THE Supreme Court (SC) has set aside a Court of Appeals (CA) ruling that allowed Lepanto Consolidated Mining Co. and Far Southeast Gold Resources, Inc. to continue their mining operations in Mankayan, Benguet.

In a 30-page decision dated June 21 and made public on Dec. 22, the tribunal said the arbitral award previously given to the firms should be vacated since the mining operations violated the rights of the Mankayan indigenous community.

“As the Mankayan indigenous peoples cannot be deprived of their rights to their ancestral domains without their consent, the arbitral award cannot be said to be complete, final and definite, worse binding upon them,” Associate Justice Henri Jean Paul B. Inting said in the ruling.

The mining firms were also ordered to comply with the mandated requirement of “free and prior informed and written consent” of the Mankayan indigenous community as a condition to renew their mining activities in the area.

Under the Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997, government agencies are barred from renewing any licenses or production-sharing agreements without prior certification from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.

In 1990, the state, through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), entered into a mineral production-sharing agreement with Lepanto that authorized the firm to conduct mining operations on a large tract of land in Mankayan.

The land specified in the agreement covers part of the ancestral domains of the indigenous community in Mankayan.

The agreement was initially in effect for 25 years and had a renewal clause for another 25 years if conditions are mutually agreed upon by the parties.

In 2014, Lepanto and the DENR expressed their intention to renew the agreement with the municipal government of Benguet as it was set to expire in 2015.

The respondents got an injunction from a Makati City regional trial court the following year, stopping the local government of Benguet from meddling in their mining operations in the area.

The Arbitral Tribunal that same year issued a final award in favor of the mining firms as it said disagreements on the “free and prior informed and written consent” was not within its jurisdiction.

The CA earlier reversed the decision of the Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 141 that nullified an arbitral award given to the firms allowing them to continue mining operations in the ancestral domain of Mankayan.

It said the trial court abused its discretion when it vacated the arbitral award, which the High Court disagreed with.

“It bears underscoring that the protection of the ‘rights of indigenous cultural communities to their ancestral lands to ensure their economic, social, and cultural well-being,’ is a Constitutionally declared policy of the state,” the tribunal said. — John Victor D. Ordoñez