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‘We cannot just stand by and watch’
April 18th, 2012
By George Raine

Filipino priest who opposes mine to protect indigenous people’s land wins Goldman prize

The indigenous people of Mindoro, the seventh-largest island in the Philippines, eke out a living growing upland rice, root crops and bananas, but the crops are grown on their ancestral land and to destroy it by way of mining for metal would destroy them. Imagine the harm toxic waste would do, wending its way into Mindoro’s water resources and forests, dumping into the sea to kill the fishermen’s catch.

This is the nightmare of Father Edwin Gariguez, a Catholic priest for the island’s mission who has led a dogged opposition to a Norwegian company’s ambitious plans to mine nickel. The work has led, at least temporarily, to the suspension of the developer’s permit and thwarted the project.

For his determination and courage – he has earned a place on a list of “dissident terrorists” drawn up by the military in the Philippines – Father Gariguez on April 16 was one of six recipients of the prestigious 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded in San Francisco. The awards, established in 1989 by the late San Francisco civic leaders and philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman, are given to, as prize administers note, “a group of fearless emerging leaders working against all odds to protect the environment and their communities.”

Father Gariguez’ campaign to protect Mindoro Island’s biodiversity and its indigenous people, known as the Mangyan, began only a few years after his ordination in 1993. He had come from Quezon Province on the Island of Luzon. He asked for the Mindoro assignment, as pastor of the Mangyan Mission Church, seeing it as an opportunity and a challenge. The challenge came in spades when Intex Resources of Norway began laying plans to mine nickel, abundant in the island’s soil.

He told the story during an interview in San Francisco prior to receiving the prize. He said Intex – which did not respond to an email from Catholic San Francisco seeking comment – was given a permit to proceed, which Father Gariguez believes reflects corruption.

Father Gariguez began his research and concluded the mine as proposed would destroy the province he, the Mangyan, the farmers and the fishermen wanted sorely to protect.

Moreover, he found encouragement and rationale in his faith: His bishops support him, and the second plenary council of the Philippines, in 1991, had set a direction for the church that gave impetus to the effort. It was to become the church of the poor and be a community of disciples.

“In this regard, we take on the challenges to be on the side of the poor and the marginalized, and they are the indigenous people who will be displaced and the farmers and the fisher folks who will be affected by this mining operation,” said Father Gariguez. “So we cannot just stand by and watch,” he added. “It is part of our prophetic mission, to denounce injustices, even if we might offend people in business.”

Here’s his Gospel inspiration, he said, quoting Matthew 25: “And I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.”

First, Father Gariguez co-founded a coalition of Mindoro residents, elected officials, civil society groups, church leaders and indigenous people who oppose mining on the island, called the Alliance Against Mining. Despite its name, the group is not wholly opposed to mining per se, but believes there must be measures to protect the environment and the rights of communities of indigenous people, and ensure a fair distribution of economic benefits.

As is, that’s not in place on Mindoro, he said. Under the current mining proposal and law in the Philippines – in addition to environmental hazards – the developer would pay no royalties to the Philippines, only a 2 percent excise tax.

“We are giving our minerals for free,” said Father Gariguez, who argues that “the right of the people should take precedence over corporate greed.”

The struggle has become dangerous. At least one homicide, of a Protestant church leader who was a coalition member, gunned down on the steps of his church, has been linked at least in the minds of some to pro-mining forces opposed to the coalition.

An 11-day hunger strike Father Gariguez led in 2009 was successful, and forced the federal Department of Environment and Natural Resources to promise it would investigate the mine’s alleged environmental and social violations, and the department went on to revoke the company’s license. A review is still under way.

In addition, Father Gariguez took the fight to Europe, where he addressed the Norwegian parliament and Intex shareholders, and filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Devleopment.

Intex Resources has promised a payoff for Mindoro, saying some 10,000 people would be employed as the mine is built, while another 2,000 would have permanent jobs during operations, in addition to other benefits. Some of the indigenous people have been co-opted by the mining company, said Father Gariguez, attracted to the money, but most leaders are with him, he said.

“Because they know that the land is what they really have for life,” he said. “Land is life for them, and without the land they cannot live.”


From April 20, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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