A Mining Showdown in the Philippines

A Mining Showdown in the Philippines
Diwalwal is the center of an international struggle between small-scale miners and large international mining corporations.

Daylien Elejorde first climbed the fog-draped slopes of Mount Diwata, far above the Compostela Valley on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, almost 30 years ago. She came seeking a way to survive. She came seeking gold. She wasn’t alone. Within a few years, more than 40,000 people had formed a ramshackle mining town that people dubbed Diwalwaloriginally a local indigenous word for one’s tongue hanging out after climbing to a great height.

Ms. Elejorde and the other prospectors honeycombed the mountain with hand-excavated tunnels in their search for gold. A few found what they were looking for, and tales of new millionaires fueled the gold rush of others. But most found no great riches, only danger and death in the mines and mercury poisoning in the air and water. Diwalwal came to mean misery, yet since misery isn’t in short supply elsewhere in the Philippines, many stayed even though they didn’t strike it rich. Ms. Elejorde was one of them. She arrived in 1984, and though her hard work hasn’t earned her much, she has been able to feed her family with the gold she and her husband Reynaldo have pulled from the depths of their small mine. As hard as that struggle has been, she knows it will get even tougher should a giant corporation succeed in throwing her off the land where her mine shaft is located. So with her neighbors, she is fighting back.

After bouncing up the mountain in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, I found Ms. Elejorde, a 44-year-old catechist in the local San Miguel Arcangel Catholic parish, leading a group of small-scale miners in prayer as they gathered outside the local office of the Philippine Mining Development Corporation, a quasi-governmental company that locals insist is a front for large mining companies from China, Canada and elsewhere. This development corporation obtained a government permit to dig a huge open pit mine where Ms. Elejorde now digs by hand. Then it got a court to order the several dozen gold mining families in the area to vacate the mountainside.

That was several months ago, and Ms. Elejorde and her neighbors continue to work their tunnels. They say they aren’t going anywhere. Ms. Elejorde helped organize a new association that elected officers and will speak with one determined voice. “I’m hungry, and the tunnel I own is the only way I’m going to provide food for my family. The big capitalists want to kick me out, but we’re going to stay on this land and fight. And we’re going to win,” she told response.

In this battle between the small miners and huge corporations, neither side has a corner on environmental purism. Diwalwal is a highly toxic environment, and many of the surrounding hillsides have been stripped bare to provide timber to shore up the tunnels. Child labor abounds. Tunnel collapses are frequent. But the government, rather than working with the small-scale miners to build capacity that would protect the environment and en sure safer working conditions, has cast its lot with huge mining projects that will remove the gold but leave vast wastelands behind in the process, contributing little to local economic development. The Philippines has recently been considered a desirable place for international mining companies to invest, as it lags behind many other countries in requiring environmental safeguards and demanding a cut in the profits. Although Philippine President Benigno Aquino may slightly change that calculation soon with a new executive order on mining, the basic conflicts will remain the same and may even grow worse, as Mr. Aquino is expected to override the hundreds of provincial and municipal laws that have been passed effectively outlawing large mines.

An alternative vision of mining has been incarnated in the People’s Mining Bill, which was introduced in the Philippine Congress in 2011 and has received strong support from both Protestant and Catholic church activists. “We are not anti-mining or anti-development. We are against the incredulous huge extraction projects that remove any semblance of sovereignty from our people,” said Norma Dollaga, a United Methodist deaconess serving as general secretary of Kapatirang Simbahan Para sa Bayan (KASIMBAYAN), formerly known as the Ecumenical Center for Development.“Large-scale mining can never be sustainable, no matter how much the industry greenwashes it.”

Ms. Dollaga said the existing mining law, which dates from 1995, “amounts to a legal justification of plunder.” She said the proposed People’s Mining Bill will allow for mining when it doesn’t destroy agricultural land and where the local community will be directly involved in regulating and benefitting from it. “The primacy of people’s lives and communities will be given precedence over the profits of transnational corporations,” she said.

Ms. Dollaga has pushed the United Methodist Church in the Philippines to join the broad coalition of popular groups backing the People’s Mining Bill.

“The church should be involved,” she said. “For United Methodists, it’s in our Social Principles — all that talk about caring for creation. But it’s the best kept secret in the church, just like the wonderful social teaching of Roman Catholics. But many of our young people are engaged with this. It’s practical and natural for us to care about our deteriorating environment.”

As popular resistance to Big Mining has grown, the government has stepped up its repression of small-scale miners, environmentalists and indigenous munities that speak out against it. Part of the military has been designated an “Investment Defense Force,” charged with protecting foreign corporations from the people of the Philippines.

In Diwalwal, soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines regularly engage in civil-military action, a sort of desensitization of civilians to the presence of armed men in uniforms. Today they play games with the children. Tomorrow they’ll be back to drive out Ms. Elejorde and her children.

When the military doesn’t want to get its hands bloody, it delegates violence to paramilitary groups. Sharon Liguyon is one of almost 200 people who camped out in front of provincial offices in Malaybalay last year after a paramilitary squad assassinated her husband, Jimmy Liguyon, on Mar. 5, 2012. Mr. Liguyon was the village chief of Dao in the municipality of San Fernando, and he had refused to sign over the indigenous village’s ancestral lands to a large mining corporation. More than a week after the killing, the squad’s leader, Aldy “Butsoy” Salusad, was still moving freely in the area despite the community’s demands that he be arrested. The villagers fled to the provincial capital for their own safety Mar. 14, 2012. Provincial officials offered them assistance in relocating elsewhere, but Ms. Liguyon said they would remain camped out in public until Mr. Salusad is captured. “We don’t want to be relocated elsewhere. We want justice,” she said.

One of the church people at the front of the environmental movement in Mindanao is Stella Matutina, a Benedictine sister who heads Panalipdan, an environmental group whose name derives from the Visayan word for to defend. After 18 years in Europe studying and doing pastoral work, Sister Matutina came home to Mindanao in 2007 and quickly realized an environmental crisis was at hand. The flooding and landslides provoked by indiscriminate logging, much of it to make way for large mines, was changing the groaning of creation into a scream. Yet people who respond to that scream are an endangered species in the Philippines. Father Faustino Tentorio, a 59- year-old Italian missionary and a wellknown opponent of mining, was shot in October 2011. In the weeks before his killing, various local military and paramilitary groups had spread the word that he was a collaborator with the rebel New People’s Army.

Sister Matutina has started receiving the same treatment, known locally as “red-tagging.” Military officials are spreading the word that she’s not really a nun but rather a member of the rebel army. With that label, they can kill her without provoking an unacceptable level of popular protest because some will rationalize her murder as the elimination of a supposed terrorist. Soldiers did a dry run in 2009, bursting into a community center in the middle of the night where she and several others were sleeping. They detained and interrogated them for several hours. Sister Matutina said the squad commander said they were waiting for the command “execute” to be spoken over the radio. Later the army defended its action by claiming they didn’t know Sister Matutina was a nun because she wasn’t wearing her habit.

“I don’t know any sisters who sleep in their habit and veil,” she said. Typhoon Sendong, which in 2011 killed more than 1,000 people in Mindanao, was a powerful sign, Sister Matutina says. “Sendong is the apocalypse. It’s doomsday. It is a sign of our fate if we continue with mining and logging,” she said.

(As response went to press, Typhoon Bopha ravaged Mindanao, killing even more than Sendong. Hardest hit was the Compostela Valley below Diwalwal, as high winds and heavy rains took deadly advantage of the vulnerability caused by widespread logging and mining.)

Part of the region’s vulnerability stems from export-oriented agriculture that has driven small farmers off their land to create huge plantations of pineapples and bananas so that people far away can eat fancy desserts. Sister Matutina says local fishers catch tuna, for example but ship the best parts of the fish away to foreign markets, leaving the tail and head for Filipinos to eat.

“We’re poor because we’ve given our best land away for export crops instead of using it to grow food for ourselves,” she said, noting that the pattern began with the Spanish who stripped away entire forests to send hardwoods back to Europe. “We give away the best and eat the rejects. Our best lands are planted with food for the overfed while our people go hungry.

“If we give our lands to agribusiness and mining companies, where will we go? We will have nowhere to go but to Smokey Mountain,” she said, referring to the sprawling garbage dump in Manila that’s constantly burning.

Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response.

Posted or updated: 1/31/2013 11:00:00 PM
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Daylien Elejorde leads a 2012 rally of small-scale miners outside the Mt. Diwata offices of the Philippine Mining Development Corporation.