ZAMBOANGA CITY: A satellite photo of the southern Philippine island of Tumbagaan in Tawi-Tawi’s Languyan town shows the devastation caused by nickel mining there.

tawi tawi - Tawi-Tawi nickel island mined out
WHAT’S LEFT A Google Maps satellite photo of Tumbagaan Island in Tawi-Tawi’s Languyan town shows how the island has been devastated by nickel mining.  Tumbagaan was once covered by thick vegetation. PHOTO BY AL JACINTO

The Google Maps photo accessed by The Manila Times shows about 90 percent of the island had been mined.

But the different shades of colors of the island, which was once covered in thick vegetation, indicate fresh mining activities.

Just last week, President Rodrigo Duterte, who was made aware of the mining devastation in Tumbagaan, ordered a stop to all mining operations in Tawi-Tawi.

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said Duterte was very much concerned about reports that Tumbagaan Island has been completely devastated by mining activities.

“The island has, at this point, been mined out. And while rehabilitation efforts are under way, the President is issuing a directive to stop any and all mining,” he said.

Duterte also ordered authorities to step up rehabilitation by planting trees in areas devastated by nickel mining.

But surprisingly, Duterte did not order an investigation of the mining activities in Tawi-Tawi or who were the groups behind the environmental destruction, and why it was not acted upon by the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), particularly the Mines and Geosciences Bureau.

Environmentalists said nickel mining activities have destroyed the environment on Tumbagaan Island and other sites in Tawi-Tawi.

It was unknown whether Duterte’s order had anything to do with his recent meeting in Davao City with Nur Misuari, chairman of the former rebel group Moro National Liberation Front.

During the meeting, Misuari gave Duterte documents and raised some concerns on Tawi-Tawi.

Mining money was also being used to bankroll political campaigns in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) comprising the provinces of Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, Sulu, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao.

As early as 2016, the Regional Legislative Assembly of the previous and now defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was replaced by the BARMM, asked the DENR to issue an order stopping all destructive mining activities in the Muslim autonomous region.

In September 2019, the BARMM said it suspended all nickel mining operations in Tawi-Tawi to pave way for a review of the region’s mining policy.

Details of the review were not made public, however.

The Philippines was the world’s second-largest nickel ore producer in 2018 after Indonesia, with both Southeast Asian countries as the top two suppliers to China.

Latest available industry data showed that 2.34 million wet metric tons (WMT) of high-grade ore, or nearly 90 percent of 2.66-million WMT of the high-grade material the Philippines exported to China in the first half of 2018 came from Tawi-Tawi, one of the five provinces under the BARMM.

Tawi-Tawi accounted for 27 percent of overall nickel ore exports, totalling 15.8 million WMT, to China during the six-month period.

In 2016, ARMM Assemblyman Hanibal Tulawie, then chairman of the Committee on Environment and Ecology, said a resolution was passed asking the DENR to immediately issue a “cease-and-desist” order on all mining companies operating in Tawi-Tawi and also in Basilan, Sulu, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao provinces after he received numerous complaints from the public and environmentalists who are opposed to destructive mining methods.

Photos of nickel mining operations in Tumbagaan Island posted on Facebook also showed huge trucks and barges hauling off red soil, which was allegedly being shipped to China where it is processed.

There were previous reports indicating that Tumbagaan Island was totally ruined because of mining explorations and the nickel mining activities there and also in Panglima Sugala town.

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