A major nickel mining project proposed for the mountains of central Mindoro Island was suspended last Friday by the Environmental Secretary of the Philippines due to pressures from protesters. The huge mining operation, projected to cover 11,216.6 hectares, would have a direct impact on the traditional territories of a couple Mangyan societies on Mindoro, the Alangan and Tadyawan peoples, who live directly north of the Buid. The deposit of nickel, believed to be one of the largest in the world, would produce over 100 million tons of ore during a 15 to 20 year period of mining.

The project was formerly owned by Crew Gold, which separated out Crew Mining, subsequently Intex Resources, to develop the Mindoro deposit as its sole asset. A Mangyan representative expressed the opposition of his people to the project in 2007, and he secured a story in the Guardian newspaper about the issue. The opponents have not given up. In fact, the depth of the opposition on Mindoro has been overwhelming, despite the support of the national government, which wants to secure revenues from the development.

The province of Oriental Mindoro passed a moratorium on all large-scale mining in 2002, and 8 out of the 11 municipalities on Occidental Mindoro have also passed resolutions in opposition. About 9,720 hectares of the proposed mining site is located in critical watershed areas.

Despite the widespread opposition, on October 14, Joselito Atienza, Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, issued an Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC) clearing the way for the mining project to begin. He ignored the opposition of the communities, the province, and, of course, the indigenous people who would be most affected. The outcry in the Philippines has been strenuous.

Opponents maintained that the Minister not only ignored, illegally, the moratorium on mining enacted by Oriental Mindoro, but he also did not have the necessary documentation to prove that the mining would not affect a watershed. They charged that he also did not wait for the recommendations by an official EIA Review Committee before issuing his decision. Once the review committee issued its final report, not surprisingly, it recommended that the ECC should be denied.

On November 17, a Tuesday, 25 protesters from Mindoro, mostly Mangyans plus some religious people, environmentalists, and other Mindorenos, began a hunger strike outside Mr. Atienza’s office. The next day he withdrew the mining permit, and the protesters briefly suspended their hunger strike. But they quickly realized he had only issued the suspension for 90 days. They assumed it was a trick and resumed their strike.

Protests spread. In Rome, a small farmer from Mindoro, Jonjon Sarmiento, was attending a conference being held parallel to a general meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). He decided to stage his own hunger strike in support of his colleagues in the Philippines. The owner of 0.044 hectares of land, Sarmiento said, “I am a farmer. I am a youth leader. I am here in Rome. So, I will join my town mates in their hunger strike…”

A congressman in the House of Representatives, Diogenes Osabel, urged that a probe be launched of the governmental ministries involved in making the decision. “What does DENR take the local leaders for, a nobody in their own territory?” he asked. “Is the DENR a broker for the mining firms instead of being a protector of the environment?” A reasonable question for environmental protection agencies worldwide.

Even the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo got into the act by wondering why the environmental minister had issued a permit when the provincial government and local governments on Mindoro had expressed their clear opposition. The president’s press secretary, Cerge Remonde, pointed out that the project would displace about 20,000 people, mostly Mangyans, and it would affect the water, agriculture, and forestry on the island, as well as an important tourist destination.

The Vice Governor of Oriental Mindoro, Estela Aceron, expressed her support for the protesters when they resumed their hunger strike. “We are reiterating our position that mining is not welcome in Mindoro. We expect Secretary Atienza to respect this,” she said. She added that he in effect admitted he had issued the permit in mid-October despite the fact that Intex had not as yet complied with the necessary requirements. She was dismayed that he had issued his order without consulting with any of the local communities or the province. She also said that she was upset by his order of November 18 suspending the ECC temporarily.

The hunger strikers in front of the environmental ministry began to be seriously affected by their lack of food. Over the weekend, two Mangyans were rushed to a hospital as they started to suffer from hypoglycemia. By Thursday of last week, a third protester was also taken to a hospital, ten days after the fast had started. He was having difficulty breathing. Four other protesters refused to go to hospitals.

By Friday last week, November 27, it was all over. Mr. Atienza caved in to the pressure. He temporarily revoked the permit, but without a time limit. He personally handed a copy of his order to the hunger strikers camped outside his office. The Minister admitted that there had been a lapse when the ECC was issued. He appeared to blame subordinate staffers for allowing the permit to be issued despite the fact that the mining proposal included land within a watershed area. They had misled him, he claimed. The reason the revocation is temporary, he said, is that he needs to await the results of an investigation he has initiated before making the cancellation final.

The protesters immediately suspended their news-making hunger strike, and various opposing officials, such as Vice Governor Aceron, issued statements of cautious optimism and thanks to the Minister for making the right decision.