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08 July 1999
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The MRL experience:
A baptism of fire for the IPRA
By Gina Mission
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In the first of this two-part series, we reported that indigenous peoples' groups in the Caraga region are fighting for recognition as the legal occupants of gold-rich ancestral lands set to be explored by a Canadian mining firm. However, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), the agency tasked to implement the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA), has certified that there are no IPs living in the disputed area. Since then, the NCIP has recognized, if only unofficially, that it made a mistake in certifying that there were no IPs living in the disputed area. The official retraction of its original certification is still forthcoming, however.

The case

___Mindoro Resources Limited (MRL) Gold Philippines, a Canadian mineral exploration company, secured the required certification to begin exploration work in Agata, Santiago, Agusan del Norte, from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) on May 11, 1999.

___On June 17, it received a mining permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Its long wait was finally over, or so it thought. MRL could finally start its exploration work in Agata, a small barrio of Santiago.

___Confident about the go-signals it had by the issuance of its permit to mine in Agata, MRL’s exploration team left Manila on June 15 for Agusan del Norte. On June 23, the team officially started its "early stage exploration."

___Exploration, in its broadest sense, connotes the gathering of information for evaluation, which will serve as basis whether or not to push through with a full-blown mining operation. Basically, the process determines what minerals are present, as well as their physical and chemical characteristics. On the operational level, it involves a series of procedures during the sampling process, mainly core drilling.

Oops

___Meanwhile, the NCIP office in Manila realized that there was a "mistake" in the issuance of the certification to MRL. NCIP chair, Atty. David Daoas, told CyberDyaryo that Deogracias Raiz, Director-Designate of the Ancestral Domains Office of the NCIP, should not have issued the certification and that the NCIP was going to recall it.

___The May 11 certification of Raiz read that, based on "field investigation and verification conducted by the NCIP within the areas covered by MPSA XIII-07," there are "no indigenous peoples living within the subject areas, nor are there any existing applications for certificate of ancestral domain claim or certificate of ancestral land title."

___"Obviously, there was an error in the issuance of the certification," Daoas said.

The "error" in the certification was "discovered" on May 31 when Datu Siga-Siga, a Manobo from Santiago who claims to be the legitimate representative of the indigenous peoples (IPs) in the area, came to the NCIP office in Manila, together with two other Manobo datus, to file a complaint against the NCIP’s Regional Director for the Caraga region, Domingo Pareja, Jr., for failing to address the problems of the IPs in Santiago.

___Siga-Siga also reported a misrepresentation of the IPs in his place but did not file a complaint to that effect. He claimed that on December 15, 1998, he was elected President by a general assembly of the tribal council of Santiago. As a matter of fact, the local municipal council admitted to CyberDyaryo its support of Siga-Siga’s group as the legitimate tribal council of Santiago.

___"The NCIP knows that I am an IP from Santiago and the MRL’s MPSA No. 7 is in our ancestral domains," Siga-Siga said. Pareja confirmed that Siga-Siga presented himself as the legitimate IP leader, but that he could not acknowledge him as such because the incumbent, Datu Ebanta, had not been replaced by a consultative assembly.

___Nonetheless, his critics said that Pareja should have recognized that the area in question (MPSA No. 7) is indeed occupied, or claimed to be occupied by indigenous peoples.

Yes, we have no IPs

___However, as early as December 15, 1998, Pareja endorsed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) entered into by MRL and Ebanta, in his capacity as the tribal chieftain of the Manobo-Mamanwa tribes in Caraga, in which both parties claimed that there are no IPs in the area.

___"This is outrageous," Siga-Siga fumed. "He knows of my election as president, he knows that there are already two groups and that there is a dispute between us," he added.

___RA 8371 or the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) requires the outside group to secure the free and prior informed consent of the IPs who will be affected by any mining exploration.

___Since Pareja was aware of Siga-Siga’s claim, the least that he could have done, his critics continued, was indicate such claim in his endorsement of the MOU. Instead, what Pareja did was endorse it in its original form, which automatically included the claim that there are no IPs in the area.

___Jose Madrona, Caraga Regional Director of the Mines and Geo-Sciences Bureau, seconded Pareja’s endorsement, saying: "In the same MOU, the signatories also certify that MPSA application No. 7 is not affected by CADC applications as per the Certification issued by the concerned DENR Regional Executive Director." But unlike Pareja, Madrona did not state that there are no IPs in the area.

___In fairness to the NCIP, Daoas tried to rectify the non-recognition of Siga-Siga by instructing Raiz to issue a retraction of the certification. Raiz, too, admitted committing an honest mistake, saying that he merely based his certification on the endorsements submitted to his office. Pareja, too, claimed to have made an "honest mistake," though he did not elaborate how or why.

___However, Raiz committed yet another error when instead of doing as the Chair instructed, he did not issue any retraction, but merely called the MRL to tell them that someone from the NCIP would have to personally check the site and ascertain the existence of IPs there.

Retraction, retraction, who’s got the retraction?

___Wary of an aborted exploration, MRL Vice President Francisco Comsti went to the NCIP office to settle the matter. Comsti and Raiz agreed to send Roland Jimenez of the NCIP to Caraga to verify Siga-Siga’s claim. Jimenez left for Caraga on Wednesday.

___When she learned that Raiz did not issue the retraction, Noella Zuņega, NCIP director-designate for office policy, planning and research, faxed a copy of the retraction (which Raiz had signed) to the MGB central office. Zuņega, who had drafted the retraction letter for Raiz’s signature, said that Chairman Daoas would surely be disappointed if he found out that Raiz didn’t follow his instruction.

___What bothers Zuņega is that fact that MRL’s permit should have been put on hold in the light of the NCIP retraction. But as things stand, only she and Daoas seem to know of its existence.

___"It’s not that we want to deny MRL their permit. They have waited for so long, and they obviously followed the requirements. Now they finally have it, let’s give it to them," said Raiz, explaining his non-action on the retraction.

___For his part, Siga-Siga doesn’t mind the presence of MRL in "his" area. "Our people are very poor. Who would not want investors? We are willing to cooperate with them, so long as we are properly represented. IPRA is for the IPs, not for the non-IPs," he said.

___Even MRL President Tony Climie doesn’t mind which group of IPs his company eventually gets to work with. "We believe Agata has some potential. We don’t know the extent of its mineral deposits yet, but they can be considered high and we are willing to work in cooperation with the local people, and give them their due share," he said.

___But certain basic issues must first be resolved. Primarily, the NCIP must get its act together.