Monday, 26 November 2012

COMMENTARY: Paracale mining tragedy: Poverty’s to blame

Gold miners’ shanties on the Palanas side of this sea-river. There are more clusters of miners’ shanties on the other side of the bridge (left of picture) where last week’s tragedy occurred. This section of Palanas directly faces the open sea. Notice a floating platform (left) for sluicing gold-reach earth hauled from Palanas. -- MWBuzzpic by AP HERNANDEZ


EARLY LAST week, the Philippine media reported the deaths of three small-scale gold miners in Palanas, a depressed seaside gold district in Paracale, CamNorte.

These miners, said to be operating illegally for using dynamites, blasted a portion of an underground tunnel, which happened to be below the level of the seawater next to it.

The blast violently shook a portion of the tunnel just below the sea-river and collapsed, triggering water to come down and flood at least seven mining pits where the three miners were at work along with others.

Talks making rounds in Palanas had it that there were more miners who could have been trapped in the flooded tunnels.

As of this writing, the municipal government of Paracale was frantic in its search for survivors, while the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) began probing the incident, through the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MBG), which has jurisdiction over mining activities in the Philippines.

Whether or not provincial Governor Edgardo Tallado should be blamed for this incident – again – is now out of the question.

The governor is the sole authority who could issue out small scale gold mining permits in the province, although right now, permit issuance is banned by MBG following disasters at gold mining districts in Mindanao.

And whether or not Tallado had issued such permits to this group of ill-fated Palanas gold miners remained hazy.

On the other hand, this is now a question of economics of the stomach, which keeps hundreds in Paracale to take such a risk.

Despite the grim prospect of death facing these poor miners, they can’t do anything but go on.

They have many mouths to feed everyday, and the gold money they make after a day’s hard work underground would surely keep their families going for another day’s grind the next day.

But the desire to earn a little more, thus taking further risk inside the tunnels and gold pits despite the hazard present and being deadly careless as well, is provoked by another factor – the proliferation of the so-called “entertainment spots” around the town of Paracale catering to many migrant miners from other parts of the province, including Mambulao.

These “beer joints” is said to be the other reason for such frenzy in looking for gold: to make an extra peso for their nightly escapade at the beer joints.

At night, many of such miners would kill time in these spots, talking to young waitresses and so-called “GROs” who are themselves dying to make a quick peso from these miners. The girls, most of them, came from far out baranggays of Paracale where the prospect of making a living is nil.

This is also one reason why the municipal government of Paracale has been vigilant to see to it that no minor girls work in these joints. The presence of girls as young as 15 was seen at these joints early last year, causing an uproar among well-meaning Paracalenos.

Hard-found gold and young rural girls working as waitresses/GROs are two ingredients that could easily make for a poor municipality like Paracale.

I have known Palanas quite well.

When I was just three, our young family settled just half a kilometer away from this tragedy site.

From the 1940s until 1951 when the mine – United Paracale or simply UP – ground to a halt after 56 miners died in the tunnel that was flooded by seawater after a tunnel collapse similar to last week’s tragedy -- Palanas served as the tailings pond of the gold mine.

Overtime, wide portion of Palanas dried up into solid grayish-brownish, gold-rich earth, providing the locals a good spot for weekend kite-flying.

And my father and I – then a three-year-old -- would be among those kite-flyers who would come from all over Paracale.

Occasionally, my neighborhood buddies and I would come to Palanas to play “gera-gerahan, baril-barilan” and hid among thick and tall “talahib” grass that hosted the nests of “pugo” and “maya’.

Palanas, which just overlooked the sea-river that surrounds the town proper of Paracale, making it practically as an island, was windy, making it the mecca for the town’s kite-flyers.

After the collapse of UP, life gradually became hard for many Paracalenos who solely depended on the gold mine for a living.

And business started to disappear as there was no more money to expect from the locals, leaving the community virtually a ghost town, allowing grass and tall talahib to overwhelm many vacant lots and front and back yards of many abandoned houses.

Many migrant workers from Bicol returned home; those who had farmlands such as coconut and other crops rediscovered their farm tools.

My father, who lost job as a driver-mechanic, returned to tending to his little coconut farm on weekdays and panned for gold on weekends.

We lived in a stilt house, one that sat above the seawater just like the rest in our neighborhood because we were right on the sea-river bank that separated us from Palanas, which was on the other side of the banks some 500 meters away.

Father would haul off gold-rich earth from the banks of Palanas in a small dug-out banca and deposit it into a platform under our house just a foot above the seawater level.

From here, he would do his panning for gold while it was high tide and the seawater was just a foot below the platform and easy to scoop; just before sundown, he would bring the gold dust in a small bottle to the town’s goldsmith for processing and then to the next-door gold buyer for some cash.

Later in 1954, we migrated to Mambulao after father found work at the Philippine Iron Mines (PIM) as a mechanic/driver.

We moved to Pasig for good in early 1970 when three of the oldest siblings in the family including me began attending the university. But my parents came back to Parang on occasions to visit our coconut farm in the nearby Paracale.

The daily gold hunt at Palanas has kept the economy of Paracale going even up to these days, especially now that the supposed mining companies – Uni Dragon Mining and Development Corp, the Bao Tong Mining Corporation and the Lioaning Fenghua Group Philippine Mining Company, Inc – had shut down after a disaster struck a tunnel operated by one of the mining firms early this year, leading to the drowning death of a number of workers.

This disaster alongside the one last week should be enough to make everybody in Paracale – especially the miners themselves – pause and ask: do we have to continue making a living in a deathly condition? Can we afford another disaster that could kill one of us this time?

I sympathize with these hapless miners since gold panning had once propped our young family above poverty during those days. 

And now, I myself  and these miners, are in a dilemma:

Go seek the gold and find death instead; cease and see a family who’ll soon starve to death.

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About seven houses to the right from where this picture was taken stood along the banks of this sea-river the family home of APH in the early 1950s. – MWBuzz by AP HERNANDEZ

The town hall of Paracale … helpless to stop illegal gold mining operations but succeeding in stopping girls of minor age from working at the town’s beer joints. 

This road leads to Palanas about 1km away, from the street junction in front of  the town’s ancient church and town hall.

The road leads to the seashore, from the road junction in front of the church and town hall. 

Shops prosper from the operations of legal and illegal gold mining operations in Paracale. – All MWBuzzpic by AP HERNANDEZ

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