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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

A mayor in the Philippines took on a mine, and lost her job over it

This post first appeared on Mongabay.

by Keith Anthony S. Fabro

Feliciano’s dogged attempts to stop the company earned praise from civil society and environmental groups. Image courtesy of Mary Jean Feliciano’s office.

Halfway through a one-year suspension without pay, Mary Jean Feliciano, the elected mayor of Brooke’s Point on the Philippine island of Palawan, is unbowed.

Feliciano says her decision to storm, shut down and demolish a mining site — the dramatic acts that led to her suspension — was motivated by her desire to protect the forest and uphold the welfare of the farmers, fishers and Indigenous peoples who elected her.

In May 2017, villagers on the municipality’s outskirts reported to Feliciano that for months they had been waking to the sound of chainsaws and the crashing of towering trees from a mining concession in the mountains.

Feliciano called out the local police and twice attempted to gain access to the site of the tree cutting, but was blocked by barbed-wire fences and armed private security guards. On her third attempt, on May 13, Feliciano, along with the police and a crowd of hundreds of townspeople, finally succeeded. But it was too late to save thousands of trees.

By the time the Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued a stoppage order on May 19, 2017, Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC) had already cleared around 20 hectares (50 acres), cutting some 7,000 trees within the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, a protected area that serves as the town’s watershed.

“I was so frustrated — extremely sad — because I feel I’ve lost the battle to protect the forest,” Feliciano told Mongabay in a phone interview.

Exercising her “police power” under the Philippines’ Local Government Code, Feliciano shut down INC’s operations, and in February 2018 demolished its onsite facilities, undeterred by the fact that the company is a subsidiary of the country’s second-largest nickel producer, Global Ferronickel Holdings. Feliciano, a lawyer by profession, believed that, as the mayor, the law was on her side as she acted to defend a legally protected forest.

The company, however, has argued that its actions were within the law and allowable by permits the company possessed, saying in a statement to Mongabay that “tree-cutting operations, which began during the first week of February 2017, were done in close coordination with the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office.”

Contested legality

The Mount Mantalingahan landscape was declared a protected area in 2009. Nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 120,457-hectare (297,656-acre) Mantalingahan has “exceptionally high floral and faunal diversity and endemism,” hosting at least 861 plant species and 169 vertebrate species, 13 of which fall under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The mountain range that straddles Brooke’s Point and four other southern Palawan towns also contains 11 of 12 types of forest formation found in the Philippines.

INC’s own claim to the area dates back to 1993, long before the protected area was declared, when the company secured a 2,835-hectare (7,005-acre) mineral production sharing agreement with the national government. Such agreements last for 25 years and are renewable for another 25 years.

The company carried out intensive exploration of the concession area from August 2006 to December 2009. It obtained an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) in October 2010, and in December 2010, got clearance from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD). As of July 2015, the company estimated the area’s reserves at 28.6 million wet metric tons of ore, containing 1.43% nickel and 24.01% iron.

On Dec. 14, 2016, then-secretary of environment Regina Lopez ordered the cancellation of the firm’s environmental compliance certificate. Subsequently, the DENR on May 17, 2017, confirmed INC’s tree-cutting permit was no longer valid.

In July 2017, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, acting on a petition filed by Feliciano, recalled the clearance it had issued to INC. Facing public pressure, the council found that more than 80% of the company’s mining claim fell within “core zones,” or highly environmentally sensitive areas of maximum protection.

Feliciano’s dogged attempts to stop the company earned praise from civil society and environmental groups, but not from the Philippine Ombudsman, which acts on complaints filed against government officials.

The body found her “guilty of oppression or grave abuse of authority” and served her a yearlong suspension without pay on July 27, 2021. In its decision, it noted that while the company’s ECC had indeed been revoked by Lopez in 2016, the company had appealed the revocation, and the decision was thus not final at the time of Feliciano’s actions. The ruling described Feliciano as being “too eager” to stop INC and her actions as “brazen” and “Machiavellian.”

“Is it ‘grave abuse of authority’ to protect the resources of the municipality as part of your mandates as mayor?” Feliciano said six months after the suspension took effect. “Is there ‘oppression’ to a company that’s illegally operating within the municipality?”

Drawing on her legal background, Feliciano says due process was observed before she enforced the closure, cease-and-desist, and demolition orders against INC. “I sent letters demanding them to show their legal papers. They did not respond until all these orders lapsed.” (The company, on the other hand, says Feliciano’s orders amounted to harassment.)

Grizelda Mayo-Anda, founder of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), which has assisted in Feliciano’s case, also notes that the Philippine Constitution provides for state ownership and protection of all natural resources to uphold the general welfare, and that a number of landmark cases, such as Oposa v. Factoran, show the state, with its police power, can cancel permits that can jeopardize constitutional rights to a balanced and healthful ecology. “If the area has been declared as a protected area … the state can decide to cut short the 25-year mining lease it earlier issued, just like what it did in these landmark cases,” she says.

Feliciano says she considers the case against her to be a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP suit. Her motion for reconsideration, filed also in July 2021, is still pending with the Ombudsman. In the meantime, INC got what it wants: to tap into the protected area’s nickel ore reserves to take advantage of the skyrocketing global demand for this metal that plays a critical role in the world’s energy transition. In September 2021, the company secured a municipal permit and has since reestablished its presence in the locality.

Government support for mining

As the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the Philippine economy, the mining industry has increasingly been championed as a reliable revenue earner. In April 2021, President Rodrigo Duterte overturned a moratorium on new mining agreements that had been in place since 2012. Then, in December 2021, the DENR lifted a four-year-old nationwide ban on open-pit mining.

INC, too, found its fortunes improving. After years of tough negotiations with the government, the company’s environmental compliance certificate was reinstated on June 5, 2020; the DENR had stated on Dec. 30, 2020, that since the company’s mining agreement was amended in 2000, its expiration date was bumped back to 2025 instead of 2018.

In addition, the PCSD on Aug. 19, 2021, also reversed its earlier decision to withdraw INC’s clearance, in line with pro-mining policy coming from Manila.

On Sept. 29, 2021, Acting Mayor Georjalyn Joy Quiachon issued a mayor’s permit to INC. Quiachon, a mayoralty candidate in the May 2022 elections, did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comments via her information office.

Feliciano filed her candidacy for vice mayor in the same election. The post of vice mayor heads the municipal board, a local policymaking body mandated under the Local Government Code to enact the municipal development plan into a zoning ordinance. This way, Feliciano says, she can block attempts to amend it in favor of mining.

‘Irreversible impacts’

Having passed the government’s mining audit recently, INC has also vowed to provide livelihood, education and infrastructure support, and meet other immediate needs of its host and neighboring communities.

But Marco Galang, a forest soils and hydrology professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, says he has reservations: Are the benefits “provided to the impacted communities enough to mask the overall impact — which could be long term — to the environment?”

Conservation scientist Michelle Kalamandeen, a postdoctoral fellow at Canada’s McMaster University, describes open-cast nickel mining as “an intensive process which significantly impacts intact forests, oftentimes done through clear-cutting of the trees and removal of the fertile topsoil.” This, she says, “can lead to biodiversity loss, erosion and even contamination of ground water from tailing run-offs” — impacts that can become even greater as climate change brings ever more destructive storms that threaten the stability of tailing ponds that store mine waste.

When left unmonitored, Galang says, mining operations can induce heavy sedimentation and chemical contamination, with grave and far-reaching repercussions from riverine down to marine ecosystems that support communities.

Mitigation and reforestation measures can be of some help. But simply replanting mined-out areas doesn’t automatically return them to their original state, one in which biodiversity thrives and that’s resilient to environmental changes, says Neil Aldrin Mallari, chief scientist at the nonprofit Center for Conservation Innovations Ph Inc. “If we can restore as fast as we can destroy the forest, mining is fine. But it isn’t what’s happening,” he tells Mongabay. “For nature to heal itself, it takes generations.”

Renewed opposition

“I grew up here where agriculture has enriched the town,” says farmer Job Lagrada. The municipality of Brooke’s Point is one of the most agriculturally productive in Palawan, with coconut its leading product.

Lagrada says the presence of banks, malls, coconut processing and exporting businesses in Brooke’s Point signifies it’s doing well even without mining.

When INC renewed its annual permit with the municipal government in January 2022, Lagrada was among a group of residents from four directly impacted villages who staged a protest in front of the company’s gate. Lagrada, also a pastor, likened the Mantalingahan’s nickel reserves to the forbidden fruit in the Biblical Garden of Eden. “God put it there not for us to consume, but for our attitude to be tested,” he says. “When extracted, that’s when everyone’s suffering comes.”

Pedring Sagad, an Indigenous Pala’wan tribal chieftain, says the destructive landslides and flash floods that occurred during the recent monsoon season were omens from the tau’t kekeywan, or the forest spirit, revered by more than 12,000 Pala’wan people who dwell in and depend on Mantalingahan for sustenance. “The invisible beings know the company’s plan to destroy the mountain and it’s how they expressed their rage,” he says. “If they continue with flattening the mountain, not only those disasters we would experience.”

As for Feliciano — who during her suspension has revived her work as a lawyer, visiting villages to explain the costs of mining — she says her faith in God keeps her going. “I know He is just and no one can bribe Him — He created these things I am trying to protect and defend.”

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