Mining firm under probe for allegedly cutting 7,000 trees

INC's land-clearing operations in Maasin and Ipilan reportedly toppled centuries-old indigenous trees. (Gina Lopez photo)

MANILA —Authorities are investigating Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC) for allegedly illegally cutting down thousands of trees in Barangay Maasin in Brooke’s Point, Palawan to clear a site for mining.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Roy Cimatu assured President Rodrigo Duterte that INC will face charges if findings warrants so.

“Within the week, DENR will determine the company’s violations of environmental and natural resources laws and will file appropriate charges accordingly,” Cimatu said in his May 21, 2017 memorandum to Duterte.

Cimatu reportedly inspected the site last week and conducted a dialogue with INC representatives, Brooke’s Point Mayor Jean Feliciano, officials of DENR and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, and the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development.

Already cut were around 7,000 trees in about 30 hectares within the 353-hectare land under INC’s mineral production sharing agreement, Cimatu noted.

“The special tree-cutting and earth-balling permit was already suspended on May 17, 2017 and a show cause order was issued to the company for violation of PD 705 or the Forestry Code of the Philippines,” Cimatu informed President Duterte.

In December 2016, DENR already cancelled INC’s environmental compliance certificate (ECC), Cimatu said.

INC, an affiliate of Global Ferronickel Holdings, Inc. (GFNI), is appealing the ECC’s cancellation, he said.

GFNI is among the largest nickel ore producers in the Philippines with a peak production of 6.5 million wet metric tons in 2014.

Earlier this month, Mayor Feliciano said INC also already began cutting trees in Brooke’s Point’s Barangay Ipilan in preparation for mining-related activities in the area.

She noted INC’s land-clearing operations in Maasin and Ipilan toppled centuries-old indigenous trees that are part of their watershed.

The incursion began less than a week after the Commission on Appointments rejected eco-crusader Gina Lopez’ appointment as DENR head, Feliciano said.

Feliciano appealed to the national government for help on the matter saying INC’s action is illegal since DENR already cancelled the company’s ECC for failing to meet requirements.

“INC doesn’t have the required mayor’s permit and protected area management board clearance as well,” she added.

Aside from degrading the environment, she warned INC’s clearing and planned mining activities will jeopardize the watershed’s ecological services to include supplying potable water to five villages in Brooke’s Point and irrigation water for 3,000 hectares of farmland.

DENR OIC Regional Director Natividad Bernardino reportedly issued on May 17 this year a suspension order with show cause so INC can explain in writing, within three days from receipt of such notice, why the agency must not cancel the company’s tree-cutting permit.

“The cutting of trees and earth-balling activities were done without the supervision of any DENR personnel, a violation of one of the terms and conditions of the permit and not in conformity with existing forestry rules and regulations,” she said in her May 21, 2017 memorandum to Cimatu.

She ordered INC to stop and suspend all its tree-cutting and earth-balling activities within the area covered by the permit.

Such order will remain until DENR fully assesses and accepts INC’s compliance with the permit’s terms and conditions, she said.

Bernardino further said she issued a show cause order for INC officers to explain, within three days from receipt of this directive, why they shouldn’t face qualified theft charges for violating Section 77 of PD 705 as amended.

The issuance is based on the premise that with cancellation of INC’s ECC, all this company’s related mining activities “including the tree-cutting permit are likewise cancelled, hence the cutting of trees was made without the authority of the DENR,” she said in her memorandum.

She warned INC that failure to comply with the order, within the specified period, shall be deemed a waiver to be heard so appropriate criminal charges will be filed against the company. Catherine J. Teves/PNA