By RONALD O. REYES
CATHOLIC church and villagers in Homonhon Island in Guiuan, Eastern Samar have urged President Rodrigo Duterte to stop the ongoing mining operations in the island.
“The decades-long mining operations in the historic island of Homonhon have caused immense and tremendous environmental and ecological damages. The presence of mining companies in the island has also been a cause of divisions in the communities of the island,” said Fr. Christian Ofilan of the St. John the Baptist Parish in Homonhon, a fishing community of over 4,800 people.
In his online petition, which already earned over 10, 000 signatures as of April 24, Ofilan also appealed to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and other government officials “to give our island time and a chance to heal itself.”
“There is an ongoing silent show of opposition or protest ongoing now in the village,” said Ofilan following the successful shipment of some 7,000 metric tons of chromite ore from mining company Techiron Resources Inc. in the island after the DENR on April 11 overturned its earlier decision to delay the loading activity.
“We are very disappointed. The people feel helpless,” said the 37-year-old priest.
The loading of the mineral ore, with estimated worth of P61 million, happened despite the opposition of the Eastern Samar provincial government and the Diocese of Borongan led by Bishop Crispin Varquez, following the health crisis brought by the deadly coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Earlier, Eastern Samar Governor Ben Evardone banned “all entries of non-residents to the provincial coastlines, regardless of origins” as he placed the entire province under the general community quarantine.
Evardone also tasked concerned government agencies to “refuse the entry of any vessel attempting to dock and enter the province through the coastlines.”
In his letter dated April 14, Evardone appealed to DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu “to protect the health and safety of our people, to reconsider your decision to lift the suspension order on the loading of chromite ore of Techiron Resources Inc.” in the island.
“The people of Eastern Samar have raised serious concerns on the possible danger this poses to public health while our province is under general community quarantine,” the governor wrote.
However, the Panamanian-registered vessel, MV VW Peace, with a crew of 13 Chinese and four from Myanmar nationals, arrived on April 4 to collect and transport the minerals from the island to China.
A domestic ship facilitated the transfer of the minerals from Homonhon to the foreign cargo vessel which was anchored just few miles away from the island, according to CBCP News.
“The village officials of Pagbabangnan have prepared quarantine protocols and safety measures for all those involved in the loading operations,” said Ofilan.
Since the province is under a general community quarantine, the priest cannot help but lament over the issue on social media.
“It feels like we are on our own at this point. For this government, it is China’s interests first, second our rights,” said Ofilan.
“We can’t trust our government to protect our rights always. This is the bitter truth,” he wrote on Facebook.
Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) in Eastern Visayas also condemned the “blatant intrusions and disregard of existing quarantine laws and exploitation of our natural resources” in Homonhon.
“We also call upon the national government as well as the respective line agencies, most especially the DENR and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) to be true to your oaths and the duties of your offices of protecting our valuable natural resources. No one is above the law; and most especially in times like this, they should be reminded that the welfare of the people greatly, if not entirely, outweighs the interest of a few individuals,” the group said in a statement.
LONG BATTLE AHEAD
Ofilan said there are currently two active mining operations in the island while they are on community lockdown since March 22.
He identified the other mining company as Emir Mineral Resources Corporation.
“Like cancer cells, the damage is slowly eating up the entire island.Hinahakot talaga nila yung lupa. Nakaka-flatten talaga ng bundok,” Ofilan said, describing the extent of the environmental damage suffered by the 20 kilometer-long island as nickel, chromite, and other minerals, are being extracted for many years.
“As for my safety, dati natatakot talaga ako nung umpisa palang pumutok yung issue. Pero ngayon okey na naman. I learned that most of those working in these mining companies are locals. The local people have assured me of my safety here,” said Ofilan, who has been assigned in the island for two years now.
Despite the continued inaction of the government, Ofilan remains thankful to the villagers and other environmental groups for their support.
“I really feel pity for them. Many of them have been fighting this cause for a long time already and it seems that nothing happens. It somehow gives them a sense of hopelessness. Kaya gusto ko lang ipagpatuloy ang laban nila,” he said.