Saturday, 1 June 2013

Fishers wage war for hidden paradise

Fisherman Levi Lalim had problems up to his knees when large mining firms filled the corals in Pulangdaga, Paracale, Camarines Norte, with mine tailings, killing his only source of livelihood. Photo courtesy of RIO PALIZA/Inquirer


HOPE springs eternal even under the mine tailings. Levi Lalim, 55, fisherman and leader of his Paracale town’s Samahan ng mga Mangingilaw, is doing his best to save about 40ha of coral reef and mangrove forest submerged under red contaminated mud spewed out by mining facilities owned by three Chinese mining firms in Sitio (settlement) Pulangdaga in Barangay (village) Bagumbayan.

Lalim used to earn P500 every night whenever he set out to fish in the coral reefs surrounding the hidden cove of Pulangdaga.

That was before Uni-Dragon Mining and Development Corp, Philippine Bao Tong Mining Corp. and Liaoning Fenghua Group Philippine Mining Co. Inc. set up facilities just a few meters from the shore in 2008.

In just a few months, red mud started running off from the small streams and suffocating the coral reef. After this, Lalim, a father of nine, could only hope for income of P200 per week. Sometimes, he would return home with nothing, he said.

He finally decided to stop fishing sometime before the end of 2012 when he became aware that his family could not survive with very little money.

Ironically, he is now a cook in one of the compressor mining facilities there.
However, he has not forgotten fighting for Pulangdaga, which he considers an heirloom for all Paracale├▒os.

“It used to be so beautiful here,” Lalim said and spoke of helping restore the place into its natural state.

In 2009, Lalim and his fellow fishermen in Paracale filed a complaint with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Camarines Norte and the municipal government to call its leaders’ attention to the environmental destruction committed by the three mining companies in their village.

Lalim, who also once worked for a mining plant similar to the ones in Pulangdaga, alleged that they observed that Uni-Dragon was already extracting iron ore from the land and was irresponsibly dumping its waste on the live coral reefs.

He said the mining company was given a permit by DENR only to explore the shore for mining potential and not to perform any mining activity, a fact that was confirmed by an onsite investigation done by the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) last year.

EMB Regional Director Roberto D. Sheen confirmed that the red mud covering the coral reefs and mangrove is hazardous to the environment and people, as revealed by samples examined by experts.

He said only a water treatment facility could restore the cleanliness of the seabed there but this would cost a fortune which must be shouldered by the mining firms.

Sheen admitted that they were finding it hard to locate and communicate with the real owners of the mining firms. They are also unsure if the firms have Filipino partners or not.

EMB, he said, was still doing its best to get in touch with the “real owners” of the firms whom, he believed, are Chinese nationals.

Rodolfo Villafuerte, representative of Bao Tong, refused to comment on the issue when asked regarding the involvement of their mining firm.

On June 25, 2012, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) issued a cease-and-desist order to only one of the three firms, Uni-Dragon Mining and Development Corp., as it was the primary mining developer involved in mining operations in Pulangdaga.

The order asked the mining developer to stop all mining activities, dismantle its facilities and make efforts to fully clean and rehabilitate the Pulangdaga shoreline, coral reefs and mangrove forest that were being devastated by the mining operation.

MGB Acting Director Leo Jasareno said in a phone interview the owners of Uni-Dragon, represented by company president Francisco Trajano, are appealing for consideration and lifting of the order because they feared that they would lose a lot of their investments if they dismantle all the facilities.

“We will not lift this order until they pay for whatever they did to Pulangdaga,” Jasareno said.

He said Uni-Dragon should rehabilitate the place and stop pointing fingers against each other. Uni-Dragon has pointed out to MGB that the operators of Philippine Bao Tong were the ones responsible for dumping the mine tailings.

Investigations by EMB and MGB, however, showed that both Philippine Bao Tong and Liaoning Fenghua are somehow connected to Uni-Dragon and are actually part of its operations.
Separate probes

Paracale Mayor Romeo Moreno ordered Paracale tourism officer Jamela Enolva and municipal agriculturist Danilo Enolva to conduct their own separate investigations of the site and create plans to rehabilitate the shoreline.

The municipal government found that the mining firms had violated many of the guidelines set on responsible mining.  

Officials said the mining companies promised to follow the guidelines “to the letter” when they applied for recommendations from the Sangguniang Bayan. Prior to their operations, the firms told the municipal government their purpose was just for “exploration of the mining potentials” of Paracale.

Lalim volunteered to keep an eye on the operations of the mining firms under the Task Force Pulangdaga created by the municipal government to ensure that the Chinese companies are following the cease-and-desist order issued against them.

Aside from guarding the shoreline with his fellow fishermen, Lalim and his companions from the local tourism sector and the community have also been spearheading several mangrove tree-planting events since 2011 to replenish the dying ecosystem, and ultimately save their livelihood.

The local Jaycees headed by Rio Paliza, a hotel owner and travel photographer, also took up the battle cry of the fishermen as the destruction of the coral reefs has threatened to extend to Pulangdaga Beach Resort, the only beach resort and tourist attraction in Paracale.

Samuel C. Cribe, owner of the resort, said although his resort has not yet received complaints from visitors, he has observed that the number of swimmers continued to diminish as news of the mine tailings contaminating the water has spread in the community.

He feared it would reduce tourist arrivals to his resort.

“We can’t wait around for the government to start action.  We have to do something ourselves,” Lalim said.

He added that whatever good development that is observed in Pulangdaga is just the work of nature healing itself and believes the little things being done in the community are but a small fraction of what is really causing the damage.

Lalim said the community should continue to do its part because it is their obligation.

Paracale town, which also produces other minerals such as iron, is known as one of the biggest producers of gold in the Philippines, which earned for it the tag CamNorte’s Gold Town. - Inquirer

The fishermen and tourism sector join hands in planting seedlings of mangrove trees to replenish the ones that were lost due to mine tailing poisoning in Pulangdaga, Paracale, Camarines Norte. RENS TUZON/CONTRIBUTOR

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