A Catholic priest, Father Edwin Gariguez is leading a grassroots movement against a large-scale nickel mine to protect Mindoro Island’s biodiversity and its indigenous people.
Mindoro is a major island in the northwestern Philippines. Spanning 11,000 square kilometers in area, the island is home to several species of endangered plants and animals, as well as tribes of Mangyan people who have lived sustainably from the island’s natural resources for generations. Mindoro also houses large deposits of nickel, an in-demand metal used for manufacturing stainless steel, among other things.
In the late 1990s, Norwegian mining company Intex (then known as Mindex) proposed an open-pit nickel mine on Mindoro. The proposed mine area is near two key biodiversity areas and is within the watershed that feeds the island’s four major rivers, which provide drinking water to lowland communities and irrigation for Mindoro’s rice fields. The Intex mine would use a process known as acid leaching to access the nickel ore, producing several million tons of toxic waste, contaminating the island’s water resources and destroying the tropical forests. Mindoro’s Mangyan indigenous communities would also be heavily impacted by the mine, as the proposed mining area is within their ancestral land. During an exploration phase of the project, indigenous burial grounds were desecrated in violation of federal rights of indigenous peoples.
Despite broad public opposition to the mine and extensive federal laws in place to protect against mining in watersheds and indigenous areas, the permit was shepherded through—likely by a corruption-prone national government supporting mining as one of the most lucrative and growing industries in the country.
Edwin Gariguez, affectionately known as “Father Edu,” is a Catholic priest, and pastor of the Mangyan Mission Catholic Church on Mindoro Island. Originally from Quezon Province on the island of Luzon, Gariguez has lived and worked on Mindoro for decades. He serves as executive secretary of the National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace of the Philippine Catholic Church.
Motivated by his religious beliefs and a strong desire to uphold the will of the people to protect their environment, Father Edu co-founded the Alliance Against Mining (ALAMIN), a broad coalition of Mindoro residents, elected officials, civil society groups, church leaders and indigenous peoples who oppose mining on the island. He is not opposed to mining per se, but believes measures to safeguard the environment, protect indigenous communities’ rights and ensure a fair distribution of economic benefits should be required.
Uniting thousands of indigenous peoples, farmers and local and provincial political leaders, Gariguez and his ALAMIN coalition led Mindoro communities in numerous protests. Undeterred by threats of violence and verbal harassment from mining officials and the military—and reeling through the loss of a colleague at ALAMIN who was murdered because of his activism—Father Edu went on to broaden the grassroots movement beyond Mindoro.
In 2002, the local government responded to strong public opposition by passing an island-wide moratorium that required Intex to stop any activities related to large-scale mining. Intex ignored the local ordinance and continued business as usual. This egregious violation of the people’s rights led Father Edu to take his fight overseas, traveling to Europe to address Norwegian parliamentarians and Intex shareholders. In conjunction with a Norwegian NGO, Father Edu filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Due to the negative international attention Father Edu brought on the mining project, nervous Intex shareholders began asking detailed questions about the mine. At the same time, Father Edu put pressure on his own government to uphold its laws and maintain better oversight of the mine project. In 2009, he led an 11-day hunger strike until the federal Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) finally agreed to conduct an investigation into the mine’s environmental and social violations. DENR indefinitely revoked Intex’s permit, halting the mine. As a result, major funders, including Goldman Sachs, divested of their funding, leading Intex to make an unsuccessful attempt to sell the $2.4 billion project in 2010. Shortly after the botched sale, Intex’s CEO resigned due to “severe setbacks.”
Meanwhile, the Philippines’ president, who took office in June 2010, has stated that he will fight corruption and take a comprehensive look at mining. Father Edu has made it clear that he will sustain pressure on the government to follow through with its pledges.