Sunday, 22 January 2012

Risking life and limb for a speck of gold

     These are the makeshift houses of gold miners at Compostela Valley in Davao. Note the  
     sacks of   gold-laden earth awaiting processing to extract gold dusts and nuggets. -  
     Photo by MGB


THE LANDSLIDE at a gold rush area at Brgy. Napnapan in Compostela Valley’s Pantukan town burying at least 36 (as of January 10) and sending around 40 missing has once again brought to fore the perennial problem of how to regulate small-scale mining (SSM) operations in the country.

What, exactly, is small-scale mining? According to Director Leo Jasareno of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), mining activities are considered “small-scale” if:

(1) they are artisanal in nature, that is, they rely on manual labor and do not use heavy equipment nor explosives; 

(2) the area covered by mining activities does not exceed 20 hectares; (3) the capital expenditure is less than P10 million; and 

(d) mine production does not exceed 50,000 metric tons in a year. 

Jasareno explains that SSM “is not illegal per se, since it is allowed by our Constitution,” referring to the State’s responsibility in promoting the exploration, development, utilization and conservation of our country’s mineral resources. 

In fact, Republic Act 7076, or the People’s Small-Scale Mining Act of 1991, was enacted “to generate employment opportunities and provide an equitable sharing of the nation’s wealth.”

The Philippines is one of the world’s top producers of gold, which comes from the mines of Benguet, Paracale in Camarines Norte, and, on a larger scale, in Compostela Valley. 

Almost 70% of the gold is produced by small-scale miners. Since all minerals are considered property of the State, all gold produced by small-scale miners are then sold to the Central Bank or its authorized representatives, forming part of the country’s financial reserves.

The current global demand for gold is at an all-time high, fetching at least US$1,700 an ounce or more than P2,500 per gram. 

It is no wonder, then, that so many small-scale miners are attracted to gold-rich Compostela Valley like ants to a bowl of sugar. Multiply the amount by 10, or the number of grams a miner could extract on a lucky day, and the lure of getting rich quickly would, and understandably so, far outweigh calls for personal or environmental safety.

      Small-scale gold miners work on a heap of gold-laden earth. Mercury is commonly used 
      to extract gold from the dirt. - Photo by MGB

Riches over danger
 “A social issue” is how Jasareno describes the persistent presence of illegal SSM operations in identified hazard areas that have time and again been pinpointed as the cause of landslides that have claimed the lives of so many Filipinos. 

Compostela Valley alone has seen 14 landslides since March 2001, causing the death of at least 173. Yet despite LGU efforts to relocate them, and despite declaration of certain areas as “no habitation zones,” miners have flocked back, bringing their families along with them.

Small-scale miners are very much aware of the hazards of the job such as cave-ins, landslides, or contamination from toxic chemicals such as mercury and cyanide which they use in gold processing. 

Jasareno says illegal SSM is like “putting mining at the hands of those who do not know how to mine,” because many of them are, undoubtedly, inexperienced in the scientific and safer techniques of mining. 

Yet they are forced to disregard the dangers because they feel that government has been unable to provide them with viable alternatives.

For his part, DENR Secretary Ramon J P Paje has lamented the lack of mitigation measures in many other SSM sites throughout the country: “No security, no form of safety, no pollution measures for mercury and siltation… What they use all goes into the rivers or creeks and eventually end up in the sea.”

Jasareno says that for these miners, “it is not a choice between safety and danger. Dramatic as it may sound, they say that it is really for them a choice between dying sooner because of hunger, or later because of the toxic chemicals.”

Safety as policy
Small-scale mining presents a dilemma of sorts for the government. On one hand, the existence of an astounding number of small-scale miners, estimated to reach 200-300 thousand nationwide, confirms the richness of the country’s mineral resources. 

On the other hand, the illegal miners’ inefficient and indiscriminate operations pose dangers to their own lives and to the rest of the community, as well as threaten the environment. 

To address the problem, the DENR has stopped issuing environmental clearance certificates to SSM operations. 

The MGB also plans to train LGUs on mining practices, especially those related to SSM, hoping that these will guide local officials in efficiently planning for and ensuring the safety of their constituents while developing their areas. 

The DENR has imposed a moratorium on the issuance of mining permits since January 2011. However, this does not cover SSM permits issued by LGUs. 

Thus, the office is now planning to identify areas that could be declared as “Minahan ng Bayan” that authorities could monitor. It is also looking into the relocation of processing plants only in identified zones.

Finally, as Sec Paje incessantly demands of local officials – the importance of paying attention to the geohazard maps. 

“We may sound like a broken record, but we will continue sounding off the alarm if only to avoid unnecessary loss of lives,” he said.

According to him, the DENR has already completed assessing the country of geohazards, and has distributed the generated geohazard maps to all LGUs. 

But Paje expressed willingness to re-distribute the maps after every local election and re-orient local officials as they are at the forefront not only in enforcing small-scale mining laws but also in ensuring the safety of their constituents.

 “LGUs are mandated to strictly implement ‘no habitation zones’, even enlist police or military assistance to implement the policy. 

“They can also declare certain mined-out areas as off-limits for rehabilitation. After all, no amount of gold extracted with blood can ever pay for lives lost because of negligence,” Paje concludes.

(Courtesy of Public Affairs Office, Department of Environment and Natural Resources)

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