GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – At 41 years old, Dalena Somling spent her life in the village of Sta. Cruz in the hinterlands of Tampakan town in South Cotabato.
While enjoying the simple life of being a B’laan, her memories were filled with stories of a poverty so deep that the recollection of them bring tears to her eyes.
“Mahirap talaga ang buhay namin. Ang mga bata sa amin di makapag-aral kasi kailangan pa nila ng ilang oras na paglalakad bago maabot ang pinakamalapit ng paaralan,” she said.
She recalled of the times when she and her two sons could hardly get a meal for a day, relying only on what the herbs and herds of the forest could give. She was a single mother.
Slash-and-burn farming, being their primary source of living before, has never been successful for the past few years; and forest hunting, a source of income that they only recently learned to do, seldom yield favorable results.
“Sobrang hirap talaga ang buhay namin at mula ng nagka-malay ako sa lugar namin, parang hindi ko nakikita na may paki-alam ang gobyerno sa kahirapan namin” she said.
But her understanding of what their life would be changed when Sagittarius Mines, Inc., a joint venture between foreign mining giants and small-scale Filipino miners, expressed interest to conduct mine exploration in their village.
By then she knew that underneath the earth where her house stands were among the biggest deposits of copper and gold the world has ever known.
“Nag-iba yung pamumuhay namin ng dumating ang SMI sa lugar namin,” she added, citing the various projects that the firm has spearheaded long before it will start its open-pit mining activities in the area in 2016.
As of December 2010, the project employed over 370 workers and 1,185 contractors, giving life to the dormant economic activities in the far-flung villages in the area.
The Tampakan Copper-Gold Project is located in the boundaries of South Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat and Davao del Sur.
Located some 60 kilometers north of General Santos City, the project is believed to be one of the largest undeveloped copper-gold deposits in the world.
Initial estimates indicate that at peak production, the project would yield an average of 375,000 tons of copper and 360,000 tons per annum within the 20-year mining period.
Such are 20 times bigger than the current average annual copper production, and 30 percent greater than the average annual gold production of the Philippines.
The project site is said to contain 13.5 million metric tons of copper deposits, and 15.8 million ounces of gold.
With a total capital cost of $5.9 billion, the project will be 3.4 times bigger than the current mining capital stock in the country.
The project will involve the development of a greenfield, open cut copper and gold mine that covers an area of over 9,600 hectares.
If approved, the project would operate an open-pit mine located in the villages of Danlag, Pula Bato and Tablu – all in Tampakan town.
The ore will be crushed and processed at a rate of up to 66 million tonnes per annum (Mtpa) to produce a copper-gold concentrate.
The concentrate will be transported off-site via an underground pipeline to a new port facility in Malalag town in Davao del Sur before sending it off for export.
The project is operated by Philippine-based affiliate Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI), whose 40 percent controlling equity is a joint venture between Switzerland-headquartered Xstrata Copper (62.5 percent) and Australian-based Indophil Resources NL (37.5 percent).
The 60 percent non-controlling equity shareholders of SMI are the Tampakan Mining Corp. and Southcot Mining Corp., otherwise known as the Tampakan Group of Companies. The Tampakan Group is comprised of small-scale Filipino miners, whose pooled stake would amount to SMI's majority.
“Lumaki at nagka-pamilya ako sa Tampakan pero di namin naranasan ang pag-aaruga ng gobyerno sa mga pangangailangan namin,” she said.
Dalena exchanges pleasantries with the author in an interview in General Santos City.
But with the coming of SMI, new roads and school facilities were built in the area, providing B’laan children a better access to education.
The mining firm has also sponsored scholarship programs that benefited over 19,000 students in the area.
“Buhay at kabuhayan ng mga taga-Tampakan ang nakataya sa project na ito. Sana makita ng gobyerno ang mga kabutihang nagawa nito sa aming mga katutubo,” she said.
With the looming royalty fund for the indigenous people on the project, she said the B’laan has gained the trust of several banking institution.
Dalena, being a chieftain of one of the four B’laan tribes in the area, now owns four vehicles – two Toyota Hilux and two Strada pickup trucks – which she rented out to several contractors in the area at P3,500 a day per unit.
But she expressed disappointment on the protest of the anti-mining groups on the exploration project, saying “Yung lang naman hindi taga-dito ang nag-o-oppose nyan; pero kami na dyan nakatira ay wala kaming reklamo.
She said her more than 2,000 constituents in the area have been waiting for this chance, saying “Itong project na ito ay ang magsisilding tulay namin mula sa kahirapan patungo sa kaginhawaan sa buhay.”
“Dahil tulad ng ibang mga kababayan nating mga Filipino, kami rin ay may karapatang umunlad sa buhay.”