Thursday, 14 February 2013

MAMBULAOWATCH: Gold miners’ co-op the way to go … but bumps ahead are plenty

Panning for gold in Baybayin, Paracale, Camarines Norte, Philippines. –


THERE is a growing enthusiasm among professional Mambulaoans to develop a business enterprise called cooperative for a few hundreds of small-scale gold mine workers in Mambulao.

The main goal is to help the miners improve their lot by helping to increase their take-home cash at the end of each day of hard work at the mines and at the same time instill among them the value of cooperative work.

The idea of a gold miners’ co-op suddenly surged into the minds of some professionals belonging to the Jose Panganiban (National) High School Alumni Association, when Ronnie Habitan, a small-scale gold miner in Mambulao who hit the big time, suddenly became the subject of frenzied media attention not only because of his links with some notorious personalities who were murdered at a police roadblock/check point in Atimonan, Quezon, but also because of his wealth from gold mining operations.

Matt Ella Espana, former alumni president said in an email circulated among their members that if there’s one person who benefits from the wealth of Mambulao, which is gold, “would it not be better if we do something to distribute this wealth equitably to a bigger number of people who need this badly?”

Espana was referring to Habitan, who is a well-known financier of gold operations in Mambulao and at the same time the biggest gold buyer in town.

His rag-to-riches story is well-known, especially among the local gold mine workers who continue to wish that they hit the high-grade (gold) as Habitan did in the past.

But there’s only one Ronnie Habitan and plenty of Mambulaoans who continue to break their back eight hours a day under the blistering sun scouring for gold.

At the end of the day’s hard work, their share of one or two “bahay” (stress on ‘hay’) of gold would be bought by the gold buyer in town for a sum that makes gold mining a lucrative endeavor.

In April 2012, a “bahay” whose weight is equivalent to 14 grains of palay was selling between P800 and P900 (Batobalani, Paracale buying price).

The take-home cash after a day’s work is the biggest incentive why many farmers in Mambulao have abandoned their farms for gold mining under gold operator-financiers like Habitan.

How to break into the closely-guarded circle of gold operations in Mambulao and convince the workers to join a co-op like the one being considered by both the JP(N)HSAA and LaPIMa, short for Laking PIM Ako, remains a big question.

Coconut farmers formed co-ops to sell their harvest at wholesale prices direct to final buyers, thus eliminating the middlemen.

For one, under the cooperatives system of doing business, especially if it involves production, such as farm produce -- from onion and garlic to palay, from tobacco to cotton, and from banana to coconut and the like – the farmers and landowners have to be members.

All the produce is turned over to the cooperative, which, in turn, looks for the right market at the right price for the farmer-members.

From the individual farmer’s sales, the co-op earns a commission, an amount which is easily affordable to the farmers, to fund its operations.

In return, the farmer/co-op members enjoy farm extension help, training, education and access to cheaper farm inputs and farm services.

In the Mambulao gold mining scheme, the gold field is owned by a mining rights claimant, who, it turns out, does not have funds to operate his mining claim as a small-scale mining concern using various small but sophisticated equipment and labor.

So, he farms it out to the so-called gold financiers – in the likes of Ronnie Habitan – who assemble their group to mine a portion of the claim in the form of butas (translationi: tunnel) where thousands of pesos are sunk to meet the cost of extracting the yellow metal from the bowels of the earth.

From the gold extracted from this butas, the financiers pay royalties to the mining rights claimant.

At the same time, he pays the gold workers according to their day’s production in the form of gold in “bahay”.

Since the proposed gold miners’ co-op will engage in gold-buying – targeting the daily output of the workers – it is directly competing with the gold financiers.

Could this proposed co-op convince the gold workers to join the scheme and sold their daily gold output to the cooperative exclusively, on pain of being sacked by the gold operator-owners of the “butas”?

Question No. 2: Since it will be directly competing with the town gold buyers for gold, the co-op has to pay extra for every “bahay” a gold worker, or “magkakabod”, brings to its counter -- as incentive.

What if the traditional gold buyers jack up their buying price for a few pesos more above the co-op’s buying price just to get the gold, would the co-op do the same just to get the business?

These are the most obvious issues on the economic side of the gold trading the proposed LaPIMa-JP(N)HSAA co-op has to sort out.

It would be foolhardy for the proponents not to dissect this issue and thus, miss the right way to sort out the built-in obstacles.

Per se, a cooperative enterprise has always worked for farmers, fishermen, miners, consumers and employees-workers. This is because its concept has been refined along the way to deal with the issues confronted by every target sector.

But a gold miners’ co-op is a different animal.
A cooperative scheme targeting gold workers who work for individual operator-financiers with profits and nothing but profits as their main motive for being is facing a hard grind.

As far as these wealth-hungry operators are concerned, the co-op would take away their gold – but over their dead bodies.

Somehow, there’s a pin light that could be expected at the end of this gold tunnel:

Once Mambulao is declared a “Minahang bayan” district by the government, all idle mining claims in Mambulao – the source of gold for operators and financiers these days – would be scrapped once and for all.

The “Minahang Bayan”, which would be confined to one specific area, would now be directly under the Bureau of Mines with the local government unit (in this case the Mambulao municipal government) getting some  supervisory roles to ensure that the gold mine is developed (or exploited) under the strict guidelines set by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

This will ensure that the destruction of the environment through reckless excavations and tunneling for the yellow metal is prevented.

And since the operations are confined to one area, a systematic and effective control of mining waste disposal would be achieved, thus water tributaries, rivers and the Mambulao Bay are spared from further harm.

New small-scale mining permits would be issued to qualified individuals who would now be working on their own, just like the way the traditional “magkakabod” operate. No more bosses to deal with.

Under this scenario, recruiting them to join a gold miners’ cooperative seem workable.

In short, hurdling all barriers strewn across the local gold mining industry, the proposed cooperative is the way to go for its workers.

It would also be a big plus for the local economy.

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