Oxfam weighs in on debate over Australian mine in Philippines

Cyanide-laden spill damage from the Australian-owned gold mine Lafayette in the Philippines, the subject of vigorous protests from the local Catholic community, is an example of "shonky" and "irresponsible" miners jeopardising the livelihoods of local communities, an Oxfam advocate said today.

Shanta Martin, mining ombudsman for Oxfam Australia, was responding in today's Age to mining forum chairman Brian Hurley who earlier criticised the Australian government for not doing enough to rid the industry of wasteful "green tape" that hampered exploration and threatened Australia's way of life.

"Hurley's argument misses the point," Mr Martin writes, "which is that no one should have to live with a mine that causes environmental damage, in Australia or abroad."

Mr Martin points to the example of the Melbourne-based Lafayette mining company which is developing the copper and gold polymetallic project located on Rapu Rapu Island, south eastern Luzon, Philippines.

Lafayette is at the centre of a community campaign headed by a local priest, Fr Felino Bugauisan, and some church-based organisations against the company's mining project on the island.

"Villagers on Rapu-Rapu Island in the Philippines became alarmed when dead fish began appearing in their waterways. Their alarm quickly turned to fear and panic when Lafayette ... confirmed toxic metals from its operation had contaminated the island's rivers," Mr Martin said.

"Lafayette's operation was eventually shut down after two cyanide-laden spills last year, but not before a poisonous slurry oozing into the waterways resulted in a huge number of dead fish and contaminated water, and robbed some communities of their livelihoods," the Oxfam ombudsman adds.

He said fish sales plummeted with 80 per cent of traders in the area affected by the spills. He also claims that people living near the mine complained of unusual rashes and itchiness.

Mr Martin cites a two-month Philippines government investigation, headed by Catholic Bishop Aruturo Bastes, which concluded that Lafayette had started to extract copper and zinc without completing the construction of environmental protection measures necessary to safeguard the island's ecosystem.

Commenting on the case, Mr Martin said "Australian mining companies, no matter where they operate, would do well to heed the call for them to uphold environmental and human rights standards.

"It only takes one shonky mining company to adopt an irresponsible approach for other Aussie companies to lose their own social licence. The best way for the mining sector as a whole to achieve profitability is to act with responsibility."

Referring to reports of a third toxic spill at the mine, at the end of last month which Lafayette claims was sabotage, Mr Martin says that it is not the first time the company has cried foul.

"Previous spills at the mine were blamed on unidentified people. However, the independent investigation into those earlier spills condemned the company for not analysing mercury and other toxic heavy metals in the ore that it mines. So far, the mining company has been fined $265,000 for allowing toxic metals to leak into the waterways of Rapu-Rapu Island."

Photo: Rapu-Rapu community mass, Photo by Aubrey Makilan, Bulatlat

Miners must face responsibilities (The Age, 10/8/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Oxfam Australia
Saving an island (Bulatlat, 20-26 November 2005)
Environmental Safeguards and Community Benefits in Mining: Recent Lessons from the Philippines (Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability)

Filipino bishop hammers Australian-owned goldmine (CathNews, 1/8/06)
Lafayette rejects community claims over spill (CathNews, 31/7/06)
Filipino Bishop disappointed over Lafayette mine decision (CathNews, 14/6/06)

10 Aug 2006