GOLD mining has been with us in Mambulao since 1571.
Those days, it was the native Aetas who were doing it and the precious yellow metal they extracted where bartered with the Chinese merchants, who fashioned it into highly refined jewelry items, which they brought back to China.
When the Spaniards came to our community, which, during those days, was still unnamed, they saw the same group of natives mining along streams, riverbanks and deep in the woodlands.
They saw huge amount of gold being dug up, exciting them to report to their headquarters in Bicol about their new find.
This is because Spain needed more gold from the New World it conquered to finance its global conquest for new continents.
The powers-that-be in Bicol called this ancient mining district “Mabulaoan”, to mean lots of gold.
Overtime, the name morphed into another name which has embedded itself deep in our psyche: Mambulao.
When the Americans came to take over a colony from Spain in the 1900s which was no other than the “Las Islas Filipinas”, a group of explorers found their way to Mambulao.
Seeing gold they had never seen before, they established in 1933 the San Mauricio Mining Company atop a mountain that overlooked the poblacion of Mambulao.
However, their operations were short-lived with the coming of World War II, but good enough to be able to haul 643,000 metric tons of gold.
Towards the late 1980s, another mining concern – the JG Realty and Mining Company struck a joint venture with Benguet Corporation to explore and develop gold resource in Mambulao.
The joint venture had estimated about 776,520MT of high grade gold in their exploration areas.
However, due to financial concerns, Benguet began shedding its operations in 1994 and finally quit mining in 1997.
Johson Gold Mining Corporation entered the scene and took over the Benguet mining camp in Bagong-bayan outside of Mambulao, alongside a 257.3 hectare Bonito Gold Project formerly owned by Benguet.
Later, JGMC acquired more mining claim rights, expanding its gold resource to a total of 426.7 hectares within Mambulao.
Until April last year, Johson was processing 150 tons of gold ore a day and recovering about 95% of the precious metal.
But outside this big-scale gold mining concern are sporadic operations across Mambulao carried out by small-scale miners commonly known as the “kaboderos”, whose predecessors were the Aetas of ancient Mambulao.
According to CamNorte Governor Edgardo Tallado. Chairman of the Provincial and City Mining Regulatory Board (PCMRG), there are at least 10,000 individuals who are mining gold for subsistence income.
Tallado being the chairman of PCMRB which regulates small-scale mining operations in the province knew what he was talking about.
He’s the one issuing small-scale gold mining permits to prospective operators until permit issuance was banned under the Letter of Instruction No. 79 issued on July 6, last year.
Obviously, all gold operators in Mambulao carry a permit signed by the governor.
There’s no accurate number of small-time gold operators in Mambulao, but they could run in hundreds, a silent group that makes any town executive thinks twice before he attempts to displease them.
They are spread all over our municipality – in Luklukan Sur, Luklukan Norte; Sta Rosa Sur and Sta Rosa Norte; San Rafael, Nakalaya, Sta Elena and lately Sta Milagrosa.
These areas are the so-called “gold districts”, which, in one or the other, are covered by mining claims held by known gold operators.
The government through the Mining and GeoSciences Bureau (MGB) and the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) awarded such mining claim rights to their current holders under the conditions set by law:
That they are going to develop this gold resource into a productive enterprise without jeopardizing the environment.
But to operate medium-scale gold mining operations which these mining rights claimants promised to do under a deal with the government entail big logistics – money, equipment, technology, personnel, expertise, etc --- which obviously they don’t have.
So, these gold mining rights claims have remained idle or undeveloped.
But still, the holders of such rights make money by farming the areas out to smaller gold financiers under the royalty basis.
“Dormant or unused mining claims are made as tools by claimants to collect royalty fees only without them (claimants) actually undertaking any mining operations,” says Mambulao Mayor Ricarte “Dong” Padilla in letter to Executive Secretary Paquito N Ochoa sometime last year.
In this letter sent to the Palace about three months before President Aquino signed the Letter of Instruction No. 79 (LOI 79), Padilla had urged Secretary Ochoa to declare the municipality of Mambulao a “mineral reservation” alongside being declared as “Minahang Bayan”.
Padilla believed that making a district in Mambulao a “Minahang Bayan” area would provide local small time gold operators (kaboderos) a place where they could operate legally without doing much damage to the environment.
Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon J P Paje said that limiting small-scale mining operations only in declared Minahang Bayan areas will help contain wastes from the operations.
LOI 79 has outlawed all small-scale gold operations conducted outside of the declared Minahang Bayan.
And all dormant mining rights holders will be removed and would be offered to parties with capabilities to develop and operate them into a productive enterprise, subject to the requirements of the law.
Since Mambulao has yet to be declared as one, gold operations here are all illegal.
Which puts the Mambulao government between a rock and a hard place: While it sees more and more of its citizens suffer economically as they survive only with subsistence income from illegal and reckless gold mining operations, it is also a witness to the gradual demise of the environment, particularly the Mambulao Bay and its shorelines.
Gold has been in Mambulao since time immemorial, and it will be with us for another 100 years.
How can we deal with it with both sides of the coin smiling?
Is the “Minahang Bayan” the solution we have been waiting for?
Both the environmental activists and their enemies, the gold miners, got their own agenda to push.
- Alfredo P Hernandez