Tales of lost gold: the mining situation in the Cordilleras and the need for collective action


 

The Cordillera region, nestled at the northern part of the country, is undeniably a perfect exemplification of the richness of the Philippines. With the entire region covering more than 1.8 million hectares, it has the widest and most densely settled area of mountains in the Philippines. This mountainous region, estimated to be 230 kilometers long and 120 kilometers wide, is a house to affluent river and hydro resources and chief mineral resources.

            The entire land area of the Cordilleras only covers 6% of the country’s total land area yet it also contains vast ore reserves, 25% of which are gold-bearing and 39% are copper-bearing. Aside from these two important metallic minerals, manganese and non-metallic minerals like limestone, silica, slate, sand and gravel also teem in the region.

However, despite these glaring statistics that can be easily associated with natural affluence and subsequently, progress, lay an irony that is sadly not in favor of the Cordillera indigenous people. The abundant natural resources situated in the region are not being put under the administration of the very people who populate the place. Instead, they are being controlled and exploited by foreign entities and expectedly, the profits gleaned from these resources are likewise monopolized by these entities. From here, this basic ironic relation between the two groups of people – the indigenous people of Cordillera who have nurtured and protected their own land, tradition and culture and the foreign entities who unabashedly plunder the resources of other people under the pretense of aid and development – must be a noted contradiction. Because while this contradiction is being sustained and continuously becoming more pointed, the need for an action to settle the inequalities lying at this contradiction becomes more urgent.

At this point, it is vital to review relevant events in the past that, in one way or another, have contributed in the continuation and pejoration of this condition.

 

The Philippine Mining Act of 1995

In the middle of the 90s which was deemed to be the darkest in the Ramos regime because of its characteristically neo-liberal economic policies, the Philippine Mining Act was approved. It was during this time when basic social services like water and electricity, supposedly free and subsidized by the government, were made for private entities to shoulder. Consequently, the prices that need to be paid to avail of these services suddenly increased steeply. In another case, it was also in this period when the notorious Oil Deregulation Law was passed. This law enabled the private oil companies to dictate the price of oil, a necessary commodity from which almost all the other products essential to human activities rely on, and hence, deregulating oil price.

In essence, the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 is no different to the previous two laws passed in Ramos’ term. In a nutshell, this act liberalized the mining industry in the country. This was achieved by allowing foreign enterprises to completely administer and control mining operation in the country. Notably, the act also encourages foreign entities to enter this venture and implicitly permits them to execute large-scale mining, a known cause of environmental degradation. In that sense, this only served to legitimize and justify not only ecological destruction but also the rampant manipulation of our natural resources by profit-oriented foreigners. As of 2007, 1.2 million out of the total 1.8 million hectares that the region covers have been placed under 269 mining applications. It is no wonder that the once vast resources of the region are swiftly being denuded. But at the inner core of this saddening event is the fact that this denudation is being done and benefiting outsiders and not the inhabitants of the land.

A present problem

The latest proof of the problematic results of this kind of relationship is the current situation of Lepanto miners in Mankayan, Benguet. Last December, the workers of Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company have decided to conduct a strike as a display of protest again the plight which they have been experiencing for several months already. A Lepanto miner only gets to earn 420 to 438 pesos in a day, far from the 573 cost of decent living in the Cordillera region. More importantly, this is a ridiculous compensation considering the earnings of the company which reach millions in a day.

Another  pointed case in Lepanto is the overt militarization which is being experienced  by members of the community. This is being perceived by the workers as a tactic to suppress the growth of their movement and their calls for more just payments and work benefits.  Members of the military, whether in uniform or not, can freely roam around the community. Usually, they end up taking pictures of presumed members of labor movements. This can go as far as designating someone as a member of the New People’s Army only to justify his or her arrest or execution.

Lastly, the Lepanto incident is also a perfect microcosmic example of what is happening to the entire Cordillera – environmental degradation and the loss of resources at a rate faster than its replenishment. In a report released by Indigenous Portal last 2009, the construction of Tailings Dams 1 and 2 in Mankayan has caused large areas of land to be unsuitable for agricultural use. In 1999, a landslide near another Tailings Dam has occurred. This covered the 14 hectares of agricultural land which have become unusable after the incident. Even the Mankayan Elementary School was covered by the landslide. Furthermore, the chemicals emanating from the mining sites affect the well-being of the Lepanto population, making them more prone to dizziness, stomach aches, eye irritation and vomiting. Worse, the water flowing in Abra River was proven to be contaminated by lead and copper, rendering previously normal activities being done here like swimming or washing clothes as highly dangerous.

The Urgent call for collective action and resistance

Without a doubt, the Cordilleran people in general are under the assault of rude foreign intervention and exploitation. With their lands being robbed, their traditional cultures being erased from their consciousness and their inherent rights as indigenous people of their native land being taken away from them, it is an imperative for the Cordillerans to rediscover their aptitude in defending what is theirs and warding off outsiders from their territories. Only by reuniting their causes and staging a collective act of resistance can they succeed in trampling down on foreigners who aim to seek greater profit from the natives’ resources. History has shown us that only through collective action can bring us to a dramatic and genuine change.

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