Jobs, mines, power, violence

ZAMBALES is not new to mining. Acoje Mining dug for chromite in Sta Cruz for 75 years beginning in the 1930s. In 1934, Benguet Corporation began to extract chromite from the mountains of nearby Masinloc town, and continued doing so for half a century. In San Marcelino town, the Benguet-Dizon firm leveled mountains for gold, easing up only when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991.

These days, there are at least eight mining firms with permits to conduct large-scale mining in Zambales. But they are no longer the only players on the block, and are in fact sometimes even being forced to share mining space with small-scale miners, courtesy of the capitol’s rather haphazard way of issuing its infamous 30-day mining permits.

Then again, it’s not only small-scale miners who have been caught in areas already committed to major mining operations. A3UNA Mining Corporation, a large-scale mining permit holder, has also been accused of straying into the sites of its fellow big companies – and far too many times at that.

This has prompted the usually lax Provincial Mining and Regulatory Board (PMRB) to try reining in A3UNA, albeit with not much success.

“We have issued several cease-and-desist orders against A3UNA,” says a PMRB member, explaining that the orders were prompted by the company’s intrusion into mining areas owned by other groups. Yet every time an inspection team was sent by the capitol to investigate such complaints, says the PMRB member who declines to be named, policemen and soldiers had to act as escorts.

And with reason. Just last October, the firm’s guards traded gunfire with policemen accompanying the province’s Task Force Kalikasan, which was seeking confirmation regarding yet another complaint against A3UNA.

Six months earlier, Filipinas Mining Corporation (FMC) had also written Environment Secretary Lito Atienza, alleging that A3UNA project manager Jaime Lazaro “and a group of about 30 persons including about 12 security guards and personal security detail armed with M16 automatic rifles” had forcibly entered and occupied its site.

Lazaro reportedly said that A3UNA had the right of way on a road being developed by FMC. The tension lasted for days, as both firms kept guards posted on the same site.

In February 2008, men from the army’s 314th Infantry Battalion Mobile Group had to be called in as well just to serve an order for A3UNA to give up 181,000 metric tons of ores deemed to have been extracted from areas committed to or already occupied by other mining firms, “including the tools, equipment and conveyance used in committing the offense.” This was after regional and provincial officials of the environment department, accompanied by the Philippine National Police provincial director and some of his men failed to implement the seizure order the day before.

Just stories?

Policemen and soldiers had to force their way through to take control of the pier, where the ores were piled, after guards employed by A3UNA still refused to let them in. Comments one capitol insider: “I don’t know why A3UNA has the guts to behave like this. Maybe there are powerful people behind it that we don’t know yet.”

A3UNA chairman Scott Ian Uy declined to be interviewed for this story, referring the PCIJ instead to Dennis Marave, the company’s operations supervisor.

Asked about A3UNA’s seeming penchant to resort to force to guard its interests in Zambales, Marave replied by saying that reports portraying the Quezon City-based firm as the perennial aggressor in tiffs over mining sites were merely “media stories.”

When it was pointed out that A3UNA had hired a security firm owned by a recently retired police general, Marave countered that A3UNA’s security personnel had been taunted by a big mining company’s M14-bearing guards for being protected only by paltiks – cheap locally-made guns that are notorious for malfunctioning.

Marave, though, confirmed that an appeal to Malacanang resulted in the nickel ores seized from A3UNA last year to be returned to the company. He also said that A3UNA has “de kampanilya” lawyers to sort out its legal troubles.

Aside from the Manila-based law firm of Defensor, Lantion, Briones, Villamor and Tolentino, A3UNA is being represented by Ablola and Ebarle, which has the chairman of the capitol’s environment committee, Samuel Ablola, as its senior partner. During A3UNA’s February 2008 tussle with the environment department over several tons of ore it allegedly mined from another company’s site, Ablola had in fact stepped in and questioned the order, arguing that A3UNA had not been accorded due process.

Marave also said that his company had taken care to be on almost everyone’s good side. For instance, he said, A3UNA hosted “fiestas” for residents, where the company’s plans were discussed and people’s concerns were addressed. Once the firm had the community’s nod, it moved on to secure the mayor’s permission.

It’s livelihood?
Marave admitted that A3UNA’s first few months of operations relied on the small-scale mining permits it “bought” from locals. But he said the governor had endorsed the arrangement, noting, “It was the governor who gave his supporters the permits. Instead of giving them money, he gave them livelihood.”

He said that A3UNA’s deal with the small mining-permit holders saw the latter earning $2 per ton in “royalty.” When the weather is fine, he continued, a five-hectare mining area could yield as much as 300 tons a day. That translates to $600 per day, more than enough to cover one’s expense in applying for permits.

But troubles seem to keep haunting A3UNA. Last April, the PMRB ruled in favor of two Zambales families that rescinded a 2005 agreement they had with A3UNA for the firm to mine their land for chromite, albeit on a small scale. Apparently, both families were upset to learn that the firm had also applied for a large-scale mining permit that would encompass even their pieces of property.

In its recent decision, the PMRB said that the families’ agreement with A3UNA was a violation of the Small-Scale Mining Act, which, it said, bars side agreements between small- and large-scale miners.

The PMRB ordered A3UNA and another mining firm to leave the area belonging to the two families. It also ordered the confiscation of equipment, vehicles, and mineral ores still there.

A3UNA appealed to the DENR, where the matter is still pending. But according to Marave, his bosses are “fed up.” He said A3UNA is packing up, perhaps for good. PCIJ, 2009