persistently wooed him to agree to the project.
He was promised P3.4 million as compensation for his land and the citrus trees that would be destroyed by the project. The money would be handed to him before miners would even touch the ground, he was told.
According to Sison, Rafael has been shortchanged because had he waited, his 649 citrus trees could have produced about 39,000 kg of fruits in one harvest season, or earned for him about P1.3 million at P35 a kg.
The estimated P6.8 million that Rafael could have earned over a period of five years is far greater than the P3.2 million that the company had supposedly promised him, Sison says. Melanie Rafael-Chengay, 26, Rafael's second of 10 children, says her father had to sign documents because he was prevailed upon by local officials who were pushing the project.
Unschooled, Rafael admits he did not know what the documents were, except that he was supposedly assured that these would facilitate the payment of his millions.
But more than two weeks after heavy equipment started clearing the land, he has not received even a single peso.
Villagers say Namnama was hastily organized purposely for the Agbiag project to comply with requirements of Republic Act No. 7076 or the Small-Scale Mining Act of 1991. Under the law, the government, through the local governments, grants small-scale mining contracts to people's organizations, intended to provide livelihood to local residents.
But villagers insist that no honest-to-goodness consultation was conducted for the mining project.
Mercy Agustin, a farmer, says village officials and mining proponents did not explain fully to the people the advantages and disadvantages of the project, except that the company would supposedly improve the roads, build bridges, bring in electricity, put up a hospital, and provide jobs for residents.
What has also puzzled residents is that three weeks after Agbiag started operations, those who the company previously enlisted in a massive recruitment activity are still awaiting deployment.
"Many of the people are convinced about the project because of the promise of jobs. They are now starting to feel uneasy because they see that machines have been doing all the work. They just go to the site and watch," Agustin says.
Residents, she adds, are likewise baffled over the presence of two Chinese who watch over the daily operations. MVMPCI officers suspect that Agbiag Mining and Namnama were just used as dummies for the mining operation of a foreign company.
The Inquirer tried to reach Tresmedo Tabrilla, Agbiag's mining engineer for comment, but he would not take calls made on his mobile phone.
But in a text message, Tabrilla says the company has a complete set of documents allowing them to operate the project.
Officials of the provincial small-scale mining and regulatory board (PSMRB) say Agbiag was granted a small-scale mining permit after it complied with all the requirements, including endorsement from local communities.
Vice Gov. Jose Gambito, PSMRB chair, says the operator's use of heavy equipment for ore extraction was "only to approximate the possible volume of reserve for the consideration of the financiers."
Gambito says it is difficult to judge at this stage of the operation whether the company has complied with its duty to provide mitigating measures for the project.
Under an agreement forged between Agbiag Mining and the PSMRB, the company is committed to "develop passable all-weather mining road network that will be needed by the other local users."
However, the same agreement also authorizes the company "to regulate the use of the road or prevent the use thereof by any individual, person, private corporation or entity."
Gambito, however, says the prohibition on the use of the provincial road was only for ther rival corporations that may have interest in the magnetite ore.
Jerrysal Mangaoang, Cagayan Valley director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, said he, too, was "disillusioned" over recent developments concerning the project.
If the company will not fulfill the things that it promised to do, the project will not prosper and it will die a natural death, Mangaoang said.
But whether or not the project will continue, the fact remains that citrus trees have been felled and the land has already been rendered unsuitable for farming, MVMPCI officials say.
In a huddle, family members are outraged by Rafael's plight.
His nephew Felix, also a citrus farmer, says other villagers have committed themselves for any action they may take against the company.
Amid the discussions, Rafael was silent, looking confused. Up the hill, his 6-year-old son, Lorenzo, clambers up the bulldozer, seemingly in awe but unaware of what the machine had done to his future.