A mining company has allegedly destroyed a historic and stunningly beautiful island in Eastern Samar. Now, the residents are fighting back to protect their environment, themselves and their future, facing a formidable enemy that has been, according to them, deceiving the residents and pitting them against each other.
By MAUREEN JAPZON
TACLOBAN CITY – The stunning shorelines of Homonhon island remind you of pictures in postcards, but the island’s interior are bald mountains — denuded and hollowed out by mining.
Homonhon, in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, about 65 kilometers northwest of Manila, is marked in Philippine history. On March 16, 1521, Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition first dropped anchor on its shores before saying the first mass in Limasawa of southern Leyte. Pigafetta, Magellan’s chronicler, called it “waters with good signs” because it was where they first saw signs of gold, one of the objects of their expedition.
In a Department of Tourism brochure, Homonhon is described as a beautiful haven, where “white corals can be found around the island, where much of the land is rugged and vast parts are covered with forests. The interior part is rough and hilly, covered with dense tropical vegetation but drained by numerous rivers and creeks. Mountain ranges and peaks abound in its interiors. Narrow plains hug most of the most of the coastal areas and in some instances, the banks of its principal rivers and their tributaries”.
This paradise, however, has been under threat by a corporate mining operation since 1983. This was confirmed during a visit by Bulatlat and other media outlets to the area on September 13-15, 2004. The team was greeted by glorious beaches, but as the journalists went near the mountains, they saw telltale signs of fires, streams without water, the loose soil only a few meters away from the nearly 10 deep pits in every mining site.
There has since been a popular resistance by the island’s residents, through their organization, Homonhon Environmental Rescuers Association (Hero), who promised environmental protection from perils of mining. “We will not allow them to continue destroying our island. We will continue our resistance and if we need to establish barricades in order to halt their operations, we will do it,” declared Ma. Josefina Montes, the secretary of Hero.
“I want Homonhon to be celebrated as a part of history and tourism, and not as a mine,” said Freddie Gapati, chairman of Pagbabangnan village.
However, Gapati’s aspiration now seems unreachable as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, through Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) regional director Loreto Alburo, said “the possibility of halting the chromite mining operations of Heritage Resources and Mining Corp. (HRMC) is remote, since its lease contract is approved for 25 years.”
HRMC started its chromite-mining operations way back in 1983; the company was then known as the Alamag Processing Corp. It uses open-pit mining in extracting chromite; near the mining site, mounds of excavated soil and deep pits are noticeable. The approved mining claims of HRMC extend up to 3, 713.6724 hectares but only 100 hectares are presently being utilized.
In an interview with Bulatlat, engineer Alfredo S. Dolores, its corporate services manager, said “the people’s perceptions that mining will cause Homonhon to sink is wrong, since the deposits are only located near the surface. There is nothing but rocks beyond that point, and we do not touch it anymore. We only dig an average of 7 to 12 meters in every mountain that has a chromite deposit.”
HRMC boasts of its Homonhon Livelihood Mining Program as an example of a “success story beyond compare.” Dolores said the community supports the program because of the benefits it provides to the island.
The company has since expanded from a single barangay to all the eight barangays of Homonhon. It also established associations that guaranteed the continuation of mining operations within the mining are.
“Under the law, mining operators are required to allocate one percent of the total mining cost for the Social Development and Management Program and what HRMC is doing now is way beyond this requirement,” the MGB’s Alburo said of the firm’s program.
Opposition despite the benefits
“Whatever HRMC gives us, we will accept it. But our opposition to the continuation of their mining operations will not change. In the end, these benefits will amount to nothing if Homonhon is gone,” Gapati, the village chairman, told Bulatlat.
Hero’s Montes said the opposition to HRMC’s mining operations began a long time ago. However, she explained, the people had not yet been organized. There had been individual complaints that later compelled the diocese of Borongan to act. Through its Social Action Center, the local Church conducted an investigation into these complaints and met with the affected residents. This led to the creation of Hero in July 2003.
The provincial board also investigated the complaints against HRMC. Karen Alvarez, a member of the provincial board, observed that “reddish coloration that was considered silt was visibly noted on the mouth of Cantilado River, Magellan and Capaopawan Creeks and at the Culasi Point. Silt was pasted on the stones and rocks. White sand was also mixed with silt.”