Father Edwin Gariguez is a Catholic priest on Mindoro Island in the Philippines who has been fighting a proposed nickel mine because of the impacts it would have on the island’s indigenous people and biodiversity. The mine, proposed in the late 1990s by Norwegian mining company Intex, would use acid leaching to access the nickel ore, producing millions of tons of toxic waste in the process.
“Father Edu” Gariguez's courageous grassroots battle against the mine has earned him a Goldman Environmental Prize. Like other recipients of this year's prize, Gariguez has faced threats of violence—and one of the leaders of his organization, the Alliance Against Mining, was murdered because of his activism.
Gariguez spoke with me while in the U.S. to receive the Goldman Prize.
TREEHUGGER: Your background is working with indigenous communities. What made you start fighting this mining project?
FATHER EDU: We were surprised when we learned that the mining company was coming in. The mining operation would overlap with the land being claimed by the indigenous peoples—and it's a watershed, it's a forest and the whole region is rich in biodiversity. This is something we cannot sacrifice for any investment.
We got the support of other stakeholders that might be affected by the project—for example, farmers, because mining the watershed will mean problems for the community down below. And they're going to dump the tailings to the sea: that will be a problem for the fishermen because the coastal areas will be poisoned with the toxic tailings. So it's not only a problem for the indigenous people, but the farmers as well and the fisherfolks, and also the community. So we organized ourselves.
TREEHUGGER: The company planned to dump mine tailings into the sea? Were they open about that plan?
FATHER EDU: They call that submarine tailings disposal, the STD process. The mining companies were telling us that it's safe, it's done in the U.S. and Canada and other countries. We did our research and discovered they were lying through their teeth. STD is banned in Canada and many other countries. In many areas like Papua New Guinea, they have already been experiencing negative effects of this STD process. Many people are up against it.
We can brag that we have a law that provides respect for indigenous peoples, but implementation is quite another thing. When it comes to conflicting things like mining, the government is collaborating more with mining companies. That's the question I keep raising before the national government. We do not want our indigenous peoples to be be sacrificed for the profit of some few multinationals. The rights of the indigenous peoples must take precedence over and above market profitability and corporate greed.
But, as in many other governments, they often side with business; not with affected people, marginalized communities.
TREEHUGGER: How has your government responded to your activism against the mine?
FATHER EDU: Our government, especially during those times, was aggressively supporting mining as a a form of investment. They claim that it reduces poverty and we need investment in things like mining, and this is the key to bringing wealth to the country. We contested that because the Philippine law on mining is the most pro-transnational corporation anywhere in the world.
We only get a two-percent excise tax and no royalty payment for the minerals. Our country is the only country in the world where we get zero royalties. Some countries in Latin America, they have as much as 30 percent for their royalty payment. And then you sacrifice your biodiversity, the indigenous peoples are displaced and we get all the toxic waste in the ocean—and then more flooding because of the threat to our watershed.
The work is not easy and sometimes we receive threats. One of the leaders of our organization was killed. It's not really clear whether it was because of the mining company, but we cannot discount the probability that one of the motives was to silence him.
There was a time also that activists were summarily executed one after the other. I needed to leave Mindoro because my life was threatened. So for about two years, I left and did my postgraduate studies before I returned to Mindoro, and lives have returned back to normal. So there were threats, and many people who have sacrificed their lives in this struggle.
TREEHUGGER: Has anything changed since the new president took office in 2010?
FATHER EDU: The new administration promised to bring about reforms, but until now, it's been business as usual. The president promised an executive order to address this issue of mining and to ask the companies to be fair and to reform the law. The executive order was supposed to be released by February, but the mining company lobbied, and it's been on hold.
We are lobbying before the Congress to pass an alternative mining law. We cannot have the kind of law that is really for multinational companies. We are comprised of many islands, and an island has a very fragile ecosystem. We need an alternative law that would respect the indigenous peoples' rights and would not sacrifice the integrity of ecosystems for the sake of profit.
TREEHUGGER: What's the status of the project now?
FATHER EDU: The environmental compliance certificate is temporarily revoked because of the hunger strike that we did. We pressured the government to revoke the permit, and we filed a complaint with the OECD, which we won. So many investors backed out. But the company is now selling to Chinese corporations. So this is alarming.
It's the province that passed the mining moratorium, so it will be illegal to mine for 25 years. Now the mining company is saying that goes against the national law. But we are telling them, "you contest that before the court because we believe we have the right to protect our environment."
Most of the forests in the Philippines have already been denuded. That's why we have all this flooding and erosion. So people know that if we do not keep the remaining forests intact, we might have investment, but it might cost lives.
TREEHUGGER: How do you think receiving this prize will help your struggle?
FATHER EDU: It's the people's issue I'm trying to pursue: not only my island of Mindoro but many island communities as well. Our case is not so different from other areas.
We really need to take on the challenge to protect the environment as one global issue. We need to work together to protect the earth. It's the only one we've got.