Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume 3,  Number 11              April 13 - 19, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines


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Cordillera Vignettes: 
Lepanto Mining and Life in the Cordillera 

Mornings are golden high up the Cordillera mountains. Here, time creeps so slowly you need to check your wristwatch constantly to make sure the day hasn't snuck past you while you meditate upon mist-covered vegetable terraces and idly listen to country music. But it is deceiving, this languid splendor. The following are vignettes of life in the Cordilleras, showing how large-scale mining operations have affected the life of the people in the area.

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Lepanto-Apawan river junction                                        Photo by Jessica Kellett

The urgency is etched upon the weathered faces of Mankayan peasants in Benguet Province selling vegetables at the Poblacion at below-cost prices, the miners hurrying to get to their shift, mothers tending to their young. It is written on posters announcing recruitment dates for overseas work for domestic helpers in Hong Kong and Singapore. The urgency lies like an abandoned tunnel beneath the surface of Cordillerans waiting to cave in. It quivers in the voices of community leaders concerned about the future of their ancestral lands as they hear tunnels being drilled below their homes and farmlands at night, and they know that toxic mine tailings are dumped daily into their rivers and streams -- the lifeblood of their community. Because while gold, copper and silver are mined in abundance in the bowels of these mountains, its inhabitants remain among the poorest of the poor.

A sign greets visitors of Mankayan at the junction to Bulalacao: “Five kilometers yonder is a gold mine called Victoria.” For many of its struggling residents, this invitation to awe is cold and empty like the late evenings here. The municipality of Mankayan, Benguet province is about five hours by bus from Baguio City, or 95 kilometers of alternately paved and loose gravel winding roads carved on the side of the mountains. It is composed of 12 barangays (villages) covering 16,336 hectares with a total population of 34,502 individuals or 6,495 households.

This is home to the Kankanaeys, other Igorot communities who have settled here, and lowlanders who work in the mines. Mankayan is also host to Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company (LCMCo), the 66-year-old company that operates on 301 mining claims covering 4,008 hectares within the Mankayan Mineral District. (Lepanto also operates two pine forest timber concession in Benguet and Ilocos Sur covering an area of 20,000 hectares.) The LCMCo principally produces copper as a mine product with gold and silver as by-products. In 1995, the company discovered a high-grade gold deposit which they named Victoria Gold. In a year, the company outlined a substantial ore resource that could support an initial 1,500 tonnes per day operation.

On March 15, 1997, Victoria Gold operation officially came into being, and after only 10 months of operation, it produced 106,000 ounces of gold and 71,000 ounces of silver with an income of P342 million, making it the most profitable year in Lepanto's history. Today, Lepanto boasts of being the country's leading producer of gold and copper with gross receipts of P2.2 billion yearly. It has about 2,000 employees with 60 percent of them working in the mining group. Recent orders by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to prioritize the unimpeded application of the 1995 Philippine Mining Act have caused indigenous-rights advocates and environmentalists to step up campaigns against destructive development projects and mining.

In December 2002, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, Prof. Rodolfo Stavenhagen came to Mankayan as part of his official visit to gather information "from all relevant sources…on violations of (indigenous peoples') human rights and fundamental freedoms." While commending the Philippine government for taking "an important step toward the full realization of the rights of indigenous peoples" by adopting the Indigenous People Rights Act (IPRA) in 1997, he echoed concerns raised by indigenous communities and their advocates of inconsistent provisions within the Act that "may lead to contradictory or ambiguous interpretations that do not fully favor indigenous rights."

IPRA is the same law that President Arroyo wishes to have reviewed in her effort to push forward the full implementation of the Philippine Mining Act of 1995. Ironically, Stavenhagen mentioned that some laws, including the same controversial Mining Act, contain provisions "that make the application of IPRA difficult." This observation was made even as the professor visited the Victoria Gold Mine upon invitation and with a guided tour by the LCMCo.

In his brief, Stavenhagen shared his impression that the indigenous communities and organizations seem to "have lost faith in the ability of government agencies and the judicial system to address their concerns effectively." Stavenhagen's report, once completed, will be submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Poisoned water

In Sitio (sub-village) Cabitin where the streams entwine to journey toward Ilocos Sur, a red orange stain stays upon the rocks, boulders and water way past the golden sunrise. Aptot River now referred to as Lepanto River, flows past the tailings dam that LCMCo built to contain the chemical wastes produced from processing gold and copper. The tailings persistently escape to Lepanto, which mingles with other mineral-rich tributaries and contaminates the water that moves on to irrigate the farms of Ilocos Sur and Abra.

Research gathered by University of the Philippines College Baguio's Pahinungod (Volunteer Program) in coordination with Community Health and Education, Services and Training in the Cordillera Region Inc. (CHESTCoRE) and the Peasant Alliance for the Cordillera Homeland called APIT-TAKO reveal that before 1936 when LCMCo commenced its mining activities, farmers in the surrounding localities reported high yields of indigenous crops. Back then, the lack of environmental awareness and accountability justified the dumping of mine tailings and waste straight into the river.

In 1960, the company built Tailings Dam No. 1 in Nasulian, Paco but abandoned it in less than 10 years, rendering the neighboring lands unsuitable for agriculture. Three more dams were built over the years but they all collapsed, following typhoons and other natural calamities, contaminating even more ricefields. Today, Tailings Dam No. 5 is visible from the top of Sitio Colalo, where only recently, a school building collapsed due to the subsidence of land. The company's efforts to treat the tailings outlet with lime, as prescribed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, seem futile as the rust-colored water continues to flow down the river, killing the animals that drink from it, and permanently dyeing the rocks and boulders in its path.

A Kankanaey family is grieving in Cabitin when we arrived. Gregorio Tanasia died of cancer, his sister Glory Ocampo insists, but his death certificate indicates cardiac failure. There would be another cancer-related death in town before our weeklong visit would be over. In fact, the Mankayan Rural Health Unit reported 15 cases of various types of cancer in the region in 2002 alone.

Dr. Ana Leung, chairperson of the Department of Preventive and Community Medicine at Saint Louis University and executive director of CHESTCoRE says that “many of the heavy metals and chemicals liberated in corporate mining, especially arsenic, are carcinogenic.” Dr. Leung was part of the UP-led team that conducted research in Mankayan on the mining effects. “We should at least be suspicious and wary of cancer cases occurring in the affected areas.” She calls on appropriate agencies within government to document and investigate more thoroughly the cases that come their way. “How many more deaths in Mankayan were cancer-related but never documented?”

In the past, the LCMCo blamed these cases to the use of potent pesticides by the farmers in the community. Community folks have their own theories.

Tanasia, who was 64 when he died, was said to be an industrious family man to his wife and eleven children. Over the years he had had various ailments -respiratory infections, ulcers, upset stomach – but none prepared the family for his demise on January 8 after he retired to bed in October last year. His sister Glory says Tanasia died from liver cancer that quickly metastasized to his stomach and esophagus. She blames the presence of the Lepanto containment dam for her brother's death. "He used to pick up logs that were washed down the Lepanto River for firewood. His doctors said that the smoke from those logs might have caused his illness," relates Ocampo, a retired public school teacher now living in Baguio.

Tanasia built a nipa hut overlooking the ancestral lands his family tilled. From the hut one can see on one side, the farmlands bordered by the Dupiri River and, on the other, the toxic water seeping from the dam.

"I remember when I was young, we used to travel two hours by foot to our school and those terraces you see filled with silt and tailings used to be ricefields," says Ocampo. "The company has given livelihood for the people. They have built roads. But they do not take into consideration the long-term effects of their mining activities on the town.”

The short trek to Tanasia's house is littered with yellow banana stalks cut a foot long each to serve as plates for the kanyao, the three to seven-day long festivity following an important event in the community -- a death perhaps, or a wedding. While many of the Kankanaeys have adopted the Christian religion, some continue to incorporate their indigenous practices into their faith, a testimony to their fierce resistance against colonial rule.

Gina Tanasia, 54, sits calmly beside a wall covered with plastic shower curtains of lilacs and pink roses. A picture of her late husband hangs on the curtained wall, looking healthy and self-assured as he leans against the railing: Binga Dam, Barangay Captain, 1968, the caption read. The widow has brown, deep-set eyes, made sadder still by her loss, high cheekbones and a voice that sounded soft but certain. She is half-Kalinga, brought to these parts from Abra by her husband. They have been tilling the less than one hectare of ancestral lands for their family's survival. 

"The doctors wondered if he was a heavy drinker and smoker," she says, "but he didn't have any vice. He had cysts all over his body. Four days before he died, he couldn't swallow anything. His nose was very sensitive. I thought he was just delirious when he started talking about the containment dam." She quotes her husband in Kankanaey, and then translated his words herself in English: "Our people are pitiable. They must be wary of the dam. It is not safe. It is contaminating the springs that lie below it."

Samples taken by the UP-led research team from the rivers and streams in Mankayan that come in contact with the tailings have been found to contain lead and copper in surface water. Copper and arsenic in soil are also higher compared to maximum limits set internationally. In the report, they noted the following signs and symptoms residents experienced after being exposed to the tainted water: headache, dizziness, cough, chest pain, nasal and eye irritation. In areas as far as Quirino, Ilocos Sur where the diluted tailings eventually pass, people reported that "wounds take longer to heal when exposed to the Abra River." There were also suspicious cases of birth defects such as cerebral palsy, dwarfism and developmental delay. Some spontaneous abortions were also reported.

 “In terms of biodiversity, the loss of aquatic, plant and bird life are great. This loss becomes even more stark when contrasted with the biodiversity existing in the control lake unaffected by industrial pollution,” the study states. “In terms of social impact, there is loss of livelihood due to the effects of industrial pollution on agriculture. Historical evidence shows how the surrounding communities have been transformed from being a former rice granary to communities struggling to survive in the present cash economy.”

DENR Administrative Officer for the Cordillera Administrative Region in Bugyos, Agapito Gallentes, 56, grew up in Cabitin but is now only a weekend resident. We catch him watching a movie on cable at his house on a Sunday afternoon, where nearby, his family tends a vegetable garden. It is quite a vertical hike and we are out-of-breath when we get to his house. The government worker offers us water, which he says is taken from a natural spring in Cabitin. In our thirst, we disregard the health alert and empty the glasses. The water is surprisingly cool and sweet on our tongues.

Asked what he knows of the copper-colored stream running alongside the vegetable farms, Gallentes relates that it is part of the Lepanto River and that the animals that drink from it pee blood and die. He believes, however, that liming the water would neutralize the water’s acidity. “This is what DENR recommended that mining companies do. If only they would comply on a regular basis.”

It is sad, he comments, that while Mankayan is rich with minerals, “life does not improve.” He mentions Philex Mining Company and how it had built roads and infrastructure for the people of Tuba, Benguet. “They helped make life better for the community,” he enthuses. “When the dam Lepanto built in 1986 collapsed, acres of ricefields were destroyed. The company compensated the people with P10 per square meter.”  

Sinking land

In Sapid, Colalo, and Poblacion, where we stayed, the residents live in fear of another landslide or sinking. In the last three years there have been incidents of land subsidence, causing buildings and farmlands to collapse. Community leaders claim these tragedies were not caused by nature, as DENR reported, but by abandoned tunnels not properly backfilled. An LCMCo underground worker attests to having seen tunnels "as big as municipal buildings" underneath an area where a school building collapsed only a year ago. Back then, the worker says, the company gives a seven-to-15-day tour of the underground tunnels. “The wood used as pillars to prop up the tunnel walls probably rotted and collapsed, causing the ground to crumble.” The same worker shares that there were instances when they could hear the noises of trucks overhead as they drill, corroborating beliefs of affected residents that the tunnels are dug too close to the surface.

Perfecto Lasa, 65, an elder and former barangay captain, said that LCMCo does not follow the government requirement that mining companies drill at least 150 meters below the ground surface. The former chief of police of Mankayan has led protests and petitions against the company for a variety of issues, among them, land subsidence, bulldozing of a graveyard, and the need for community and municipal officials to have access to maps containing mining operation information.

"It was in 1983 when a gaping hole appeared on the bottom of the river. The water was going into the tunnels," he recalled. "After that time, cracks started appearing on the walls of residential homes and buildings and the roads started sinking." Lasa, who speaks with the eloquence of a tribal chief, worries about his own properties in the Poblacion, about a hundred steps down a man-made stairway from his house. He has a store there and a small restaurant where people go for billiards and videoke.

In areas deemed danger zones, cracks visibly line the walls and floors of residential homes like open wounds. Some of the residents have stayed despite efforts by LCMCo to relocate them, saying Palatong, the sitio above Poblacion where the company tried to move them showed signs of sinking as well.

"The lands that seemed safe were being claimed by other families saying these are their properties not Lepanto's," said one Sapid resident who preferred to be identified only as Manang. Her vegetable farm, located inside the mining compound, was devastated in 1999 when a hole about 50 meters deep ("As big as a house!" she insisted) devoured part of her garden. It took Lepanto a whole day to fill the opening with sand and gravel. A year later, another hole appeared on her untilled land, about a kilometer from her house. The earth shook then, causing fissures on the walls and floors of her house, which she now covers with old calendars and a vinyl carpet.

 "We're just waiting for something to happen," said the Kankanaey woman farmer who has six children and five grandkids, but whose youthful demeanor and lean, slender body belies her 45 years. She fought Lepanto to gain compensation for her ruined crops and lands. "They only paid for the crops but not for the land," she said. "We asked them, how could we go back to our lands to work when there is a danger that it would sink under us? People say there must be an abandoned tunnel underneath our land that Lepanto did not fill causing it to collapse, but the company denies it. They say they just want to be of help to the people. They claim that this is part of their property but we've been here ever since I can remember. We've been paying property taxes for these lands."

She recalled how, after the community got together to report the damage to Lepanto, the company had sent dumptrucks and bulldozers in the night to start putting backfill into the hole before anything was settled. "It was the women residents who got up and drove them away. We said 'You are like thieves working in the night!' We forced the workers to go back where they came from. The next day, they were made to apologize to us."

In a video her cousin took of the events following the landslide she pointed to us Agapito Bulislis, LCMCo's legal adviser at the time, and the town councilor Pulido Labi, who participated in the negotiations for the compensation. "We asked them to pay P400,000 so that we could transfer our livelihood elsewhere where there is no danger. But the company said they would only pay for the damaged crops, which the Department of Agriculture estimated at P84T. Lepanto refused to pay more."

Sapid, Manang said, used to be called Sitio Pinagayan, meaning ricefields. "All these, including the golf course, where the company's executives play, used to be ricefields. Our family has been here long before Lepanto. When they came and took away our water, we planted vegetable gardens instead."

Inside the LCMCo compound, there is a recreation center where you can play pool and sing karaoke for P5 a song; a mill where the rocks are grounded; a golf course where schoolchildren would rather work to retrieve balls instead of go to school; and bunkhouses with walls of GI aluminum sheets painted a limey green where, in front, lines and lines of laundry hang to dry. There are also residential houses like Manang’s, owned by families who have lived here long before LCMCo started operating. About 70 per cent of the residents have a family member who works for the company.

When asked about the good that the company has done for the people of Mankayan, Manang is slow to respond. “Well,” she says after a long pause, “at least they fix some of the damage they create… If Lepanto is not in Mankayan, life is going to be the same. If they don't take the gold then the people will benefit from it. It is our ancestral land, after all.”

To kill softly

In Cordillera, there is a way to prepare chicken without spilling blood. It is a traditional meal called “pinikpikan,” which modern practitioners fondly refer to as “killing me softly.” It is said that through the process of beating and burning, the indigenous folks make appeals or ask favors from Kabunian or the spirits of their ancestors. The native chicken, our guide claims, makes the best pinikpikan, but a Broiler or Cobbs will do. You will need firewood, a clean, flat surface, innasin (smoked, salted and aged pork), water, pechay, chayote, and a piece of stick.

First, you start a fire. Put one wing of the chicken on a flat surface. Using the stick, beat the wings from the inside like you would hit a gong – not too soft and not too hard – just enough to numb the fowl, not break its bones. Keep a rhythm as you go from the tip of the wing to the side then back.

Do the other wing. Lay its neck sideways on a flat surface and beat it repeatedly from end to end. Beating the chicken makes its blood coagulate, no messy red liquid dripping all over the place.

When its strength is gone, you go for the kill. You hold the chicken by its feet and wings in one hand and then you hit the back of its head just below the comb. One well-placed blow should do it. Burn the feathers over the fire. Don’t burn your hands when you remove excess feathers. Now, cook with innasin, chayote and pechay.

Mark, 24, is a miner at Lepanto. He plays his guitar and sings a country song called “Shot to the Heart” as our guide beats our dinner, and we, the outsiders, exclaim “aray” with every blow. The neighborhood children, some as young as six, sing along with him like this is some nursery ditty.

Mark has been working at Lepanto for a year now. He was 18 when he worked for Philex in Tuba, Benguet, where, he claims, the rocks were tougher and did not fall off so easily. A co-worker of his at Lepanto was recently injured underground— his leg broke when a piece of rock “as big as a toilet sink” fell on it. In fact, the International Labor Organization reports that “although mining accounts for only one per cent of the global workforce, it is responsible for up to five per cent of fatal accidents at work – 15,000 per year or 40 a day.”

A study conducted by the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development on underground mining in Itogon, Benguet in 1997 cites “being hit by falling objects” as the leading type of accident followed by suffocation from chemical fumes, and accidents involving machines.

“It is hot inside the underground tunnel,” Mark says. “Every five minutes, you have to hose yourself down with water or you’ll get muscle cramps or pass out.”

Mark works the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift and has to report to work by 6:30. Sometimes, he does a double shift to earn extra. While LCMCo prides itself in giving its workers above-the-minimum wages, Mark says it is still not commensurate to the amount of risk they take to get their jobs done. The lowest daily wage of regular rank and file is P288.00 or about P40 above the government-stipulated minimum amount.

Felipe, 54, has been working for LCMCo for 18 years and gets an average of P310 a day. He says it’s not enough to sustain his family of six. Over the years, he has seen many colleagues die and get injured from falling rocks, machines and dynamite shrapnel. Just recently, he relates, a co-worker named Roberto Farudin was killed after he was pinned by a low-profile-truck (LPT) while the driver was backing out. There were five fatalities in 2002 whose families got P220,000 each from the company insurance, and some additional contributions from the LCMCo officials and employees.

“In Lepanto, if you are killed while working, it’s your fault,” Felipe says. Tacked on the bulletin board by the recreation center is the LCMCo Safety Credo typed on a piece of paper that’s yellowing from age. To paraphrase: “The incidence of accident is born from improper attitude, of thoughtlessness or lack of thinking thereof. It is your moral obligation to prevent accidents.” Ironically, the LCMCo was given Recognition for its health and safety programs by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) in the 3rd Gawad Kaligtasan and Kalusugan awards night. The Occupational Health and Safety Center (OHSC) of the Philippines launched these awards to give recognition to individuals and companies for outstanding health and safety records.

Last year, the employees did not get any profit-sharing or any other bonus in addition to the mandated 13th month pay. Workers were told that LCMCo did not meet its quota for the year. “Labor is blamed for it but how could we meet the quota if the company keeps raising it? At the beginning of Victoria, there was a lot of gold, but the sample got smaller and smaller. The LHD (load, haul and dump) trucks are as big as Caterpillars (trucks used for construction) and tend to gather more waste materials,” Felipe says.

“In 1990, before Victoria, we had the biggest profit-sharing. Less than P7,000. After that they decreased the amount every year. Now, we only get a ‘performance bonus’. It all depends on how your supervisor evaluates your performance. So, if you don’t have a good working relationship with your supervisor, don’t expect a bonus at all.”

The mining methods employed by LCMCo is mechanized overhand and underhand, cut-and-fill using the load, haul and dump (LHD) method for muck removal, the use of drilling, rockbolting, blasting and other mechanized methods.

Felipe claims he used to have more faith in the company. “It seems things turned for the worse when they found gold. They became more oppressive and abusive after that.”

In December 2002 the 1,560-strong Lepanto Employees Union filed a Notice of Strike after the management fired Union members charged with absence-without-leave (AWOL) when they did not show up for work on holidays seven times. “The priority issue is the compulsory holiday work…Then we are also questioning their labor-contracting-only (LCO) practice involving workers directly involved in production… we are fighting for tenure. These LCOs don’t get benefits especially if there are accidents. They also threaten the employment of regular workers who get paid a little more,” explains Union President Panelo Ambas, 43, who has been with the company for 20 years.

Ambas also talks about the issue of “high-grading” apprehensions, or those caught allegedly stealing ore. The Union believes the miners are framed because the security guards are given rewards or incentives when they manage to catch someone with a piece of nava, the reddish rock with white, powdery specks, which may (or may not) have gold embedded in it. High-graders are penalized with five-day suspension or, at the extreme, dismissal from work. “On one occasion, the security guard searched some workers and found them to be clean. They followed the same workers afterwards and accused them of high-grading.”

When asked to comment on the land subsidence issue, Ambas says that when the company finds ore “they keep drilling and mining, without monitoring the pillar height. I don’t think they care much for the people whose lands and houses may be affected because they can always just pay them for the damage… It will probably take 10 years to stabilize the land in Sapid with backfilling.” Ambas lives in Sapid with his wife and six children. His family is also into vegetable gardening.

Small-scale mining

Andoy Tawaken, 49, is a small-scale miner in Mankayan originally from the Mountain Province. He and his wife Ernesta, 47, a Kalinga, have 13 children with ages ranging from 30 to two. Two of the older ones are going to college in Baguio. One, Daniel, a criminology student, has beautiful paintings on wood of the Cordillera landscape hanging on the wall of their three-room cottage beside a poster of Silvester Stallone’s Rambo III. An earlier, more child-like painting is permanently dyed on the inside of the door to their sala. Mang Andoy smiles briefly when asked about the paintings. “It is my son’s hobby,” he says, almost dismissively, as he waves the million flies descending upon the merienda of sweet bread and coffee he offers us. It is amazing how art finds space in this cramped hut, where there seems to be a child in every nook and cranny. The couple has sixteen grandchildren as well, most of them living here.

Mang Andoy takes us to the nearby tunnel where he works. It is 100 meters long, and about six feet high. There are droplets of water clinging on the walls like crystals, and a few wingless cockroaches sitting there immobile. We watch our step as we tread on planks of wood on the floor covering a hole where the miners creep into to get to more ore.

“We make our own schedule here unlike in big mining companies,” Mang Andoy says as he lights our way with a waning flashlight. “And anybody can work here, young, old, crippled.” Women, however, are traditionally kept out of the mining tunnels perhaps for practical reasons, as they are tasked with taking care of the home. He lets us women in the tunnel, defying tradition. “The operator is not here anyway.”

Mang Andoy says they don’t use dynamite to blast their way underground, “just shovels.” A watermill built with recycled rubbertire vanes gathers water from the river for the use of the rock grinder by his house. It takes three days to grind the rocks and half-a-day to segregate the sediment that may contain the gold. A small containment dam captures the caramel-hued waste from the grinder, which the miners collect in burlap sacks for drying and further sorting by the women.

“We only use charcoal and sodium to get to the gold. We cook it in a clay saucer using a blower.” Mang Andoy shows us the tedious process with his aged tools. “Some big scale mining companies use cyanide and mercury so that they can get even those they call ‘water gold’. We don’t do that here.”

It is the operators who own the mill and other equipment the scale miners use. They get the biggest share when the miners sell the gold that they manage to get. On a really good day, they can get at least four grams which they sell to middlemen at P410 per gram. “Most days we only get .6 or .8. It really depends on the nava.”

There is no health or accident insurance to speak of and, after the profit is distributed among the workers, there is only enough to buy a sack of rice, but Mang Andoy prefers to do this than tend a vegetable garden. “Especially now that prices of vegetables are so low, the farmers would rather leave them to rot than spend for transportation.” The price of a kilo of cabbage, farmers say, is P1. They attribute the drop in prices to the influx of vegetables in Baguio imported from neighboring countries like Taiwan. But that, in itself, is another story.

Perpetual water rights

They call him Kapitan. Denver Tongacan, 50, is a member of the Sangguniang Bayan and the barangay chairman of Bulalacao, a farming town. He is also one of three accused in a case filed by LCMCo at the provincial court for “illegal obstruction to permittees or contractors defined and penalized under Sec 107 of RA7942, otherwise known as the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.”

The grizzled community leader only smiles when he remembers that day in October 1999. “The company found Victoria Ore deposits in Tabac, our neighboring sitio, so they started operations,” he relates at the junction store his family owns, where older men are drinking gin and teenagers are playing pool. “The people there protested and burned one of their equipment. The company got help from the military and a platoon was sent to contain the situation.”

Tongacan says that when he and other community members saw the LCMCo workers laying down pipes on the road to their sitio, they mobilized residents to barricade the intended drill site. “First, there were just 20 of us. Before night falls there were more than 500. We took turns manning the barricades for a week.”

The case is still pending at the civil and criminal courts and, until it is resolved, the drillings will not resume. For now, Tongacan and other leaders are concerned about the granting of perpetual water rights to LCMCo to six of the nine rivers in North Benguet. This will enable the company to generate 500 metric tons of water it needs for gold processing.

“If they take all our water, how are we going to sustain our farmlands?” he says. He and leaders of the Barangay Bulalacao Movement have also applied to keep their water, but he fears that the government will favor the big corporation.

“Laban na kung laban!” (fight, if need be), Dionisio Tipaac, barangay captain of Suyok says, his eyes red from drinking gin. It is twilight and the store is getting filled up with students and workers. “We will fight to the end.” He mumbles more angry-sounding words in Kankanaey before going back to his friends.

Fighting for survival

In the past, the people of Mankayan have come together to write petitions and do mass actions when mining activities directly affect their sources of livelihood. In the early ‘90s, the company was forced to close down two copper ore dryers after residents complained that the smoke they emit were destroying their crops and animals. “It took awhile,” says Perfecto Lasa. “The DENR came and went to verify, the company brought agriculturists to check the dying vegetables and bananas and the wasting animals. They said it was because of lack of fertilizers and other reasons, but not the black smoke. The people appealed some more and the company managed to lessen the smoke. But at night, when the town slept, they would resume. The crops continued to die. Some outsiders – no one knows who – probably heard of the people’s plight and bombed the dryers one night.”

There is a CAFGU detachment on a hill in Cabitin and the people are getting anxious about the increasing number of men in uniform they see in Poblacion. “There is no terrorism here,” Lasa says. “But officials of Lepanto are told not to come here for security reasons. This is a peaceful place.”

Professor Stavenhagen, the UN Representative, mentioned in his debriefing report that he found it “inappropriate that a regional police commander in the Cordillera can decide, at the behest of a mining company executive… to monitor a public meeting within the framework of the Special Rapporteur’s official mission.” He also wrote about the “highly irregular presence of members of the military in civilian clothing, videotaping the proceedings” of one of the regional dialogues he attended.

Last year, about a hundred peasants, small-scale miners, gardeners and workers from Mankayan; Tadian and Mainit villages in Bontoc, Mountain Province; and Cervantes, Ilocos Sur convened in a Peasant Summit and formed Mankayan Against Lepanto Expansion (MALEX). At the National Minority Week last August 12 to 16, MALEX joined militant groups in a protest caravan against development aggression and militarization. Their first stop was the LCMCo’s national office in Makati where they were met with force by policemen who prevented them from depositing bags of silt in front of the office as a symbolic act of protest. The police wasn’t able to stop them, though, from throwing tailings and silt at the front steps of the building.

Development aggression

The discovery of gold and copper in the 14th and 16th century in the Cordilleras drove many to migrate here. It encouraged some of the original settlers to switch from swidden farming to copper mining, using the copper to manufacture pots, pipes and tools, and to trade with the North. Efforts by Spanish colonizers to send mining expeditions failed because of the natives' uncompromising stance against foreigners.

However, the American colonial government systematically dispossessed indigenous claims to ancestral lands when it passed the Public Land Act in 1902 allowing US government to expropriate all public lands. In 1905, the Land Registration Act institutionalized Torrens Titling system as the sole basis of land ownership in the country. The Mining Law of 1905 provided that all public lands shall be free and open for exploitation, occupation and purchase by both citizens of the Philippines and the US. This law allowed the American mining interests to thrive.

In the1930s, a mining boom in Mankayan brought a group of prospectors led by American geologist Victor Lednicky to form the Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company. The company built the country's first copper plant at 400 tons per day and increasing it to 1,000 per day until the outbreak of World War II. For three years during World War II, Mitsui Company operated the mine, and Lepanto Mining resumed its operations in 1947.

Last year, the company started expanding its operations in an effort to extend the life of the Victoria Gold mine. The projected mine life for the whole Victoria project, without considering future mineral exploration, is around 11.5 years. This estimate is based on annual 500 metric tons per day increase (MTPD) from 2500 to 5000 MTPD. Mankayan folks expect increased mining activities to affect their livelihood.

In its annual operations report, LCMCo claims to have spent a generous P7.0 million in 2001 for community projects such as social infrastructures, education, sports, and cultural programs, medical missions, calamity assistance and livelihood programs. “In the last five years, total expenditures for community development totaled P29.3 million,” the report states. This is the company’s response to the DENR Mines and Geosciences Bureau call for “contractor/permit holder/lessee conducting mining and milling operation” to establish a Social Development and Management Program (SDMP). In fact the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 specifically provides that the “contractor shall assist in the development of its mining community, the promotion of the general welfare of its inhabitants and the development of science and technology.”

In his report, Stavenhagen talked about how closely related the land rights problem is to the issues surrounding economic development strategies as they affect the areas in which indigenous peoples live. “Many communities resist being forced or pressured into development projects which destroy their traditional economy, community structures, and cultural values – a process that has been aptly described as ‘development aggression,’” he writes. “The indigenous peoples are still waiting for human rights-centered development to reach them.” Bulatlat.com


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