Yesterday, I had the privilege of facilitating a spiritual recollection for the clergy of the Diocese of Marbel, South Cotabato; some sixty priests, including Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez, were in attendance. I broke it down into two parts: the first on the priesthood, the second on moral obligation specifically vis-à-vis the SMI-Xstrata mine. Startling news came after the recollection.


The part on the priesthood was inspired by the homilies of Pope Francis during the Chrism Mass last Holy Thursday and during the Easter Vigil Eucharist. Challenging to the priests was the exhortation to carry “the names of those entrusted to them” on their chasubles and in their hearts, to “go out” of themselves and “anoint people with the “oil of gladness,” to preach the Good News “with unction,” and to be mediators of grace especially for people “at the edges” – shepherds “with the smell of their flock,” and not sad “collectors of novelties and antiquities.” The priests themselves must be open to “the new” in the Good News of the Resurrection.


The second part was an extended reflection on principles of moral theology in the Catholic tradition, particularly in coming up with a moral position relative to the eventuality of the SMI-Xstrata Copper and Gold Mine in Tampakan, which is within the Marbel Diocese. The Marbel Diocese has been a strong unified voice against this project. In their recollection, the priests of the diocese, in full union with their revered Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez, reflected on their position relative to SMI-Xstrata in the light of the starting point, sources, and model of arriving at moral truth, considering the person as moral subject and agent, virtues, principles and norms of moral decision, and conscience.


Concerning the latter, it was appreciated that conscience not only judges what has been done wrong retrospectively, but prospectively legislates what ought to be. Declaring what ought to be relative to SMI-Xstrata is not a simple application of general natural law to a particular situation, but Christian individuals and communities, in relationship with other individuals and communities, responding to the concrete reality of this mining firm, in the context of complex relationships with God, persons, and nature and in the light of Creation, Sin, Redemption and the Resurrection. The obligatory moral ought emerges here in shared moral judgment.


Through this reflection the Marbel fathers confirmed their position against SMI-Xstrata as morally imperative. But they also found warrant to lead people in their parishes to this same moral position. The broad-based organization of like-minded Catholics in action against SMI-Xstrata, related to the stands of other like-minded communities could give the Diocese the power necessary to block its operation. Here, the priests would not be bringing “the oil of gladness” to the miners, but certainly to the people whose homeland, food and water supplies would have been adversely affected by the mines.


Among these people are the numerous Muslim communities that live around Lake Buluan and the Ligawasan Marsh. After the issuance of a conditional ECC by the Aquino Administration to the SMI-Xstrata project, these too are organizing opposition to the SMI-Xstrata intentions in Tampakan since their lives and livelihood would be adversely affected.


Meanwhile, after the recollection, the April 9 article in the Manila Times by Ben Kritz, entitled, “Mining Sector Giving Up on the Philippines,” came to my attention. “Some subtle hints have been made by the companies behind the most promising planned mining operations that trying to move forwards during the remaining three years of the Aquino administration is more trouble than it’s worth, and that they have resigned themselves to wait until beyond 2016 or even 2022 before applying any more money or effort to projects in the country.”


The two mining projects they highlight are the Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI) Tampakan Copper-Gold Mine Project in South Cotabato and the Lepanto Consolidated Mining-Gold Fields gold and silver mines in Mankayan, Benguet.


The reasons for the loss of heart of the mining companies are apparently unending delays and the new resolve of the BIR to begin collecting from these companies what the People of the Philippines deserve.


“On the face of things there appear to be obvious reasons for the delays, particularly in the case of SMI, which is still facing aggressive resistance from environmental activists and cannot proceed until a ban on open-pit mining, a measure specifically passed to stop the Tampakan project, is lifted by the South Cotabato Provincial government.” Judging from the type of resolve that I witnessed among the priests of South Cotabato, this is “aggressive resistance” that has certainly not yet reached its peak. The NGO opposition from such as Alyansa Tigil Mina and No2Mining in Palawan have been formidable. But conscientious objectors coming from the Catholic Church systematically organized for power, combined with the objections of the Muslim communities around Lake Buluan and the Liguasan Marsh have not yet been launched. The foreign character of the mines would also increase parallel anti-mining activity, considering that the Philippine military has been deployed in defense of the foreign mines.


Unfortunately, the Kritz article points to another reality: “The real reason for the extended delays for Lepanto, SMI and a number of other mining projects, according to industry insiders, is a recent change in tax regulations. On February 15, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) issued Revenue Memorandum Circular 17-2013, effectively rescinding the “recovery period” for “pre-operating expenses, exploration, and development expenditures,” provided by the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 (R.A. 7942).” The Aquino administration had put its foot down. Beyond the normal tax holiday of six years for pioneer firms and four years for non-pioneer firms, through the BIR, it “rescinded” the exemption on taxes for the duration of the “recovery period,” – where the company’s investments in pre-operation investments, exploration, and development must first be recovered before the company begins to pay the first centavo in taxes. The costs of all the generous social investments to win the “free and informed prior consent” of the affected Indigenous Peoples, for example, must first be recovered by the mining operation before taxes are paid.


The Aquino Administration showed itself very sensitive to the economic arguments against the mines. The People of the Philippines were not getting enough from their mines in the Philippine Mining Act skewed to the advantage of the large scale and especially foreign miners. EO 79 insisted that no new mines would be approved until Congress legislates a more rational regime of revenue sharing.


The huge disappointment with the Aquino Administration has been with its apparent rejection of the environmental argument against the mines. Through a schizophrenic Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which is at one and the same time the nation’s Guardian of the Environment and the Exploiter of its Natural Resources, it acts against itself without benefit of reflection on moral imperatives, and at bottom grovels to where the dollar shimmers and beckons most scintillatingly. When SMI issued an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), there was no official evaluation, to say nothing of independent third-party evaluation – despite the howling complaints of the NGO communities – of the content of the statement and its clear negative impacts on the environment and the people affected by these negative impacts. Enamored by the dollar, the Aquino Administration’s DENR, issued a conditional Environmental Clearance Certificate – which was bereft of both administrative lucidity and moral validity. In other words, damn the integrity of the environment! Let the money come in! Money is the god of morality.


I am quite sure the clergy of Cotabato with its feisty septuagenarian bishop would have objected. The environmental issue is a real issue. The private fortunes that have been made through the exploitation of its forests and mountains continue to curse the nation and its people. For now, there seems to be a reprieve-in-the-making through the administrative chaos that has resulted from a national law on mining that has been legislated for miners and for foreigners, not only in betraying the mineral value that belongs to the people (which the administration understands) but the environmental value of the people (which the administration does not understand). Considering its role in any fair assessment of the common good, the environmental issue is a moral issue with deep religious moorings. As this becomes clearer, as in the recollection of the Marbel clergy, governments will ignore it only at great peril. Even as people in opposition chant: “Brother Son and Sister Moon…”


Jesuit priest Fr. Joel Tabora, S.J. is the current president of Ateneo de Davao University. Visit Fr. Tabora's Blog site. Follow him on Twitter @Joeltaborasj.