17 April 2011

The Need for Enduring Hope

A Palm Sunday Reflection for the Alay Kapwa National Campaign 2011
"Kapwa at Kalikasan, Pananagutan Nating Lahat"
Lenten Action-Evangelization Program of the CBCP National Secretariat for Social Action - Justice and Peace

As we enter the holiest of our liturgical seasons, the story of our Lord’s passion from the Gospel of Matthew is read. This passion narrative begins with the scene that was the turning point in Jesus’ public ministry: not His triumphal entry to Jerusalem but the betrayal of Judas.

1. Betrayal

“One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over” (Mt 26,14-15).

In a way, our government’s record of pursuing national development, harnessing our natural resources and protecting the environment has been somewhat taken straight from the Gospels’ passion narratives. Time and again, we have seen hopes dashed and best efforts undone when state officials and institutions betray the people’s trust. The words of Judas ring true till today: “What are you willing to give me to hand it over to you?”

Case in point: Rapu-Rapu island in the Bicol region. The island’s long history of mining has been a history filled with corruption and callousness, greed and neglect, and a disregard both to people’s lives and the environment. The Japanese army mined the island during World War II. The Hixbar Mining Company took over from the Japanese and left it in the 1970s with three of four rivers contaminated and an extensive tract of land barren and useless. Toronto Ventures Inc. came in the 1980s and operated without the mandated public hearings and consultations. Lafayette Philippines Inc. entered the picture in 1999.

From the start, majority of the island’s residents were against the latest mining project. The Diocese of Legazpi has issued a pastoral letter condemning the move. Civil society staged protest actions. A senate inquiry was made. A few small victories were won by opponents of the mining project, but in the end Lafayette still had its way. It proceeded with its operations.

In vain, the people turned to their elected officials and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for help. In the end they would realize that it was actually the government that invited mining companies to come to their island without their knowing it. They would realize the DENR is the government’s lead mining salesman. It is the DENR that identifies sites as suitable for mining. It is the DENR that advertises those sites for mining investors, conveniently downgrading environmental harm. It is the DENR that grants MPSAs without consulting local residents and ECCs even without social acceptability. It is the same department that admits it cannot sufficiently monitor production and operation of mining companies; and connives with mining officials to cover-up incidents of mishaps and fish kills. When a company like Lafayette fails, the DENR scurries to look for other investors to “save” the project. And should the people seek legal action, it is the DENR who would first receive their complaints and judge its merits before any court could hear their case.
2. Suffering

From the start, concerned groups and island residents have been pointing out: large-scale open-pit mining would cause massive environmental damage to the fragile island ecosystem of Rapu-Rapu, and that mining never brought about significant economic development that mining companies have been promising since the beginning. In fact, a study of mining communities brought to the fore the damning conclusion that, without exception, municipalities and provinces with mining operations are the poorest in the country. Evidently, the authorities would not hear their voices. Unfortunately, they would be proven right.

On 11 and 31 October 2005, two mine spill incidents took place at the mining site of Lafayette Philippines, Inc. (LPI), and its two subsidiaries, i.e., Rapu-Rapu Minerals, Inc. (RRMI) and Rapu-Rapu Processing, Inc. (RRPI). The mine spills flowed into nearby creeks and rivers and into the open sea.

After both incidents, fish kill ensued in several bodies of water in Rapu-Rapu. Fish kills were also reported to have occurred on several occasions in November 2005 in the coastal waters of Sorsogon and the Albay Gulf. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) found positive for cyanide several fish kill samples submitted by the Mayor of Prieto Diaz, Sorsogon. After the fish kill came the fish scare which adversely affected the lives and livelihood of fisher folk families, fish traders and the fish consuming public.

Despite repeated denials from the company, the government-formed Rapu-Rapu Fact-Finding Commission found Lafayette culpable of the mine spill that caused the fish kill and subsequent fish scare in nearby towns. But even when the commission recommended the revocation of the ECCs and MPSAs and the closure of the mine, the government again didn’t listen. Instead, it imposed a fine, a brief suspension and a test run. Incidentally, a “minor” fish kill was also reported in July 2007, during the so-called test run. Not unexpectedly, the DENR certified that Lafayette passed its test.

Then on the morning of 28 October 2007, Sunday, the people in Brgy. Poblacion, Rapu-Rapu awoke to the sight and stench of dead fish everywhere littering their shores. Fish kill happened again in Rapu-Rapu. While the incident got the attention of international media, the incident barely got into the inside stories of our national media. The DENR and BFAR again tried to downplay the incident by their conflicting reports and ridiculous theories.

A few months later, Lafayette collapsed. Before residents of Rapu-Rapu could heave a sigh of relief, they then heard of reports that the government was trying to lure in new investors to the mine. In April 2008, the newly-named Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic Project was acquired by LG International, Korea Resources Corp., and Malaysia Smelting Corp.

In neighboring Batan Island (the other half of the municipality of Rapu-Rapu), the Department of Energy (DOE) lists several coal mining operations: Ibalong Resources and Development Corp., Lima Coal Development Corp., Rock Energy International Corp., and SAMAJU Corp. Coal mining in Batan may not be as extensively documented as polymetallic mining in Rapu-Rapu but similar issues hound it: destruction of mangroves, water pollution, dwindling fish catch, lack of public consultation, dubious social acceptability, inefficient monitoring, etc. The DOE assumes responsibility for coal mining and encourages the industry with its oxymoronic tagline “clean coal technology”.

In between these multiple layers of betrayal are stories of people’s suffering: loss of livelihood, hunger, harassment, uncertain future, health problems, even death, and the pain of hearing hard facts and their sentiments misrepresented on national media to serve the governments’ misguided development agenda and mining companies’s profit motives.

Judas’ betrayal gave the enemies of Jesus the opening they need to get him. Before the night ended, Jesus would be arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin. His disciples dispersed in fear, most likely suspicious even of each other. In the morning, He would be sent to Pilate, then sentenced to death, be tortured, suffer so many horrible indignities, and be made to carry the cross on which He would be crucified. By mid-afternoon, He would succumb to His injuries and die. But His death would not be in vain. Death would not have the last say. In fact, death would be conquered.

3. Redemption

Our faith tells us that the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus redeemed us from sin and death. Our faith teaches us that if we die with Jesus, we will rise with Him to new life; if we suffer with Him, we will also be glorified with Him. Our suffering, if endured in and with Christ, will never be in vain.

The mass mobilizations and press releases, the lobbying and data gathering, the blood, sweat and tears, are not totally in vain. The mining project is still not closed but the new owners put in place reforms and improvements in the mining facilities and processes to respond to deficiencies and weaknesses previously denied by the company to have even existed. And though environmental damage appears to be somewhat lessened, transparency is still an issue. Environmental groups still cannot perform independent scientific validation without risk of harassment. Thus, the challenge of the Save Rapu-Rapu Alliance (SARA) still stands: let RRPP officials gargle water from creeks running through the mine site for a few weeks, and if nothing bad happens to them, SARA would rest its case. Needless to say, there are no takers so far.

An alternative mining bill is also in the works. The bill gives hope for the passage of a law that will institute truly people-oriented and environmentally safe mining policies and practices. Hopefully, too, the deception of “responsible mining” will give way to a paradigm shift towards “sustainable development”. By sustainable development we mean programs that spur economic growth through the prudent management of resources, equitable distribution of benefits and substantial reduction of their negative effects. By sustainable development we mean addressing the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.

The next round of mining issues in Rapu-Rapu is the proposed opening of another mine after the current open-pit very soon runs its course. Whether by another open-pit or by underground tunnel, the mining project remains without social acceptability nor has environmental damage been proven to be fully solved. The rule on conducting consultation is so liberal that even when the other party vigorously objects, the requirement for consultation is considered complied with. Taxation is still obscenely lopsided in favor of mining companies. Whether LG, Kores and MSC will be allowed to operate another mine in the island will be a test case for the government’s promise to listen to its people, especially the poor, and its commitment to sustainable development.

During the Last Supper, Jesus predicted: “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken.” The events that happened afterwards did test the faith of the disciples.

The sustainable development advocacy in the mining sector in this country is like going through a grueling test of faith, an extended dark night of our national soul. The poor suffer unheeded as their leaders betray their trust in favor of big business with their promises of trickled-down benefits. Governance is corrupted, communities are divided, and the future is left unsecured.

But the message of Palm Sunday and Holy Week is never about taking a blind leap in the dark or conceding to unbeatable foes. Rather, it is about hope, active and unyielding. The disciples are told to stay their course, strengthen one another and await the coming of the Spirit. It is the same message that goes to those involved in environmental protection and sustainable development. We don’t lose hope to stay the course, maintain our integrity and trust in the Holy Spirit at work in all of creation.

St. Paul counsels in Rom 8,22-25: “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.”

The dark days of the Holy Week are days of conversion and repentance, of strengthening the faith and appreciating the victory won for humanity by Christ. He Himself has taught that it was necessary for Him and His disciples to take the bitter cup of suffering to bring about the resurrection, redemption, and renewal of all creation. As it was for Christ’s disciples then, so it will be for us now.

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