Sunday, 22 January 2012

My father’s gold story

     An abandoned gold panning site near Sta Elena, Jose Panganiban, Camarines Norte. 
     Notice the destruction miners have caused to the farmland. –  Photo courtesy of 


PORT MORESBY: One Friday afternoon while doing my usual round of the supermarket's shelves for the coming week's provision, a local guy approached me as he opened up his right palm to reveal a small piece of rough yellow metal that looked like a gold nugget.

He whispered to me: "Bro .. gold … yu laik baim gold bilong mi long Maprik …? prais blong em 50 kina tasol …" (Bro … gold .. you want to buy my gold from Maprik … K50 (US$16) only …"

"No …" I told him, but then, out of my curiosity, I picked it from his palm, put it in my mouth and bit it. Immediately, I knew it was real gold although it needed some more processing to remove impurities that might have been embedded in the metal.

"Sori tru .. bro … nugat moni … (I'm really sorry, bro … got no money …) I told him and then I turned my back and left him.

I could have paid for the gold nugget that easily weighed about an ounce and have it fashioned into a nice thick ring or other pieces of jewelry when I come home to Manila.

However, I was not sure how he acquired the stuff, especially now that hold-ups have become common and a number of the victims were village gold panners who came to Port Moresby to sell their nuggets to city gold buyers.

Panning for alluvial gold, usually on river banks, is not only common around many villages in Central province where Port Moresby is located, but also in many alluvial gold and undeveloped gold mining areas around the country.

This is one enterprise that has become the fall back options for many villagers when prices of important crops like vanilla, coffee or cocoa tumble in the world market and the local buyers-exporters are paying peanuts for their produce.

I CAME TO LEARN something about gold nuggets and gold panning from my father.

When I was just about four or five years old in the early 50s, I saw him once or twice a week arriving in a small banca that had always been half-filled with reddish sand he hauled off from the banks on the other side of the sea-river where the United Paracale Gold Mine was operating. At that time, father had worked at the gold mine as a mechanic and he did this sideline of his on weekends.

Apparently, the sand was part of the mine tailings that had been dislodged from the processing mill which accumulated over time by the river banks. But dad was not the only one doing it. A lot more people from our neighborhood were coming and going to the other side of the river to load their bancas with the red sand.

From the windows at the back of our stilt house, I could see the UP mining camp about a kilometer away across the sea-river. I call it "sea-river" because it looked like a massive river that empties into the bay on the other side of the town of Paracale, then a booming gold mining town in Camarines Norte whose gold was first discovered and exploited by the first batch of Spaniards who colonized the Philippines some 400 years ago.

But then one day a few years later, I learned that this river actually circled the whole town because its other end also began from the other side of the bay so that when it was high tide, the sea water surged inland through these two river-mouths, flooding the ground under the houses near the sea-river. That's why those houses, including ours, were built with tall posts and each house was linked to a network of a meter-wide foot bridges that began from the nearby road.

My dad would usually park his sand-filled banca under our house next to a makeshift platform where he dumped the red sand. And while it was high tide and the water was just about six inches under the floor of the platform that he could conveniently reach it, he would put a lump of the sand into his wooden basin - a blackened, open-mouthed cone-shaped vessel that looked like a Vietnamese's "salakot" - and a fairly good amount of sea water.

Then he would start swirling the vessel, which later I learned was called in the local lingo as "pabirik" or "pangkabod" (The gold panners were referred to as "magkakabod"). He would spin it, making the water dance around the vessel and would dislodge the cloudy water, then put some fresh ones and repeat the process, until only dusts of gold, if there were any, remained at the deepest recess at the center of the cone.

The inner side of the cone was painted smooth black so that even a tiny speck of gold dust would be seen at once. Against a dark background, gold dusts sparkled. To extract the precious particles from the bottom of the pan, father would drop a small amount of mercury. Working like a sponge, the mercury collected every gold particle. Then, father would carefully unload the gold-filled mercury into a small glass vial, one of the many that he has lined up inside a special cabinet - a small hoard of wealth he accumulated over many weekends.

As soon as father had enough gold material, he would bring it to the town goldsmith who would "cooked it" using a mouth-blown torch. Once done, the goldsmith would weigh it and tell my father how much gold could go into a ring or a pair of earrings or necklace. Then mother would decide if she would wear or sell it. That's how my parents augmented the family income.

During those days, gold abounded in Paracale that I thought every girl in town - from as young as two-year up to the grown ups - wore a pair of intricately-designed earrings and a necklace with heavy gold pendant. Gold had become a common place that it was unsurprising for somebody to say "gintong Paracale, mawala man ay hindi bale …" (Paracale gold, you don't mind losing it …" for the simple reason that you could easily have it if you wanted one. That's why gold traders from outside - meaning from places as far as the southern tip of the Bicol Peninsula came to Paracale to buy cheap and sell high, either in their hometown or in Manila.
     A small-scale gold mining site in Nalisbitan, Labo, Camarines Norte. – Photo courtesy of 
     Tabadi /Panoramio
In December 1952 when the gold mine was shut down after the underground tunnel network collapsed and sucked up sea water that almost dried up the sea-river, drowning at least 56 gold miners trapped inside, the whole town mourned, not only for the loss of many lives but also for the loss of a stable livelihood that made Paracale the most affluent town in the province. Many of the displaced miners returned to farming and fishing while others became full-time gold panners.

After finding a new job at the iron mines in Larap, Jose Panganiban, a town just 14 kilometers from Paracale, my father bundled up our small family and moved to our new home in a coconut hacienda known as Parang located by the bay on the outskirts of Jose Panganiban.

Many years later, that's when I was already working in Manila as a reporter of the Times Journal - a daily then owned by 'Cocoy' Romualdez, the younger brother of former first lady Imelda Marcos - my father told me something that was big news to me: That the piece of mountainside coconut farm that our family owned in Paracale has gold - not just gold but high-grade gold and high-grade iron ore and that gold and iron ore prospectors had been enticing him into allowing a Manila-based exploration company to enter our property to plot the location of the minerals.

My father stood pat on his ground not to allow the exploration company to touch our farm until he passed away some ten years ago. The seven children in our family of which I am the eldest had also resolved that the coconut farm will stay as it is - a coconut farm - and struck a deal among ourselves that whoever wanted to sell his or her share of the property, we will buy him or her out just to keep the farm intact. It was my father's wish that whoever among his children needed money later could appropriate the produce from the farm.

Sometimes in the early 1980s, many owners of coconut farms surrounding my father's land allowed gold panners to operate in their respective properties when it was found out that alluvial gold abound the place, especially those spots near creeks and brooks. Each gold panner paid as royalty a canfull of alluvial rocks (the can was the size of a kerosene container common in the Philippines) for every three cans of rocks or sand they dug up.

The gold ore was then pulverized using fabricated metal pestles and mortars and ball mills and the powder was panned along creeks, brooks or any spot where there was available water.

In their search of gold ore, the panners overturned the banks of waterways, creeks and brooks and those innocent areas right under the coconut plantation, and even the dirt around the root-base of hundreds of coconut trees. But their efforts were not wasted as gold was there for the taking but in its wake, left the waterways, creeks and brooks that used to be the village's source of drinking water and wild shrimps inundated with mud and silt.

But anyway, everybody was happy, the landowners most especially, knowing that the mountain of alluvial rocks and sand that they received as royalties would soon yield a lot of gold later. On a lucky day, a gold panner would collect at least five to 10 grams of processed gold which he usually sold before sundown to the local buyer at PHP1,100 a gram (about US$23). There were some miners who immediately hit pay dirt when they found high-grade gold as big as the thumb. News like this was more than enough to draw more gold hunters into the area.

ONE DAY, a relative of my father who was his "katiwala" (caretaker) sent a telegram, informing my father that he had found evidence of gold panning activities within our farm. And so my dad and I, who happened to be on leave from my work at the newspaper, traveled to the province to see for ourselves what was going on.

It was true. There had been gold panning activity as shown by the muddy water that was flowing down the creek within our property. Tracing for the source of the murky water upstream, we ended up next to an ancient cave, but whose entrance would not be noticed by newcomers to the place because it was overwhelmed by thick vines and wild vegetation.

My father and I felt sorry for the havoc that the unscrupulous gold panner caused to our ancient "sapa" (brook), because what used to be crystal-clear flowing water was now nothing but mud. This was where my mom and I used to catch shrimps and fetched our drinking water whenever our family camped out at the farm during copra-making season.

But one of my father's relatives told him not to worry too much because he believed that not a speck of gold was ever stolen from his "gold field".

"What do you mean?" my dad asked, unbelieving what he just heard.

The guy told the story. He said his information came from one of the two kids who helped the culprit panned for gold. He said he knew the man and that he lived three farms away.

My dad's relative said the man had deposited the semi-processed mud in several coconut shells which he arranged along the edge of the creek. The mud, it turned out, contained gold dust concentrate that he had accumulated, which later, he would process further to extract the precious metal. Later that afternoon, when the man was preparing to transfer the processed gold dusts from the coconut shells into the main container, something rather odd occurred.

This was when the man and the two kids had noticed that the coconut shells – about 12 of them – containing the gold dusts were slowly levitating one after the other from where they had earlier sat on the creek banks and were floating towards the middle of the creek. And then one by one, the shells overturned with a jerk and violently dumped the contents into the murky water after which the shells plunged down just like an anchor, each one breaking as they hit a rock.

This spectacle, our relative continued, sent the man and his two accomplices scampering into the bush, leaving their mining paraphernalia that included shovels, picks, cans, panning vessels, cooking pots and a bottle of mercury. The three intruders were never seen inside the property again and their story spread like wildfire across the barrio.

Hearing the story, father did not show surprise. Instead, he just smiled.

Long time, ago when he was younger, he inherited that piece of property from his father, and was told of an ancient cave that was home to millions of bats and huge guano deposits.

His father - our grandfather, of course - also told him that the cave was inhabited by an "engkanto" or "taong-lupa" (spirit or supernatural being). So out of respect, they never disturbed that area even once, although they would pass by the spot on their way to the "kaingin" farm that they had just burned to plant it with coconut trees, bananas and papayas. And whenever they approached the enchanted spot, they would say "Pasintabi po, Apo… makikiraan po …" (Please excuse us, Apo … please allow us passage …)

Meanwhile, the gold panning activities around our neighboring coconut farms went on, and this time the number of gold panners almost doubled, many of them subsistence farmers from far-flung barrios. The coconut farm had become a virtual refugee camp with makeshift shelters and canvas tents mushrooming all over the place. They were put up by gold hunters who were not natives from the area.

Incidentally, a number of them approached my father. But he flatly said "no" to their proposal to dug up around his coconut trees for gold in exchange for what they called "royalties". So they confined themselves within the properties of the consenting landowners.

MONTHS later when a typhoon swept across Bicol region with its tail winds violently wagging and whipping a part of Camarines Norte, thousands of coconut trees in farms around my father's farm were knocked down.

These were the coconut trees whose root-base had loosened up after being mined out by the gold panners. Learning from this horrifying lesson, the landowners stopped the mining operations at their property and drove away the gold panners.

Standing atop a fallen coconut tree, one landowner surveyed his damaged farm. This time, he was looking at his farm dotted by fox holes, just like those that had just been abandoned after a fierce battle was fought. It would take him some time to restore the landscape to its original terrain and to replant his farm with new coconut trees at a huge cost.

AND AS THE exploration company intensified its gold hunt across farmlands surrounding ours, our beloved late father had time and again reminded us - his seven children:

"Don't ever touch our gold if you can help it … it's the only way to keep the farm intact - for you and your children.

"Anyway, I know you won't need it, however penniless you would become."

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