Small-scale Philippine miners defend rights against foreign interests
By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service
MOUNT DIWATA, Philippines (CNS) -- Daylien Elejorde suspects that mining for gold in the mountains of northern Mindanao is not going to result in a windfall of precious metal.
The small mine she operates with her husband keeps the family fed and a roof over their heads, but not much more. Yet, Elejorde faces losing even the little she has to foreign mining interests eyeing the land and the network of hundreds of hand-excavated tunnels she and her neighbors mine day in and day out.
Elejorde told Catholic News Service she is determined to hang on to what is rightfully hers.
The family lives in Mount Diwata, a community of more than 40,000 clustered around the tunnels that pierce the mountains above the Compostela Valley. The area is commonly known as Diwalwal, which comes from a local indigenous word for one's tongue hanging out after climbing to a great height.
Since gold was discovered here in the 1980s, tens of thousands of small-scale miners have fled lowland poverty to seek their fortune. Elejorde arrived in 1984.
A catechist in the local St. Michael the Archangel Parish, Elejorde said the church is an essential part of the miners' life.
Another miner, Vicklyn Ebanes, who has a tunnel just down the mountain from Elejorde, is parish council president. Both women said the parish priest and bishop support their struggle.
On June 4, Elejorde led the miners in prayer as they began a public protest against a plan to throw them off the mountain.
The protesters gathered outside the local offices of the Philippine Mining Development Corp., which local residents say is a front for large mining companies from China, Canada and elsewhere. The corporation obtained a government permit to dig an open-pit mine where Elejorde now digs by hand. It got a court to order several dozen mining families to vacate the mountainside by June 5. On that day, Elejorde and her neighbors went to work in their tunnels, saying they are not going anywhere.
"I'm hungry, and the tunnel I own is the only way I'm going to provide food for my family," Elejorde said. "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."
A man who answered the door at the mining company refused to answer questions about the conflict, nor would he say who could.
The ambitious plans of the mining companies are meeting resistance throughout the Philippines. However, President Benigno Aquino was expected to sign executive order in July that will override hundreds of provincial and municipal laws that restrict or prohibit large mines.
On June 26, one Catholic bishop in Mindanao urged Aquino to consider more seriously the effects of large-scale mining on local communities.
"At the end of the day, for better and for worse, the local people will face the effects (of mining) and not those in Manila," said Bishop Guillermo Afable of Digos in a statement from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines.
Bishop Afable said the church does not oppose all mining but does take seriously its negative impact on the environment and indigenous communities.
"We are not against economic benefits, but we know for a fact that these are only temporary," the statement said. "It's there today, gone tomorrow. And the negative effects of mining will be there permanently."
In April, three other Mindanao bishops joined Bishop Afable in defending a ban on open-pit mining in South Cotabato, where the massive Tampakan copper and gold mine is planned.
"We are determined to protect and promote the integrity of God's creation by not allowing the senseless destruction of 1,087 flora and 289 fauna, many of which are endemic to Mindanao," Archbishop Orlando B. Quevedo of Cotabato, Bishop Romulo dela Cruz of Kidapawan, Bishop Dinualdo D. Gutierrez of Marbel and Bishop Afable said in a statement.
Mindanao's most prominent Catholic anti-mining campaigner says some mining is acceptable.
"We need to mine what's necessary to meet our needs, not the needs of China and Japan and the U.S. and Europe. Mining is good when we use it sustainably for our own economic development. But with our current mining law there is no accountability on what is mined and exported. We have given away our natural resources," said Benedictine Sister Stella Matutina, secretary-general of Panalipdan, an environmental group.
Sister Stella recognizes that small miners also contribute to environmental problems; the river that flows downhill from Mount Diwata is laced with mercury and other contaminants generated by extracting gold from ore. She and other activists say the government, rather than pushing big mines, should invest in education and training to improve the safety and environmental awareness of small miners.
Such education and training provisions are included in the People's Mining Bill, introduced in the Philippine Congress in 2011. It has gained supported from Catholic and Protestant church leaders.
In recent months, the Philippine military has conducted regular patrols in Mount Diwata while also carrying out activities, which Elejorde said is meant to get residents comfortable with their presence.
"And then the next day they'll be the ones to throw us off the mountain," she said.
The military has been tasked by the government with protecting big mines from those who oppose them. Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo created an investment defense force, and the Philippine armed forces have stepped up their sponsorship of paramilitary squads that target mine opponents for violence.
In Malaybalay, Sharon Liguyon is one of almost 200 people who have camped on the lawn in front of provincial offices after one such paramilitary squad, led by Aldy "Butsoy" Salusad, reportedly assassinated her husband, Jimmy, on March 5.
Jimmy Liguyon was the village chief of Dao in the municipality of San Fernando, and had refused to sign over the village's ancestral lands to a large mining operation. On March 14, after Salusad was seen still operating in the area, the villagers fled to the provincial capital, where officials have offered them assistance in relocating. Sharon Liguyon said they will remain camped in public until Salusad is captured.
"We don't want to be relocated elsewhere," she said. "We want justice.
What happened in Dao is symbolic of the struggle over mining in the Philippines today, Sister Stella said.
"The mining companies have divided communities, displacing people and killing them. As a woman I want life, but the mining companies do the opposite. If we want life, they want death, death of our people, death of our resources," she said.
Copyright (c) 2012 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops