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Boom or Doom?

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[Photo of Housing Facilities]To win the war on poverty, the RP government says sacrifices have to be made. But will nature be the convenient casualty?

Roselyn Dondoy’s first encounter with electricity was through a laminated wooden box with a glass screen that beamed black-and-white moving pictures. Her father bought it around 20 years ago.

Their hut of palm slabs and leaves was the venue designated by the village kids for their afternoon congregations, where they watched delayed broadcasts of Japanese cartoons. Despite living on the slopes of Siocon, a remote Subanen township in Zamboanga del Norte that opens to the South China Sea, her house- hold was among the few that enjoyed the semblance of modernity. All through the good graces of a foreign mining company that set up shop nearby and hired her father, formerly a carpenter, as foreman.

The tiny community of mostly indigenous tribes-people flourished as revenue from the largescale, open-cast mine poured in, bringing them little known conveniences like electricity, running water and medical services.

However, by the early 1990’s, tribal leaders, worried about being inched out of their ancestral domain, began protesting the expansion of mixed mines. Backed by leftwing environmentalist groups, the opposition threatened the tenure of the mining firms; until low global prices and the country’s political instability sealed the fate of the mines. In an instant, all was lost. The mining firm suddenly packed up and left Siocon.

“The jobs were lost,” Rosely said. So were the electricity and running water.
[Photo of Nonoc Island]
Roselyn’s father, reluctant to move the family to greener pastures, tried to earn a living from carpentry. But his former patrons had relocated as the community of ex-farmers drifted to where there were jobs.

“It was a very difficult time. Father was always frustrated,” recalled Roselyn.

Finally, her family had to leave their impoverished hometown, the land of her birth and the burial ground of her forebears.

Today, her old neighborhood is almost a ghost town of decaying shanties overrun by foliage. And the only reminder of the old mine is a huge danao (the local term for “pond”), which dries up in summer to reveal an immense man-made crater of barren sediment.

Revival

This and other similar abandoned mines in Southern Philippines are targets of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s mining rehabilitation program.

In its Minerals Action Plan, the government calls foreign investments “critical” to its “war on poverty.” Granting mining rights to Chinese and other foreign investors is its solution. It has also streamlined the processing of permits to alleviate the exploitation of the country’s mineral-rich islands.

Danger Ahead

For all the Philippine government’s rehab efforts, it must deal with the payoff. Even foreign legislators admit that opening the countryside to mining comes at a hefty price—paid mostly by indigenous villagers.

[Photo of Zamboanga Del Norte]“I have never seen anything so systematically destructive as the mining program in the Philippines,” said Clare Short, Brittish MP, who wrote a scathing report on mining practices in the country.

“The environmental effects are catastrophic as are the effects on lives,” she wrote in the introduction of Mining in the Philippines: Conflicts and Concerns.

Anti-mining groups in Mindanao, where Chinese firms plan to set up operations, sounded the alarm even before the government commenced its mining rehab program.

Alamin, a community-based environmentalist alliance, said ore extraction will spoil surface and ground water, exposing the soil basin to flash floods and destroying rice fields. There is also the danger that mine tailings may leak into rivers or seep into the ground, poisoning village water sources for generations to come.

In Mindoro, for instance (where British multinational mining firm Crew Development is planning to strip over 97 square kilometers of mountains for nickel and cobalt), 4 million tons of waste are expected to be dumped as a result of the 40,000 tons of nickel hauled annually. The waste tailings may leak as a poisonous grey sludge into rivers, similar to what nearby Marinduque experienced in 1996.

Australian firm Lafayette was recently forced to shut down its operations in Rapu-Rapu after it spewed cyanide into the marine-rich sea twice in a single month.

[Photo of Rapu-rapu, Albay]The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) recently commissioned an interdisciplinary study on a large-scale mining operation in Siocon and discovered that some local government officials disagree with the national policy on mining.

On the other hand, the local government may not necessarily represent the interests of inhabitants. Officials sometimes have a tendency to oppose policies or get into agreements with mining firms without consulting tribal communities. This is the reason why the UN recommended the inclusion of indigenous communities in local policy making. It also said tribal leaders must be given a say in the approval of mining permits.

Under Control

President Arroyo, during a visit to Shanghai last October, assured environmentalists that her government will not tolerate exploitation of Philippine natural resources. Speaking before the members of the Shanghai Overseas Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Arroyo said civil society groups and local government executives will keep a close eye on mining companies to make sure that government regulations are followed to the letter.

Former Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes earlier stressed that environmental protection will be of “paramount consideration in every stage of mining.” He said rehabilitation of mined areas will be an integral part of the operations.

Reyes also promised that government would safeguard biodiversity and take measures to preserve eco-systems. What’s more, that it will protect the rights of indigenous communities through “free and prior informed consent.”

But many remain skeptical.

“Do you know what it takes to make a gold bar?” asked Tariq Sakandal, founder of a school-based mountaineering group based in Mindoro. “You have to tear down a mountain. It’s like burning down the house to cook an egg.”

print ed: 01/08

 

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