ZAMBOANGA DEL SUR: THE municipality of Bayog in this province has been a mining town since lowlanders relocated to the area in the early 1950s, but authorities have expressed alarm at the pace of environmental degradation, particularly in the mountain of Balabag.
While a large Canadian mining firm operates in the area, the real culprit behind the ecological destruction is illegal small-scale mining, according to Mines and Geosciences Bureau regional director Albert Johann Jacildo.
Jacildo said that the whole Balabag area has turned into a gold rush site, similar to the province of Compostela Valley in Davao region where thousands of illegal miners are operating despite a government ban.
In Balabag, hundreds of families have put up their shanties in mountain slopes and are illegally mining for gold and their financiers do not even have government permits.
The financiers do not pay taxes for all the gold they have extracted and sold in the black market and there are even reports that journalists under their employ protect and defend their activities and some even claim to be members of the media group National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
Clear and present danger
Jacildo admitted the problems posed by illegal mining activities in Balabag and has called on the Philippine National Police to investigate the rampant blasting and smuggling of improvised explosives or materials used to make homemade bombs.
“There is a community of small scale miners there. These are informal small-scale miners similar to the problems in Pantukan and Diwalwal in Compostela Valley. We have a gold-rush area in Balabag and since I assumed office I realized that there is really a problem brought about by illegal mining there,” Jacildo said.
He said that the geographical hazard map of Balabag shows that the mountain area is vulnerable to landslides and poses a real danger to illegal miners.
Jacildo added that he also received a report about the evacuation of a school in Balabag due to the cracks on the floor caused by tunnels dug by illegal miners.
“We have received a report about this. We have photographs that showed the cracks on the earth inside the school, which may pose real danger to the students. Our office immediately wrote to the regional police director Chief Superintendent Napoleon Estilles and we are asking their help because this (problem) involved explosives,” he says.
But the Miswi Intermediate School in Balabag had to be evacuated, nonetheless, because of the tunnels dug by illegal miners underneath the schoolhouse. The cracks on the floor of the school are threatening the safety and lives of dozens of students.
Jacildo said that the rampant use of cyanide, mercury and nitric acid is threatening the environment and the safety and health of villagers around the mountain.
There have been many cases of deaths related to illegal mining over the years—from landslides to blasting of tunnels—by small scale miners.
Blasting is most common at night when illegal miners dig tunnels to gather rocks and boulders from which they can extract gold. The loud blasts from homemade explosives reverberate in the still of the cold and foggy night as if Balabag is a war zone.
The blasting of the mountain is so rampant that even authorities cannot do anything to stop it. The lack of security forces to guard the environment remains a sad reality in Balabag. The smuggling of cyanide and ammonium nitrate and blasting caps – used as detonators for homemade explosives – continue unabated.
Morever, Jacildo said, the huge number of child workers has become increasingly alarming in Balabag. Teenagers bear the heavy scars of illegal mining activities in the mountain.
Everyday, these teenagers carry heavy boulders and rocks and crush them with hammers, dangerous jobs for which they get a pittance to feed their hungry families.
The authorities have tried to organize security forces to help guard the mountain of Balabag and protect the environment and people in Bayog.
But Natalio Bello, of the Special Civilian Active Auxiliaries of the Philippine Army, said the destruction of Balabag mountain continues unabated.
“I have seen here the problems brought about by illegal miners. The rampant blasting to make tunnels and their continued use of mercury, cyanide and nitric acid is a bigger problem,” Bello said.
“The unabated dumping of mine tailings by small scale miners is also another problem and these tailings contain hazardous chemicals that contaminate our water sources, our lakes and go down to the mountain and eventually to the sea,” he added.
“We are afraid that these illegal activities are contaminating the environment. The illegal miners extract minerals in the wrong way and there have been numerous deaths related to these activities – those who perished and buried alive in tunnels and landslides in Balabag – and most of these cases are not even reported to the authorities. We just hope that these problems are resolved soon,” Bello said.
Bello is one of the few villagers trained by the government as militia and deployed in Balabag to help protect the environment and the communities around the mountain.
Stop illegal mining
Various organizations and groups, lawmakers and mining corporations have asked the government to put a stop to illegal mining because of its ill effects on the environment and dangers posed to human life.
Hundreds have died from landslides and collapsed tunnels in areas where there are rampant illegal mining activities, especially in Mindanao.
Even in some portions of the 2,000-year-old Ifugao Rice terraces in Banaue, small-scale mining activities have wreaked great havoc on the environment.
Sen. Loren Legarda called for an immediate investigation into the reported illegal mining activities.
Legarda learned about the mining activities during the on-site consultative meeting of the Senate committee on cultural communities, where concerns were raised over the potential gold mining activities in the rice clusters of the Ifugao Rice Terraces.
“The Ifugao Rice Terraces had been included in the List of World Heritage in Danger due to the absence of the necessary monitoring mechanism and management plan to preserve and ensure the sustainable development of the national landmark,” she pointed out. Legarda said that the encroachment of illegal small-scale mining operators in the Ifugao Rice Terraces further puts a threat to the already rapidly deteriorating state of one of the country’s national treasures.
It was learned that small-scale mining activities are taking place in Barangay Hapao in Hungduan, and Ducligan and Bangaan villages in Banaue, which host the rice terraces included in the World Heritage List.
Moreover, the provincial government of neighboring Ifugao province reported that illegal mining operations are also present in Barangay Baang, Hungduan and Halag, Aguinaldo, an area outside the jurisdiction of heritage sites.
Legarda said that these illegal activities should be immediately addressed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Provincial Mining Regulatory Board created by virtue of Republic Act 7076 or the People’s Small-Scale Mining Act.
WITH A REPORT FROM JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA
This article was first published at The Manila Times and originally written by AL JACINTO.