Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star | October 29, 2018
A Filipino miner is causing social unrest in the Pacific island of Bougainville, the same way he stirred up Mindanao tribesmen against his mining. Tens of thousands of Bougainville natives are livid that SR Metals Inc., owned by Eric Gutierrez, is to log and consequently extract copper. Central authorities in Papua New Guinea are being asked why an outsider has been allowed into the Panguna forest. Foreign mining in Panguna had triggered a ten-year civil war, 1988-1998, that claimed the lives of 20,000 people. Since then Panguna has been declared a “no-go zone.”
Gutierrez’s SRMI up to recently was extracting nickel in the mountains of Tubay, Agusan del Norte. Dispossessed Lumad had opposed his 20 years of supposed small-scale mining that actually exceeded legal limits. It also denuded forests in and beyond its 128-hectare concession. Three thousand tribe folk and lowlanders had petitioned for SRMI’s closure, to no avail. Their lawyer was assassinated in broad daylight and a protesting priest falsely accused of rape. Violent clashes spread to other mines in other towns over the years, during which 68 tribesmen were killed.
SRMI claims to have received exploration rights from Papua president John Momis, a defrocked Catholic priest. Gutierrez’s partner, Caloocan Rep. Edgar Erice was reported to have said they are moving all their equipment from Agusan to Bougainville. Supposedly the government in that Papuan territory welcomes them into 183 square kilometers of forest and proven copper mines.
Bougainville tribe leader Cletus Miarama disputed them, however. “SR Metals did not have free and informed consent to go into our customary land and explore,” he declared. “They are going into our customary land without our permission. They are even also going into our sacred sites.” The battle scarred Bougainville natives never surrendered to the superior government forces. Their civil strife ended in stalemate, and can reignite for the same exploitation of Panguna natural resources.
SRMI gradually closed down during the first two years of the Duterte administration. At least thrice during the 2016 presidential campaign and five times thereafter President Duterte publicly denounced Gutierrez as a destructive, abusive miner. The BIR presently is investigating SRMI for unpaid taxes from P28-billion in ore exports to China. In 2008, the Supreme Court found the mine guilty of over-extracting nickel from its yearly 50,000-ton ore limit.
Gutierrez had found favor with the Aquino administration as financier of the then-ruling Liberal Party, and Erice as spokesman. President Noynoy Aquino reportedly signed as witness for SRMI to recompense original Tubay mine licensee Rodney Basiana P1 billion, a debt that was never paid. Aquino also twice awarded SRMI for supposed responsible mining.