By DEE AYROSO
Cristeta Sison is fighting a “red menace.”
MANILA — Sison, 58, is a peasant woman and mango grower in Canaynayan village, Sta. Cruz, Zambales. And the “red menace” refers to the orange-red dust which had permeated the farms and water ways in her home and in the nearby communities – the silt accumulated in eight years of nickel mining in the Zambales Mountain range.
Sison is the chair of the Movement for the Protection of the Environment (Move Now!-Zambales), a group opposed to mining. She is also the chair of the disaster-preparedness group, Agap for Central and Northern Luzon. Her two affiliations put her up against both natural and mad-made disasters.
And the bigger disaster is the one which could be prevented, but is brought about by mining.
“Our rice production had gone down from 100 cavans per hectare, to only 35 cavans,” she said. The mango trees are infested by insects suspected to have been disturbed by mining in their mountain habitat.
Even the small fisherfolk have to go further out to sea because fish have been scarce.
“The sea has gone red,” Sison described the coastline in Pagtpat village. “You can see as far as 10 kilometers from the coast,” she said, “the sea is red.”
In the port of Bolitoc village, Sta. Cruz, from where Chinese and other foreign barges haul away the extracted materials from the Zambales Mountain Range, the once-green-and fertile fields have become red and barren. The area is where laterite, or nickel-laden soil, is stockpiled before transported in the barges.
Barges haul out some P90-million worth of ore per trip. The 54-metric ton barges make four to five trips a day, Sison said.
Up to 300 trucks make three to four trips a day, hauling laterite from the mining areas to the port. The nickel-laden dirt road – which used to be dusty – is now muddy, but still red. Sison said sthe mining companies use sprinklers, going back and forth down the road to lessen the dust, which had been the source of complaints of respiratory sickness among residents along the mining road.
But now, there is mud. Many students are complaining, she said, because their uniforms get spattered and dirtied. There were also accidents of motorcycles slipping in the potholed, muddy road.
I’ve been here 42 years, but I’ve never experienced this flooding. The first time was in 2013, and every year since then. There’s always flooding,” she said. “The trees are gone,” Sison described the mining areas.
“The flood was up to waist-level inside the house, in some areas, up to the neck. You can’t even see the depth of the water, because it’s murky red. It’s nickel, they say,” said Sison.
Sison said they think that even the mangos they grow are affected by mining. “Insects, which must have been disturbed in the mountains, have gone down and infested the mangoes.”
Now they have to hire a hand to wrap each fruit in newspaper. A sack of used newspaper costs P1,400 ($31), the same as using insecticide, she said, which is not as effective.
“The river has dried up, there’s no more water. Before, we used to do our laundry there, and it’s not easy to cross because it was deep,” she said.
From natural disasters to man-made
The mining explorations started in 2005, but not many people minded it.
Among the major mining companies in Zambales are: BenguetCorp Nickel Mines Inc., the DM Consunji Inc., Eramen Minerals, LnL Archipelago Minerals, the Zambales Diversified Metals Corp (ZDMC), the Filipinas Mining Corp., and the Shangfil Trading Mining Corp..
Like typical rural folk in the country, Sison marks events in her life according to disasters. She recalled that she started being active in an organization eight years ago, when a strong typhoon struck in 2007.
The damages wrought on by the storm made people realize their vulnerabilities. Sison became a member of a disaster-preparedness committee in her village, organized by the Alay Bayan Inc.
“I joined in disaster-preparedness trainings,” she said. “It was there that I found out what to do, before, during and after a typhoon.”
Later she was elected chair for Northern and Central Luzon Agap. Sison became part of medical missions and disaster response activities, and eventually began to give trainings on disaster-preparedness.
In 2008, typhoon Typhoon Cosme struck, and logs in the mountains rolled downhill and piled up in the river. It was then that villagers realized what the mining companies have done in the mountains, in just a year of operation.
“We put up barricades,” Sison said. “But officials from the ‘higher-ups’ stopped us.”
In 2012, a fact-finding mission https://www.bulatlat.com/2012/03/21/zambales-folk-resist-mining/ organized by the regional peasant group Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luson and the human rights group Karapatan, strengthened the campaign against mining.
One of the anti-mining groups in the region, Move Now! was formed. In 2013, Sison became its chairwoman. She started joining mass actions calling for a stop of mining in Zambales, and for the scrapping of the Mining Act of 1995.
The Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment said the 20 years of implementation of the Mining Act had only brought disasters, plunder and destruction of the national patrimony.
“As of the third quarter 2014, there are 46 operating large-scale mining projects, and 999 approved and registered mining agreements, all of which cover 869,292 hectares of land,” said the Kalikasan PNE.
From 1995 to the present, Kalikasan said “at least 19 major mining disasters were recorded, none of which were properly or sufficiently rehabilitated and compensated to date.”
To ease the public’s increasing clamor to put a halt to mining, President Aquino signed Executive Order 79, which supposedly puts a moratorium on new mining applications, but tolerated the ongoing, destructive mining operations.
The mining industry had also failed to have any impact on the economy, Kalikasan PNE said. From 1997 to 2013, the collection of taxes, fees and royalties from mining amounted to P132 billion ($2.9 billion) . This is only 10 percent of the total mineral production value amounting to P1.31 trillion ($29 billion) in 16 years.
“The industry contributed only 0.44 percent to the employment rate, and 0.7 percent to the Gross Domestic Product,” Kalikasan PNE said.
In Zambales, mining operations had carried on for only eight years, but for Sison, it has been too long.
“It brought us nearer to disasters. We can’t even plant, because it’s red,” she said, referring to the soil and the water. She said rice plants barely grown in the red soil.
In July 2014, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in Central Luzon issued a suspension order on the operations of the four mining companies — BNMI, Eramen Minerals, LNL Archipelago Minerals, and the ZDMC – for employing “unsystematic mining or stripping methods.”
The MGB ordered the companies to implement “proper mining method,” clean their designated stockpile, and put a “proper drainage system” to prevent siltation downstream. The MGB order was in response to a petition by one of the anti-mining groups in the province, the Concerned Citizens of Sta. Cruz.
In January this year, the MGB temporarily lifted its suspension on BNMI.
Sison said nothing has changed in spite of the suspension of operations. The red dust remains in the waterways and rice fields. “We have to move now, to stop the mining in Zambales, before the damage becomes irreversible,” she said.
Sison said her husband, Angel is supportive. “I think I can manage, to keep the fight. I know many also want to stop the mining operations, but they are afraid to resist in the open, to join rallies,” she said.