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Environment

Mining expansion threatens indigenous tribes in Philippines

The EU is working to help the indigenous people on the Philippine island Mindoro protect their homeland from mining companies searching for natural resources. Locals have threatened suicide if their lands are taken.

A secluded village

The Mangyan communities live in small, secluded villages

Remote tribes in the Philippines are living in fear of losing their land and their traditional way of life due to an influx of mining companies to the region where they live.

Hungry for nickel, oil and gas, international mining firms have begun moving into ancient indigenous land on Mindoro, a tropical island in the western Philippines that is rich with untapped mineral resources.

"If we will allow this mining to happen, maybe the day will come that the people will have no more land to till, no more rice to eat," said Eleanor Fajardo, a local mayor who is opposed to the mining activity. "I worry for the welfare of the people and our environment."

She added that dozens of applications for exploration work on Mindoro have already been filed by Canadian, Chinese and Australian firms.

Mindoro was first inhabited by the Mangyans, a collective name for eight different ethnic groups who today number over 24,000. Their small villages are dotted across the lush, untouched hills that rise high above the bustling little market towns that hug the island's coastline.

The burgeoning conflict has become so grave that the European Commission is now supporting efforts to equip the tribes with the legal weapon they need by helping them gain formal ownership of this land.

Miners waiting in the wings

A tribal leader

Tribal leaders met to discuss how to keep their ancestral lands

In villages accessible only by narrow tracks through thick tropical vegetation, most Mangyan communities have never had contact with outsiders. In rainy seasons, high river water can block access and transform the paths into a muddy toboggan.

But it's the squeals of dozens of children playing with bamboo sticks that greet the handful of visitors able to reach a village of the Tao-buid tribe.

"Many families have over five children and there are young mothers as young as 12," said Marielou Realubit from Plan, an NGO that is working with the Mangyan communities.

Like other Mangyans, the Tao-buid live in reed and bamboo without access to clean water or electricity. They speak their own dialect and survive on subsistence farming.

A meeting of several tribes has been called to address the mining problem. Participants sit huddled on benches under a thatched roof and there is clapping as Fernando, a vocal tribal leader, stands in front of the crowd.

Legal rights

Three Mangyan girls

There are mothers as young as twelve, says Marielou Realubit

"We need to get the legal right to this land that we've lived on for generations," he said. "That's the only way we can fight the mining companies."

One of the tribal leaders from another village also rejected the mining businesses.

"Mining is neither part of our culture nor of our way of life," he said. "We've been here for generations. Our ancestors did not give us this land so it could be mined. We would rather take our own lives than give up the way we live."

There is no threat or anger as this "gurangon," or tribal elder, says he would rather commit suicide than give up his land, merely resignation. Alarmed at this encroachment on their ancestral homeland, some tribes have formed human barricades to keep the miners out.

To them, even the sight of foreigners is seen as a huge intrusion. The threat of them blowing up the sites where their ancestors are buried is, they say, too great even to contemplate.

Water buffalo graze in a clearing a short distance away from the leaders' meeting and several holes are visible in the ground.

"This is where they placed the explosives, deep underground, and you can still see the white residue around the edges," a local said. "These holes crisscross all the hills here, each line has a number. They are trying to test the flow of gas and oil."

A woman washes clothes in a water bucket

The tribes live without running water or electricity

A restraining order was placed on Pitkin Petroleum, which locals said carried ou the initial exploration, following protests by the Mangyans. But the order has now lapsed and Pitkin is believed to have contracted Chinese partners to carry out the mining.

"I grow the food for my family here and if the mining goes ahead, it will cut through my land," said Roberto, a farmer with two children.

Bribery allegations

Roberto said he believes tribal leaders consented to the exploration after receiving bribes from Pitkin.

"Our tribal leader initially did not allow this company access," he said. "But then he changed his mind because Pitkin offered him 60,000 pesos (1,000 euros) to get his consent. That's an enormous amount of money to us."

Mangyans earn around 30 eurocents a day, according to Plan.

Pitkin's press department has so far not responded to Deutsche Welle's request for an interview to answer these allegations.

Large-scale mining is banned on Mindoro but small-scale mining, though not so visible, is often far worse for the environment, said Nick Taylor, the head of development for the EU Commission in Manila.

Eleanor Fajardo

Mayor Eleanor Fajardo isn't expecting much help from the Philippine government

"It's far worse," he said. "It's less regulated and the areas tend to be completely unusable afterwards."

Taylor said he is pessimistic about the hopes of keeping mining at bay.

"If you look at the Philippines geographically, it's close to China, which has a huge appetite for resources," he said. "Usually that kind of situation makes mining inevitable."

He added that the EU is now funding Plan to help Mangyans get the access to their indigenous tribal domain.

"Land is key for any indigenous peoples and getting this legal right is a very complicated process," Taylor said.

The government in Manila has to balance its economic development and the interests of the indigenous groups it has pledged to protect. But many believe that economic imperatives will win the day.

"We are a developing country and I don't think we can expect the support of our government," Fajardo said. "That's why we need to tap foreign countries and the EU for help. In the two years I think a lot of influential people will come here to us make us say 'yes' to this mining."

Author: Vanessa Mock, Mindoro, Philippines

Editor: Sean Sinico

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