Earlier this year, a Canadian mining company operating in the Philippines found itself the target of hackers who stole the company’s emails and forged fakes in a bizarre and sophisticated plot to create a purported plan to assassinate local officials who opposed the company’s operations.
Copies of the fake emails, outlining a “Plan X” on the part of TVI Resource Development Philippines Inc. (TVIRD ) were sent to government officials all the way up to President Benigno S. Aquino III as well as to cabinet members, senators and congressmen.
The fake messages, from TVIRD’s email address and purportedly addressed to other company officials, alleged a plot to kill people opposing the company’s operations in Balabag in Zamboanga del Sur in northern Mindanao.
The hoax resulted in TVIRD being dragged into court, before the National Bureau of Investigation and Pacific Strategies & Assessment, a private Manila-based risk assessment firm, investigated the case separately and proved the emails were faked.
The story, which became public in July, has continued, however, with TVIRD still being pursued in court, although the company has now charged a range of officials and members of a local small miners’ association with criminal libel.
If anything, the episode demonstrates the difficulty that multinational resource extraction companies have in operating in the Philippines, whose 7,100 islands are believed to contain some of the richest mineral deposits in the world, with an estimated US $73 billion in gold, $56.7 billion in copper and $2 billion in silver. If extensive operations were to go forward, that would make the Philippine mining industry richer than Indonesia’s, with the potential to deliver billions of dollars to the Philippine treasury.
The industry, however, suffers from previous decades of environmental disaster and outlaw operations, including driving indigenous peoples off mining lands without compensation, leaving abandoned mines to deliver a toxic mix of poisonous minerals into rivers and streams and a long and depressing range of other shortcomings. Most mining was ordered to stop because of the environmental depredation.
Restarting it has been problematical. The industry has played into the hands of an odd although unconnected amalgam of implacable foes including the Catholic Church, the communist New People’s Army, environmentalists, populist local leaders, human rights activists and indigenous peoples.
New People’s Army guerrillas, either because they are denied extortion money or because they seek to further their aims through other means, regularly descend on mining operations and destroy fleets of expensive mining vehicles.
After more than a year since it was promised, President Aquino issued a new executive order on July 9 outlining guidelines on mineral extraction and banning mining until the comprehensive guidelines are put in place.
The guidelines establish protected areas such as prime agricultural lands and tourism development areas, mandate full enforcement of environmental standards, demand review of the performance of existing mining operations, block new mineral agreements pending new legislation, establish mineral reservations, mandate public competitive bidding for new mining rights and require the cleanup of abandoned mines, among other requirements in the eight-page order.
Making sure that the guidelines are met, and that the industry is cleaned up, will be yet another major test of Aquino’s will to bring a measure of order to his lawless country, both in controlling the environmental and social damage caused by the extractive industry and the forces that have stifled what is potentially one of the Philippines’ most valuable industries.
“The president is very exposed on this,” a source said. “The biggest challenge to the new executive order is that it is being questioned on both sides. The real issue comes down to the rights of the indigents. The law basically takes away the rights of small-scale miners—it makes it very difficult for them to claim ancestral lands.”
Then there is the bigger question of the general lawlessness of the Philippines, and that is where TVIRD has run into trouble. The company has operated in the Philippines since the late 1990s with considerable success, in contrast to many of its fellow mining companies, spending millions of pesos to placate the locals on roads, school buildings, water reservoirs, footbridges and other infrastructure in response to the environmental and health issues raised against its presence. That has made many of the local communities the company’s firm supporters. “They are as responsible as any mining group in the country,” one observer said.
However, illegal small-scale miners have made a good living mining and stealing minerals from TVRD’s property. Although the company offered settlements to the scores of small-time miners, fewer than half accepted. Those who did not organized under the name Monte de Oro Small Scale Miners Association, known by its acronym Mossma, claiming they were entitled to a portion of TVRD’s site under the People’s Mining Act of 1991.
TVIRD, however, a decade before had signed a production sharing agreement with the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources to develop the 4,779-hectare Balabag site, investing more than $15.5 million for the exploration of gold and silver deposits.
In April, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau ordered the Mossma miners to stop operations, ruing they had failed to obtain authorization under the People’s Small Scale Mining Act of 1991.
That apparently kicked off what TVIRD denounced as a “sophisticated, high-level assault that appears to be coordinated with impunity by powerful individuals seeking to dislodge TVIRD from its licensed mine site in Zamboanga del Sur.”
Richard Jacobson, an official with the Manila-based Pacific Strategies & Assessments country risk firm, which was hired by the mining company to investigate the case, said the emails were fake exchanges that purportedly outlined a plan to kill the most vocal critics of the company, including a local journalist.
It appeared that Mossma and their backers, major business interests in Zamboanga del Sur, had coerced employees of TVRD into providing authentic company emails that could be rewritten to make it appear that the attack was being planned. The emails were then distributed to top government officials across the country to attempt to discredit TVRD.
“It’s right out of a novel,” Jacobson said in an interview. “Most companies always have issues with what people call small-scale mining groups. They are illegal miners, doing illegal mining all over the country. The ones in Zamboanga del Sur were well organized by the local power groups down there. It is a very profitable enterprise.”
Tensions had been building for several months, Jacobson said. “We think they had outside help, what they did was organize a really intricate conspiracy where they hacked into the email system and recruited people inside to report to them.”
Eventually, using the emails, the Mossma group took the case to a court in Cagayan de Oro, the provincial capital, to obtain a Writ of Amparo, a Philippine remedy open to any person who alleges is life, liberty or security have been threatened or violated. The writ covers extralegal killings and enforced disappearances or threats.
Court hearings have continued for the past four weeks despite the fact that PSA and the National Bureau of Investigation—the Philippines’ FBI conclusively proved that the emails were fraudulent.
“Now that it has been proven that the documents were fabricated, the court may be considering charging the fabricators with obstruction of justice,” Jacobson said.