By Karl Begnotea
The abundant natural resources and biologically diverse ecosystems of the province of Nueva Vizcaya, known as the Watershed Haven of Cagayan Valley, are greatly imperiled by foreign large-scale mining and militarization.
I witnessed this environmental disaster slowly unfolding as part of an Environmental Investigative Mission (EIM) last April 2014, along with fellow scientists from the Advocates of Science & Technology for the People (AGHAM), and local environmental advocates from the Alyansa ng Nagkakaisang Novo Vizcayano para sa Kalikasan (ANNVIK).
There are two transnational corporations operating mines in two different municipalities of Nueva Vizcaya: the extraction phase of Australian-owned Oceana Gold in Kasibu, and the construction phase of UK-owned FCF minerals in Quezon municipality.
With the people’s organizations under ANNVIK serving as our guides, we located testing sites in the rivers within and near the mine impact sites of OceanaGold and FCF Minerals. We analyzed the biological, chemical and physical characteristics of these ecosystems, and took water and sediment samples for laboratory testing.
Worsening environmental risks
Murky-brown water flowed from Dinaoyan River, into which OceanaGold’s mine tailings facility’s water spill-off coursed through, and the sediments from its riverbed was muddy, sticky and of a greenish-grey color. This was drastically different from the pristinely clear water and brown sand and pebbles of the still-unaffected Surong Creek, which served as our study’s control variable.
The laboratory testing of water and sediments we took from the areas reinforced these observations. The contamination of high concentrations of Copper, a heavy metal with potential harmful effects, was observed in Dinaoyan River and in its confluence with Surong Creek.
Copper concentrations in the water and sediments in the impacted areas greatly exceeded the metal’s safe levels, which could result in the death of aquatic organisms, and stunt the growth and productivity of agricultural lands that get irrigated or flooded by the affected rivers’ waters.
Even with just the construction activities of FCF Minerals, its directly impacted rivers are already brimming with unsafe levels of Arsenic, Lead, and especially Copper. These heavy metals, which can also severely damage our body’s circulatory, excretory, digestive, and nervous systems, can also be accumulated over time in the various flora and fauna in the ecosystems.
Imagine these toxic chemicals building up in the vegetables, fruits, fisheries and other agricultural products grown by Nueva Vizcaya’s farmers and fisher folks, which will eventually end up in our farm markets. Imagine the children of Didipio and Runruno, unwittingly frolicking in these hazardous waters.
Repressed community rights
The stories of the local indigenous and peasant population had an alarming common thread: that their lives only worsened since the mining companies occupied their lands. Several instances of violence, harassment, deception and other human rights violations both by the Oceana Gold and FCF minerals were documented.
A resident in Didipio shared that OceanaGold used violence and intimidation to force them to sell their land. The mining TNC employed private security and even tapped the military to assert and protect their assets. Restricted passage imposed in the areas within the mining project also continues to affect the farmers, small-scale miners, and fisherfolk’s economic activities.
In Runruno, the locals lamented that FCF Minerals security and local police forcibly demolished their houses without prior notice by armed and uniformed men. A measly amount of P11,500.00 were offered as compensation to their destroyed homes and livelihoods.
These are just a few narratives of how the local peasant and indigenous communities were subjected to land-grabbing, rights violation, and various other forms of repression.
Continuing people’s struggles
The Nueva Vizcaya EIM concretized the long-standing fears of residents and advocates that the promise of development and safety by OceanaGold and FCF Minerals would remain on paper, and that the grave risks to land, livelihood and the environment would remain unaddressed.
That these large-scale miners were supposedly compliant of environmental and social regulations required by the national government is just the latest strong indictment on the Philippines’ policy regime. Where are the environmental management systems and the legitimate free and prior informed consent and social acceptance of communities?
We will bring back this study to the remote communities of Nueva Vizcaya. More than a concretization and indictment of the adverse impacts of large-scale mining and mining policies, it is also a validation of the continuing people’s struggles against large-scale mines and other instances of ‘development aggression’ that despoil our natural resources and environment, and rob our future generations of a sustainable future.
Karl Begnotea is a biologist who serves as an organizer and field researcher of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment. He was part of the Nueva Vizcaya EIM co-organized with AGHAM and ANNVIK.
The NV-EIM was supported by the Ecosystem Alliance, a broad network of international and local NGOs led by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature-Netherlands, Both ENDS, and Wetlands International.
The EIM results were presented during the PAGBAWI! People’s Parallel Forum to the Mining Philippines 2014 Conference held at the IFI Conference Center on September 17, 2014.