Three weeks. Three typhoons. Extensive flooding. Destructive landslides. Thousands of people huddled in evacuation centers amidst the pandemic with 434,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases (as of writing).
Such is the case of the Philippines since the last week of October when Typhoon Molave (local name Quinta), Super Typhoon Goni (local name Rolly), and Typhoon Vamco (local name Ulysses) swept across the country leaving millions of people displaced and more than a hundred dead.
It is estimated that at least 20 tropical storms and typhoons hit the Philippines annually. However, as the sea-surface temperature rises, it is expected that these storms and typhoons will become more destructive and more frequent.
These conditions make small-scale mining communities more vulnerable to natural disasters. In the Philippines, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is practiced in more than 30 provinces across the country, employs around 300,000 to 500,000 miners, and supports the livelihood of another two million people nationwide. But with the recent typhoons and the ongoing pandemic, small-scale gold production challenges are further exacerbated, forcing ASGM communities to stop their operations indefinitely and look for supplementary livelihood opportunities.
To assist them, it will take a higher level of bayanihan--a Filipino term which translates to community spirit. From disaster response and management, capital investment, livelihood assistance, formalization of ASGM operations, down to community awareness, a whole-of-society approach is needed to ensure that the ASGM sector fully recovers and delivers social and economic benefits not just for the miners, but for the country as a whole.
A bitter lesson learned from the mountains of Itogon, Benguet
In 2018, the mining town of Itogon, Province of Benguet gained national attention when the strongest storm in the world that year--Typhoon Mangkhut (local name Ompong)--buried around 100 miners alive due to a massive landslide. It took a whole week of search and rescue operations by the authorities to retrieve all the bodies buried through the 20 feet of mud which came loose from the mountains of Benguet believed to be caused by the tunneling activities of the ASGM sector. These trapped miners were waiting the storm out inside a mining bunkhouse owned by one of the large-scale mining companies which previously worked in the area.
This incident caused the government to order an investigation of the mining activities which eventually led to the issuance of cease-and-desist orders on all the informal ASGM operations in the region. Government officials were also investigated for negligence in disaster management.
These miners, however, were reported to be operating under an agreement with the large-scale mining company, Benguet Corporation, Inc. (BCI), allowing them to operate in the area for a cut of the profits. The company, however, denied the allegations and maintained that no such profit-sharing agreement exists. And on the contrary, BCI has issued warnings, filed criminal cases, and even conducted blasting of tunnels to block the entry of small-scale miners.
The area has also been classified as a geohazard zone and prone to landslides by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Mines and Geosciences Bureau (DENR-MGB, the government’s regulatory body on mining). But despite these warnings, the miners reopened and continued to mine the tunnels in order to provide for their families given the limited livelihood opportunities in the municipality.
With 80% of the Itogon population relying on small-scale gold mining, formalizing mining operations through the declaration of Minahang Bayan areas and issuance of small-scale mining contracts should be a priority for local governments. Unfortunately, in 2019, only one Minahang Bayan petition was approved, with 13 petitions still ongoing and under review.
Based on interviews conducted by the planetGOLD Philippines project team, executed by the Artisanal Gold Council, the main challenge for the applications was securing consent for land use from large scale mining companies. At the time of the site visit, miners had decided to seek help from the Benguet Federation of Small-scale Miners, the umbrella organization of small-scale mining organizations in Benguet for the development of a profit-sharing proposal with a large-scale mining company to get its consent for the Minahang Bayan applications. This was their last resort.
According to the miners, another challenge in securing a mining contract are the substantial financial resources required, especially in contracting consultants and experts for developing the various technical reports and designs. These are just some reasons why these small-scale miners feel they have little choice but to mine.
With their experiences in 2018, the miners, the local government, and the government regulatory bodies, have improved their disaster mitigation and response management. This was evident during the last three typhoons. Although the region was not expected to be directly hit by the typhoons, government advisories were relayed through different channels such as radio broadcasts, social media, and phone calls.
These systems were deployed in close coordination with formal ASGM associations in the area such as the Loacan Itogon Pocket Miners Association (LIPMA). According to LIPMA Secretary Ms. Virginia Fausto, LIPMA ensures the compliance of all their members in terms of stoppage of operations and evacuation to safer grounds. They also assist in monitoring at the height of the typhoons, assessing the impacts, and providing relief to affected areas.
An ongoing livelihood struggle for the miners of Buenavista, Quezon
When the project team visited Buenavista, Quezon in August 2020, it was found that operations in the People’s Small Scale Mining Area or Minahang Bayan were all impaired due to the travel and importation restrictions imposed by the government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of the community quarantine, there was a nationwide lack of supply of chemicals such as cyanide which led to limited gold processing, especially in the town of Buenavista where there’s only one gold processing plant. The next closest processing plants are situated in Bicol, a four- to five-hour ride away.
And even if they were able to produce gold, the major gold trader in town also needs to travel to Manila for five to six hours to sell the gold to local pawn shops in Binondo or alternatively travel 4-5 hours to sell the gold in Bicol. In both cases traders and officials believe that much of the gold sold to these shops is illegally exported to Hong Kong, a main conduit for gold to flow into China.
Based on interviews conducted by the team, miners were able to process ore until June 2020. Since then, ASGM operations in Buenavista have focused on ore extraction and crushing with the aim of eventually processing the accumulated stockpiles.
Mr. Marconi Manaog, a financier of Esperanza Lucky Au Multi-Purpose Cooperative, shared his associations’ struggles in providing finance for mining operations. Since the start of the pandemic, financiers like Mr. Marconi Managog as well as tunnel owners have started providing loans for small-scale miners so they can continue to support their families. However, the longer the pandemic continues, the longer the miners and tunnel owners would have to wait for their operations to resume, and all the more difficult it is for them to generate profit.
These challenges are further aggravated by the recent typhoons. Ms. Caren Edrad, the Pollution Control Officer of the Villa Mina Multi-Purpose Cooperative, said that they have stopped their operations since Typhoon Quinta because of major flooding in the underground. Their water pumps could not cope with the in-rushing floodwater, leaving some of their equipment still submerged underground. Electricity and mobile signals were also down for weeks and are currently unstable. She estimates that ASGM operations in Buenavista will most likely resume by March 2021. In the meantime, miners resort to copra production (coconut oil), the number one source of livelihood in Buenavista, which involves drying the meat or kernel of the coconut to extract oil.
Despite the ongoing financial challenges, formal ASGM associations like La Suerte Mines Multipurpose Cooperative and Grande Multi-Purpose Cooperative were quick to respond to the needs of the community by providing relief goods not just for their members but for the whole community as well. Loans were also offered to miners whose houses have been damaged by the typhoons.
Miners were also offered alternative short-term (one to two weeks) jobs by the local government which were mainly clean-up and rehabilitation post-typhoon activities. Some miners, on the other hand, were forced to work outside of the municipality to make ends meet.
The great benefits of formalization of ASGM activities in Paracale, Camarines Norte
Although the local government of Paracale, Camarines Norte made significant efforts pre-typhoon in terms of information dissemination, preparation of evacuation centers, and provision of 24/7 assistance, ASGM communities in the area did not expect the severe extent of the damages caused by the three-week streak of typhoons.
According to the Vice President of Samahan ng Maralitang Magkakabod ng Camarines Norte Mr. Edwin Villaflores, some ASGM operations were forced to stop due to soil liquefaction and flooding which caused damages to the mining tunnels they call kaburan. Meanwhile, other less-affected groups continued to operate.
Post-typhoon relief operations were provided by national and local governments, non-government organizations, and the private sector across the mining town. BAN Toxics, an independent non-government environmental organization closely working with the ASGM communities in Paracale, is currently mobilizing a donation drive for Camarines Norte miners as the official Secretariat of the Philippine National Coalition of Artisanal and Small-Scale Miners.
With the impact of recent typhoons, ASGM leaders such as Samahan ng mga Minero sa Paracale Federation (SMPF) President Mr. Serafin Dasco realized the urgent need for the formalization of the sector to manage disaster and emergency responses more effectively. He believes that formalization “will ensure miners’ safety and security, protection of the environment, and formulation of policies suitable to the changing times especially during calamities.” According to Mr. Dasco, large scale mining companies have been operating in Paracale for years, yet they do not implement rehabilitation activities after their operations. SMPF also proposes to strictly prohibit illegal logging in their town.
Moreover, despite being a gold-rich town where mining provides livelihood to 70% of the community, Paracale is still considered a third-class municipality. With seven (7) ongoing Minahang Bayan applications, ASGM communities remain hopeful that the formalization of their small-scale operations will eventually help in the social and economic progress of Paracale.
A call for a stronger sense of bayanihan
While the government is implementing the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act to combat COVID-19, there’s also a need to foster a sense of bayanihan for the small-scale gold mining sector through the following:
- Increased awareness on the social and economic benefits of formal small-scale mining activities: After the typhoons, the project team also tried to reach out to a number of non-government organizations providing relief operations to typhoon-affected areas. With a number of negative responses from a few organizations who deliberately opted not to provide assistance to the ASGM sector due to environmental concerns, an intensive and focused communication campaign on the social and economic benefits of ASGM is crucial. This will also encourage informal miners to start their formalization process.
- Formalization of ASGM operations: Some of the major requirements for ASGM formalization are the development of safety and health programs, community development and management plans, and environmental management and rehabilitation plans. Ms. Arlene Galvez, of BAN Toxics, a local NGO, emphasized that these programs will “guarantee that all natural disasters are properly managed and mitigated.”
- Facilitation of access to finance and investment opportunities: Pollution Control Officer of Grande Multi-Purpose Cooperative Ms. Nancy Manigbas emphasized the need for possible investors due to the ongoing financial challenges in ASGM operations in their town.
- Capacity development for small-scale miners: Basic disaster risk and reduction management, occupational health and safety, and communications management are a few training topics the miners will benefit from.
- Updated small-scale gold mining operations data: Majority of the activities of the ASGM sector in the Philippines remain undocumented due to the absence of gold production data at the level of the miners, illicit financial flows in gold trading, insufficient government budget, and poor implementation of and compliance to policies, among others. Access to such data will facilitate evidence-based policy-making and resource management for the government, the ASGM sector, the non-government organizations, and the private sector.
- Supplementary livelihood opportunities: At the end of the day, the core issue is survival and livelihood. Sustainable supplemental livelihood opportunities should be provided to the miners given the pandemic and the frequent natural disasters faced by the country.
- Collaborative disaster risk reduction and management: Through the lead of the national and local governments, established collaborations with the ASGM communities before, during, and after disasters will ensure a more successful disaster management.
The planetGOLD Philippines project, supported by the Global Environment Facility, executed by the Artisanal Gold Council and implemented by the UN Environment Programme and UN Industrial Development Organization, aims to provide better access to government services and incentives for the small-scale gold mining communities by helping them in formalization and improving their current technologies and systems. Through these efforts, the project envisions facilitating the ASGM sector’s access to finance and formal markets through a more efficient and profitable gold production process.