Mining in Mount Pulag

Village folk resist illegal deals,
‘bribes’ for leaders

Summer is upon us, and in a fortnight, it will be Lent. Very soon, hordes of Filipinos, mountaineers, nature-lovers, and entire families will take the traditional trek to Northern Luzon for cooler weather and better scenery. There they will marvel once more at the beauty of Mount Pulag, “the playground of the Gods” of the Ibaloi, that has been visited yet again by Filipino and foreign mining companies.

Our latest report tells of the irregular exploration ventures in Mount Pulag, that layers of laws have firmly declared off-limits to mining and all other “economic activities.”

In 1987, then President Corazon Aquino declared Mount Pulag as a national park. It is the habitat of 33 bird species and a number of rare flora and fauna in danger of facing extinction.

In 1992, when the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) was implemented, Mount Pulag, as well as the Ambuklao-Binga and Upper Agno areas, were covered.

The water source and watershed of the dams in Ifugao, Benguet and Pangasinan, Mount Pulag — the roof of Luzon and the Philippines’s second highest peak — is also home to the indigenous Ibaloi, Kankanaey and Kalanguya communities.

This report was written by Baguio City-based reporters Arthur L. Allad-iw and Harley Palangchao, who received a writing fellowship from the PCIJ after participating in our seminar-workshop on investigative reporting.

BOKOD, BENGUET — As Lakay Felipe Leano recalls it, newly planted rice seedlings in his village in Bobok-Bisal, Bokod had shriveled and died soon after a major Philippine mining firm began exploring for gold and other metals in the area.

YOUNG and old hikers enjoy great moments at the summit of Mount Pulag, the highest peak in Luzon at 2,922 meters above sea level. Many residents from the towns of Bokod and Kabayan, Benguet, which play host to the protected mountain, expressed opposed to any mining activity within the coverage of Mount Pulag National Park. [photo by Harley Palangchao]

The company denied having caused the drying up of a local creek that had helped irrigate Bokod rice fields. But petitions from the likes of Leano, an Otbong village elder, eventually led the local government to stop the firm’s exploration activities.

That was way back in the mid-1970s. When then President Corazon Aquino declared Mount Pulag, which rises above Bokod, a national park in 1987, Leano and company probably thought they had heard the last of mining companies.

They may have been pleased all the more in 1992, when the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act was implemented. After all, the new law mandated that no type of “economic activities” was to be allowed in places covered by NIPAS; included in the system were not only Mount Pulag, but also the Ambuklao-Binga and the Upper Agno areas.

Recently though, residents of Bokod — a bruising three-hour car ride away from Baguio City — have realized that for the spirit of these laws to be respected, public vigilance, as well as keen community interest, are crucial.

Those in Sitio Bobok have already unconditionally rejected one proposal to have mining exploration done there, while residents of neighboring Bolo have made it known to a national government agency that they are against a deal struck between some barangay officials and a mining firm for a similar exploration.

Location map of Bokod, Benguet courtesy of Wikipedia

Yet Bokod residents say they are still on the watch. In fact, those in Bobok and Bolo are urging nearby communities not to let down their guard if Mount Pulag and the rest of Bokod are to remain as free as possible from activities that may harm the area’s ecological balance.

Many Bokod folk apparently consider large-scale mining as one of those ventures. It’s a notion mining companies would obviously contest, but even environment experts tend to agree with Bokod residents.

Threats to ecology

University of the Philippines-Baguio associate professor Celia M. Austria, for one, sees both underground and open pit mining in Bokod as ecological threats. Austria, a biologist who has done research on Mount Pulag, says these could only lead to “the deterioration of the environment (and the) loss of the rich biodiversity in the area, including the medicinal plants utilized by the folk.”

Residents of other towns, meanwhile, say that they, too, would rather have Bokod mine-free. In fact, they want a say in the matter. Explains Norma Mooy, vice president of the Shantahnay People’s Organization of Dalupirip, which is said to be the only barangay in Itogon not adversely affected by mining: “Our (farms) are dependent on the water coming from Bokod and other upper areas.”

Indeed, Mount Pulag and Bokod are major water sources even for lowland areas — just like the rest of the Cordillera region, which serves as watershed cradle of 13 major rivers that flow down to Ilocos, Cagayan, and some parts of Central Luzon. This is largely why colonial and post-colonial governments alike issued policies declaring most of the forest areas in the region as watershed or forest reserve. (see table)

Proclamations Protecting Mount Pulag and Surrounding Areas
Source: DENR-CAR (2008)

Proclamation No. 217 (Central Cordillera Forests Reservation) by Gov. Gen. Henry Stimson of the U.S. colonial government (as amended by Proc. 1758) February 16, 1929 74,631 Various areas of the region, including Mount Pulag and upstream Agno
Proclamation 120 (Upper Agno Watershed Reservation) by Pres. Marcos November 25, 1966 9,700 Atok and Bokod, Benguet
Proclamation No. 548 (Ambuklao-Binga Watershed Forest Reserve) by Pres. Marcos April 19, 1969 6,365 Atok and Bokod, Benguet
Proclamation No. 75 (Mount Pulag National Park) by Pres. Aquino February 20, 1987 11,550 Benguet, Nueva Vizcaya, and Ifugao

Mount Pulag is the water source and watershed as well of the dams in Magat in Ifugao, Ambuklao and Binga in Benguet, and San Roque in Pangasinan.

In 1987, the Mount Pulag National Park was created, covering about 11,500 hectares of public domain that lies on the north and south spine of the Grand Cordillera Central Mountain Ranges. The park straddles parts of Benguet, Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya provinces.

11 mountains in all

One of the oldest settlements in Benguet province, Bokod is inhabited by 11,705 indigenous Ibaloi, Kalanguya, Ikarao, and Ikadasan. With a land area of 396.40 square kilometers, it is the second largest municipality in Benguet. It has 11 mountains, including Mount Pulag, which the indigenous peoples of Bokod consider sacred. (Mount Pulag’s peak rises 2,922 meters above sea level. It is a five- to seven-hour hike from the rangers’ camp in Bokod.)

Mossy forests and old-growth pine trees characterize the area. Bokod folk, however, are particularly fond of kadasan, a native hardwood that grows locally and is used in the foundation of homes here. Wild boar, deer, and the cloud rat can still be found in Bokod forests, especially those in Mount Pulag, along with various other exotic fauna, such as the whiskered pitta (Pitta koctri) and the Luzon water-redstrad (Rhyacomis bicolor) bird species.

Bokod apparently has treasures underground as well. Before a popular outcry shut down its exploration of the area in the mid-1970s, Benguet Consolidated Inc. had drilled more than 100 holes that indicated some 259 million tons of copper, gold, and molybdenum underground in Sitio Bobok alone. Subsequent geological surveys by the government affirmed the existence of valuable metals in Bokod.

Proponents of Proposed Mine Explorations in Bokod
Source: MGB-CAR and NCIP-CAR (2008)

Magellan Metals Inc. EXPA 083 APSA 081 to EXPA 083 approved by MGB-CAR on September 20,2006 Sitios Cobabeng, Mangakew, and Bolo, of Barangay Poblacion, Bokod 973
Columbus Minerals Inc. EXPA 084 APSA 025 to EXPA 084 approved by MGB-CAR on September 20, 2006 Bobok, Bokod 486
Al Magan Exploration Company EXPA 081 APSA 037 to EXPA 081 approved by MGB-CAR on September 20, 2006 Bobok, Bokod 1,377

That precious metals such as gold abound beneath their feet is not exactly news to Bokod natives. Johny Fialen, who was born and raised in this town, estimates that Bokod has some 500 gold panners and small-scale miners. Gold panning has long been done along the Agno River in Benguet, where the year-round activity peaks right after typhoons. Gold panners fear, though, that large-scale mining would make the waters of Agno River sluggish from sedimentation and siltation, thereby threatening their livelihood.

Yet, having successfully stopped mighty Benguet Consolidated in its tracks, and with the protection provided to Bokod and Mount Pulag by a battery of laws and presidential proclamations, residents here were confident that the mining industry’s big boys would not only be kept out, they would also not even try to get a foot in.

And so residents say they were shocked when representatives of not one, but three, companies approached them in 2007, seeking their consent on the firms’ applications for mining explorations in Bokod. Says one resident here: “That was the first time we heard about the applications.”

Thick-faced firms

They were probably even more shocked to find out that two of the companies had apparently gone ahead and were already doing what one government official would later describe as “exploration-related” work without waiting for their response.

Told about this by the PCIJ, Mines and Geosciences Bureau‘s (MGB) Mining Tenements Management Division chief Leo Jasareno expressed surprise and blurted out, “We need to verify that kasi ang kapal naman ng mukha nila (because, boy, are they thick-faced).”

Jasareno said their office had not heard of such activities in Bokod, especially when MGB had yet to issue a permit. He added that if these had in fact been done, the two companies had committed “a crime — a violation of the Mining Act.”

By the time Jasareno was saying this, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples-Cordillera Administrative Region (NCIP-CAR) Director Amador Batay-an had already issued a cease-and-desist order to all the three firms keen on doing explorations in Bokod. Batay-an’s order was in response to a flurry of furious letters the Bokod folk sent to the regional offices of the NCIP and the Commission on Human Rights, as well as to the Sangguniang Panlalawigan.

In a recent interview with the PCIJ, Batay-an said the order was issued to all three companies to ensure that “all exploration activities” at Bokod would stop. According to NCIP-Benguet Legal Officer Severino Manuel Lumiqued, Bokod folk said those activities included surveying and “induced polarization,” which, one MGB regional official later explained, involves the use of specific equipment to determine whether or not there are minerals with pyrite (such as gold and copper) in the area.

‘Exploration permits’

Documents filed at the MGB-CAR office show that Columbus Resources Inc., Magellan Metals Inc., and Al Magan Mining and Exploration Company (AMMEC) had each first filed an Application for Production Sharing Agreement (APSA) for three different sites in Bokod. In 2006, however, these APSAs were converted into applications for exploration permits or EXPAs.

Conversion and Assignment of Mining Rights
Source: MGB-CAR (2008)

APSA 025 (Comedis assigned APSA to Geodata on Oct. 2, 1997) EXPA 084 September 20, 2006 Geodata assigned to Columbus on October 20, 2006 October 23, 2006
APSA 037 EXPA 081 September 20, 2006 Maintained by AMMEC
APSA 081 EXPA 083 September 20, 2006 Bolo assigned to Magellan on October 11, 2006 with royalty agreement October 19, 2006

AMMEC is a Filipino-owned firm headed by Pastor Quinto Jr., who has other pending mining applications in the region. Both Columbus and Magellan, meanwhile, have 99.9-percent foreign equity. Both are also controlled by the Singapore-based Magellan Resources Pte. Ltd.; papers filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) show them as having identical incorporators, directors, and officers as well. Interestingly, too, AMMEC and Columbus gave Magellan the authority to undertake their exploration for them once they secure the permits.

Residents and official documents point to Columbus and Magellan as the companies that had conducted the premature exploration activities. PCIJ tried to schedule interviews with representatives of both companies, as well as of AMMEC, but failed.

In an email response to PCIJ’s request for an interview, Peter Ronald Draper — an incorporator of both Columbus and Magellan and who has filed appeals on behalf of AMMEC with the MGB — said that “there really is nothing to talk about” because there are no mining operations yet in Bokod. He added, “The only field work that has taken place has been community-based.”

Cease-desist order

Still, on April 26, 2007, Magellan President Damien Blyth acknowledged receipt of Batay-an’s April 25 letter “advising us to CEASE and DESIST (sic) from any undertaking relative to our proposed exploration project” in Bokod.

“(We) shall abide with your Order,” added Blyth, “(and) we have suspended all our preliminary activities on the ground.”

Based on a Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) map, the areas targeted for exploration by Magellan, Columbus, and AMMEC are next to each other and lie at the foot of Mount Pulag. Altogether, their EXPAs cover some 2,863 hectares, or about seven percent of the entire land area of Bokod.

Profile of Mining Proponents

(114,750 shares @ P100 per share)
Magellan Metals Inc. Damien Patrick Blyth
Peter Ronal Draper
Dennis Leslie Thomas
Brian Allen Lueck
Valeriano R. Del Rosario (treasurer)
Daphne Ruby Grasparil
Magellan Resources Pte. Ltd.


P11,474,000 1 share
1 share
1 share
1 share
1 share

1 share

Columbus Minerals Inc. Damien Patrick Blyth
Peter Ronal Draper
Dennis Leslie Thomas
Brian Allen Lueck
Valeriano R. Del Rosario (treasurer)
Daphne Ruby Grasparil
Magellan Resources Pte. Ltd.


P11,474,000 1 share
1 share
1 share
1 share
1 share

1 share

Early on, the DENR’s Environmental Management and Protected Areas Services (EMPAS) had reported that the proposed exploration sites of all three firms were entirely within the Ambuklao-Binga Watershed Reservations and the Central Cordillera Forest Reserve. EMPAS pointed out that these reservations are initial components of NIPAS, where mineral locating is not allowed.

Joint appeal

But AMMEC, Columbus, and Magellan filed a joint appeal regarding the status of their targeted sites. By early 2007, Columbus and Magellan were able to secure a go-signal from MGB National Director Horacio C. Ramos for them to continue processing their respective exploration permits.

Up to now, though, AMMEC’s appeal has yet to be acted upon because, says MGB-CAR, the company had not submitted all the documents required for its appeal to be processed.

MGB papers show that Ramos acknowledged that the sites Columbus and Magellan sought to explore were within protected areas. But, he said, both had previously been covered by patentable mining claims and were therefore subject to “prior rights” under the law. Legally, then, the sites could be mined — which meant the two companies could continue processing their exploration permits.

Ramos cited a previous case involving Philex Mining Corporation in which the MGB ruled that “that the applied areas covered by patentable mining claims are deemed excluded from the scope of Presidential Proclamation 2320 (establishing the Lower Agno Watershed Forest Reserve). Said two memorandums stated that the claims have transformed them as Mineral Land since the staking of such patentable mining claims under the Philippine Bill of 1902.”

Mineral land

MGB’s Jasareno explained in an interview with PCIJ that a patentable mining claim essentially turns an area into “mineral land.” He said that the Supreme Court had once proclaimed that “once a mineral land, always a mineral land.”

“Any subsequent proclamation,” said Jasareno, “will not alter the character of that mineral land.” These include laws and proclamations declaring areas as protected sites and which all contain the clause “subject to prior rights.”

Documents show that of the three companies, only AMMEC had an EXPA that could be traced to a pre-1980s mining claim — Benguet Consolidated’s. Bokod residents say Benguet also used to work in areas now covered by the EXPAs of Magellan and Columbus, but papers indicate that Magellan’s EXPA originated from mine applications by Bolo Mineral Resources Inc. dating back to only September 1987. That of Columbus is traceable to an application by Delfin Comedis in March 1992. Be that as it may, this means the NIPAS Act is the only relevant law regarding the character of the land that came after the claims covering the Magellan and Columbus sites.

Columbus and Magellan, however, have also had to contend with the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 (IPRA) because of the presence of several indigenous tribes in Bokod. IPRA stipulates a field-based investigation for projects affecting indigenous communities to ensure that there is no overlap with any ancestral domain claim. If there is an overlap, project proponents would first have to secure the free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of the indigenous people before they can proceed with their venture.

Rejected by residents

According to the NCIP’s Benguet provincial office, the EXPAs of both Columbus and Magellan indeed overlapped with the ancestral domain of the indigenous people of Bokod. It was while their consent was being sought that the various indigenous folk of Bokod learned of the illegal explorations being conducted by Columbus and Magellan.

To date, NCIP-Benguet’s Lumiqued says that “mandatory activities” regarding Magellan’s EXPA have yet to be completed. But many Bolo residents say they have already written to authorities about their opposition to the proposed exploration.

Columbus, meanwhile, has already received the resolution in which Bobok residents unconditionally rejected its exploration project. In the referendum held on December 14, 2007, representatives of the affected Bobok families had voted 53 against the exploration, 24 for, while two left their ballots blank. NCIP – CAR Director Batay-an transmitted the rejection to Columbus president Damien Blyth on February 27, 2008.

Bokod residents, however, now know complacency is not an option. Although NCIP-Benguet’s Lumiqued says Columbus has yet to file an appeal, some observers say it could still well do so and end up like Philex, which was able to reverse an earlier community rejection of a similar mining project.

Acts of ‘bribery’

As for Magellan, Bolo folk are still stewing over the memorandum of agreement struck by the company with Barangay Poblacion officials. NCIP documents and interviews reveal that in exchange for their “support” of the company’s proposed two-year exploration, the barangay officials received P10,000 from Magellan supposedly for the repair of the barangay’s ambulance.

The officials also submitted to the company a list of projects ranging from educational assistance to a tramline to transport goods. Magellan was said to have approved funding for the projects, which have a total cost of nearly P950,000.

Municipal officials and the NCIP have since criticized the deal, which they say could influence the way the community would vote on Magellan’s EXPA. An NCIP insider also comments that the solicitations reek of “bribery” and are prohibited under IPRA and its implementing rules.

What seems to be less-than-exemplary behavior on the part of Magellan and Columbus, however, could have a negative effect on the prospects of their EXPAs. At the very least, their having begun “exploration-related activities” — as Batay-an put it — without permits is already a mark against them. According to MGB’s Jasareno, there is a possibility that this could cost both companies the very permits they are seeking because they could be seen as having “unsatisfactory” track records.

Then again, MGB-CAR says it has yet to receive copies of the NCIP cease-and-desist order to the firms; neither has it gotten copies of Bobok’s rejection of Columbus’s proposal.

Bokod folk, though, have also gained allies among mountaineers in their campaign to keep large-scale mining out of their municipality. Mimis Toquero, a member of the Nomadic Mountaineers group that often climbs Mount Pulag, says, “As a climber and nature lover, we are against mining in the area. Mining in Benguet had distorted the culture of the indigenous people, weakening it (culture) without appropriate economic benefit for them in return.” — with additional reporting by Karol Anne M. Ilagan