Elusive justice

WHEN THE Marinduque Council for Environmental Concerns (MACEC) received notice in 2007 that the case filed by the province of Marinduque against Placer Dome Inc. and Barrick Gold in the U.S. state of Nevada had been dismissed, MACEC executive secretary Miguel Magalang almost did not want to release the news.

Baka bumagsak ang morale ng buong anti-mining movement (The whole anti-mining movement might lose its morale),” he explains.

Since 1996, two criminal cases have been filed against officials of Marcopper Mining Corporation and its Canadian investor Placer Dome, Inc. Both corporations have also been slapped with two civil cases. All of these cases were filed in the Philippines.

In 2005, however, the Marinduque provincial government decided to change tactics and pursued its claims against Placer Dome in a U.S. court, with 13 causes of action including violations of several Philippine laws, breaches of contract, and promissory estoppel (which assumes that one party wrongly or falsely made a promise to another party that caused the latter an economic loss).

MOGPOG resident Milagros Muhi recalls how her family got a measly P1,000 as compensation for the damage caused by the flood when the Maguila-Guila siltation dam burst in 1993. [photo by Karol Ilagan]

The case against Canadian company Placer Dome was filed in the United States based on the “long arms statute,” which gives a local state court jurisdiction over an out-of-state company. Placer Dome has had extensive presence in Nevada since 1959; this means it has enjoyed the privileges and benefits of the state’s laws, and therefore fall’s under the state’s jurisdiction.

Kumbaga, puwede kitang habulin (I can run after you, in other words),” says Eleuterio Raza Jr., majority leader of Marinduque’s Sangguniang Panlalawigan. “Even if you had operations in the Philippines and violated Philippine law, but if you operate…in Nevada, you have a presence (there). And what you did in another country, you can be tried for that (there).”

In January 2006, Barrick Gold Corporation, another Canadian mining giant, acquired 91 percent of Placer Dome’s shares. Six months later, Nevada District Court presiding judge Brian Sandoval granted the motion of the province of Marinduque that Barrick Gold be joined as a defendant in the civil case filed originally against Placer Dome.

A year later, Sandoval dismissed the case, not because it lacked merit, but because the court did not consider itself the right forum to resolve a dispute between a Philippine government unit and a Canadian multinational company. The Marinduque provincial government was given the options to file the case either in the Philippines or in Canada, but the Sangguniang Panlalawigan had reservations regarding these.

For one, reasons Raza, Barrick Gold might be given “home court advantage” if it is sued in its home country. For another, says the Marinduque provincial board member, cases filed in the Philippines have been barely inching forward.

“The judicial process in our country is discouraging,” he says. “Previous cases had not been moving in the last 10 years so we thought of adding pressure to Placer Dome.”

“We foresee that we can never get justice in our country,“ adds Allan Nepomuceno, another provincial board member. “Nawalan na kami ng kumpiyansa sa justice system natin (We’ve lost confidence in our justice system).”

Diamond McCarthy, the U.S. law firm that took on Marinduque’s case on contingency, has already filed an appeal in the Nevada appellate court. The amount of damage claim is not determined. Marinduque’s provincial board members say the damage their province suffers is unquantifiable, but that they would let the court to decide a just amount.

“This is a tough battle, but we’re not losing our hope,” says Raza. “(If) worse comes to worst, we (will) file the case in Canada.”

In fairness, Marcopper did set up an Environmental Guarantee Fund (EGF) Committee to oversee the fund’s dispensation, most of which was allotted as damage compensation. So far, the EGF has paid 5,318 claimants from Boac a total of P38,452,929.61. The EGF Assessment Team has also processed 1999-2001 damage claims totalling P37.5 million for Boac and Mogpog residents.

But there are still 5,242 claimants from both towns who have yet to receive from the EGF compensation that amounts to almost P64 million in total.

Mogpog resident Milagros Muhi also remembers receiving P1,000 after the 1993 flood in her town, and says that other families received the same amount. Still, she quips, “Ay, sapat na ba ‘yon (What, is that enough)?”

A class suit filed by Mogpog residents in 2001 against Marcopper is seeking more than P41 million in damages. The municipal governments of Boac and Sta. Cruz, meanwhile, want about P1.2 billion and P500 million respectively from Marcopper and Placer Dome officials.

The Calancan Bay Fisherfolk Federation (CBFF) also filed a P49.2-billion class suit against Marcopper in 2001. Of the CBFF’s 170 members at the time, five are now dead.

Marami pa rin doon ang hindi malusog ang katawan, may sakit sa balat pero hindi naman kami makapagpasuri sa duktor dahil walang perang magamit (Many have become undernourished, with skin diseases, but we don’t have the money to see the doctor),” says CBFF head Paciano Rodelas. Yet, he says, he is willing to wait for justice to be served.

Lawyer Ronaldo Gutierrez, who is representing the CBFF in the case, says he’s in it for the long haul, too. “We anticipate this,” he says. “Law takes a while. Assuming that there is a fair judicial system, we could get our day in court.”

“Who am I to be impatient?” Gutierrez also asks. “All these people I’m representing have been waiting much longer.”