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From gold ore, back to golden rice grain

A mining town now wants a return to farming.

Itogon mayor Victorio Palangdan says he is ready to go back to agriculture to salvage what is left of his town after a landslide buried dozens of miners and forced the government to halt small-scale mining in the Cordillera region.

“Our municipality is now destroyed,” he said, while recalling the days when the town was known as the rice granary of the province.

The eroded mountain which buried dozens at the Ucab mine
site. Photo by Maria Elena Catajan.

“In the 80’s the Department of Agriculture declared Itogon as the rice granary of Benguet because during that time the municipality could produce the rice requirement of the province. But now what happened?”

Back then, he explained, all the barangays had rice paddies. “But when mining companies experienced a boom, the upper part of Itogon suffered a water shortage,” he said, adding that those villages that were originally producing rice switched to mining.

One of those is Barangay Ucab, which bore the brunt of Ompong (Mangkhut), the most powerful typhoon to hit the country this year, as it battered northern provinces on Sept 15. A landslide buried small-scale miners who had taken refuge in bunkhouses.

A total of 86 deaths have been recorded for the entire municipality of Itogon, with 14 people still missing and presumed dead at Ucab.

The government on Sept 26 concluded its search and rescue operations in the area and switched to retrieving bodies buried under the rubble. The Office of Civil Defence said it was impossible to see any signs of life after 11 days of search.

Immediately after the fatal landslide, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu ordered a halt to small-scale mining in the Cordillera Autonomous Region. He said soldiers and police will be deployed to enforce the ban.

Before the tragedy struck, Palangdan said, he was trying to restore irrigation and farm-to-market roads in an effort to lure the community back to agriculture.

“We are introducing, little by little, (the idea) for people to forget mining because mining is only a temporary source of income,” he explained.

“People from this place go into mining. There are those who lost money, there are those who got lucky. The only stable livelihood is agriculture.”

Palangdan said there have been efforts to introduce other forms of livelihood “so we no longer have to depend on gold ore, but on golden rice grains,” adding that the slow establishment of organic farming and backyard gardening is being done to convince people.

Danger zone warnings have been installed since the mines and geo-sciences bureau identified the spot as a geo-hazard area. Photo by Maria Elena Catajan.

Regulation instead of stoppage

The mayor admits that the town depends on mining, saying more than 50 percent of the residents work the tunnels, referring to the underground structures used in extracting ore.

A shift away from mining would not be easy and the miners themselves realize the dire consequences of the government’s order to stop small-scale mining, a major source of livelihood.

The Benguet Federation of Small-Scale Miners appealed to Sec. Cimatu to reconsider the closure order, saying the livelihood is customary to the Cordillera. The group asked instead that the operations be regulated.

“Dear Secretary Sir, please consider our plight,” the Federation said in a letter to Cimatu.

“Is the stoppage of our occupation really (going to be) well for our country? Why will the enforcement of your order be implemented by the Army? Are we enemies of the State? Are we fugitives of justice?”

“Oplan Itogon,” which starts Oct. 1, states that after the target selection of mine sites for closure, the National Task Force Mining Challenge – through the Philippine Army, Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, Philippine National Police and National Bureau of Investigation – will operate against non-compliant mine sites.

In the early days of the tragedy, Palangdan pointed the accusing finger at the mining giant, Benguet Corp, for the deaths of the miners at Ucab Level 070, an area the firm owns and still controls.

“Why did they allow the people to mine their abandoned mining tunnels? Why allow them to use the old buildings? Can we see the picture now?”

The dead and missing were buried alive on the mining company’s property as they took refuge at two bunk houses and inside a makeshift church at the height of the typhoon as the mountain eroded and debris covered the entire area.

Search and rescue operations at Ucab were halted after 11 days .Photo by Redjie Melvic Cawis Philippine Information Agency – Cordillera.

Benguet Corp has said that illegal mining and gold processing activities there “are without permission” of the company.

For its part, the Mines Geosciences Bureau (MGB) Cordillera under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources attests that the landslide was not caused by mining alone but other aggravating circumstances as well.

The MGB has long provided a geo-hazard map of the area after an assessment showed the exact spot at Ucab 070 as a landslide susceptible area. The map indicates areas where landslide and flooding may occur and also serves as a guide for the local government to plan the construction of roads and other structures.

Benguet Corp started operations in the town in 1903, with open pit mines and underground operations extracting ores of gold, nickel and silver, in the late 90’s operations came to a halt and was expected to implement the mine rehabilitation plan for the town.

BCI then allowed investors to acquire concessions to operate in their abandoned tunnels which opened the door for Small Scale Mining (SSM) under their jurisdiction.

There are over 20,000 small scale miners in the entire Benguet Province with Itogon hosting 12,000.

There are also 70 associations in the province scattered in the towns of Kabayan, Bokod, Mankayan, Atok, Tuba, Tublay and Itogon, making SSM a primary livelihood despite its dangers.

This story is produced by VERA Files under a project supported by the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, which aims to empower journalists from developing countries to cover the environment more effectively.