Displayed on the webpage of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)’s Mining Task Force is a random photo of an open-pit mine, one that recalls haunting images from famous Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s photo project on mine workers of Serra Pelada—images often used to depict capitalism’s slavery of workers and its unrelenting destruction of the environment for profit of a few.
The irony of such an image being displayed on a webpage promoting the supposed social benefits of large-scale mining apparently escaped APEC’s promoters. Nevertheless, such wide-angle image of an open-pit mine never fails to incite horror on many a viewer. The pit’s rough, grey concave presents an exact opposite image of what the place used to be: a lush, green convex of flora and fauna—and communities living harmoniously with nature.
Such images dot the Philippine countryside today. From the northernmost provinces (in Cagayan Valley and Cordillera) to the southernmost ones (Southern Mindanao and Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao), the country is covered with existing large-scale mining operations, as well as applications to mine some more. It is, after all, a country that is rich in mineral resources—one of the richest in the world.
Its lands are also among the most fertile. It is not surprising, then, that large, agribusiness plantations—destructive to both the lands and the people’s health—have also continued to expand in the country during the last few years. With the expansion of large-scale mining, equally alarming is the similar expansion of many plantations, which are often operated by private businesses that provide raw materials for multinational corporations.
These are two startling examples of the destructive nature of neoliberal globalization that is being pushed by APEC in the Philippines today.
Greed throughout history
While community-based, small-scale mining has existed among many indigenous communities in the country for centuries, large-scale, destructive mining in the Philippines only began during the last century—coinciding with US colonialism and neocolonialism after World War II.
In the Northern Philippines, the century-long mining operations of Benguet Corporation in Itogon, Benguet served as a preview of things to come. Established on August 12, 1903, the Itogon open-pit mining site, left permanent destruction on the mountains of Benguet, but also on the site’s surrounding communities.
“(It) caused rivers to become biologically dead and its mine wastes (continue to) pose threats and concrete effects to people’s lives and communities,” said Santi Mero, deputy secretary-general of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA). He also said that Benguet Corp., and subsequently, the operations of Philex Corp. in Itogon led to a series of environmental disasters that claimed people’s lives and communities.
On the surface, Benguet Corporation flattened the mountains of Antamok in barangay Loacan and Keystone in Ucab, Itogon through its open pit mining operation,” said Mero. The corporation also took down the pine forests of Itogon, Baguio, Tuba, and Tublay. “When they ran out of timber, the mining company expanded their logging to Bobok in Bokod.”
One of the most tragic disasters happened in 1937, when the corporation’s Atok-Big Wedge drove in two large tunnels across the village Gumatdang’s opposite sides, draining the rice-producing village of water for its irrigation. In 1962, Benguet Corp. again put a large tunnel between its Kelly mine in Gumatdang and in Antamok. “Instead of just draining water from the mines, the tunnel drained the water from a major irrigation source, drying up rice fields. Ventilation shafts have also drawn water away from surface streams, irrigation canals, and pond fields,” Mero recounted.
Tailings dams, which contain the mines’ wastes, also destroyed many communities. Most dams were not leak-proof, thus contaminating many forests, farms, communities and water sources. Through the years, many dams were breached, causing further damage. Mero recalled that many such dams collapsed, such as that of Lepanto, as well as Philex, in 1992 and 1994. An Itogon-Suyoc tailings dam also collapsed in 1994. These old, leaking tailings dams are mostly located along the Cordillera’s maor river systems – the Abra River, Agno River, Antamok River and Bued River.
Meanwhile, in 2012, Philex Corporation—which the government in the past praised supposedly for its “responsible mining”—was responsible for the biggest mining-related disaster in Philippine history. It spilled over 20 million tons of toxic sediments into the water channels of Itogon.
The Mining Act
One of the key propositions pushed forward by imperialist countries led by the United States during APEC’s founding in 1989 was the liberalization of the mining industries in its member-countries.
By 1995, the Philippine Congress, under its then-president Fidel Ramos, approved the Mining Act that authorized virtually 100 percent foreign operation and ownership of mining operations in the country. This led to the onslaught of mining applications covering almost 900,000 hectares of land.
Among the first Financial and Technical Assistance Agreements (FTAA, which is an agreement to mine a maximum of 81,000 hectares of land, with air and timbre rights, to boot) approved in 1994—a year before the Mining Act became law—was that of Oceana Gold Philippines Inc. (primarily New Zealand-owned) in Brgy. Didipio, Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya. But because of community resistance and legal and financial issues, Oceana Gold was only able to commence mining in April 2013. At the start of the operations, the company targeted to produce 10,000 ounces of gold and 14,000 tons of copper per year within the 765-hectare mine.
Today, the Didipio mining operations pose an immediate threat to what is called the biodiversity corridor of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Already, what were once lush hills in Didipio now are ugly, barren open-pit mines, like that of Dinkidi, which was one a hill before an Australian firm Climax-Arimco (which later merged with Oceana Gold) discovered ore beneath it.
The Didipio mining also exemplified some of the many social costs of large-scale mining. In a 2013 Pinoy Weekly report, Akino Beduya, a local pastor of an evangelical church that was demolished during the peak of land grabbing, said that the mining company turned members of families against each other. It sparked feuds over land ownership and compensation that were favorable to Oceana Gold because it momentarily weakened the communities’ collective resistance.
The mining operation in Didipio also exemplified the kind of “benefits” communities receive from these mining companies: some low-paying employment. Like many communities threatened by these operations, Didipio residents were promised employment in Oceana Gold’s mines. This only partially materialized, as a majority of mining employees still came from outside the barangay. Meanwhile, those whose lands and homes were displaced were promised a measely P11,500 compensation.
Meanwhile, in many other areas of Cagayan province, mining operations continue to crop up, like the many magnetite (black sand) mining operations along the coast of towns such as Aparri, Calamaniugan, Gonzaga, Lallo, Penablanca, Buguey, Santa Ana, and others.
In Brgy. Runruno of Quezon town of Nueva Vizcaya, the British company FCF Minerals met fierce resistance from the people who defied attempts to demolish their homes for a road-widening project connected to the mining project in 2012. By the end of 2014, FCF Minerals began their operations.
A 2014 Environmental Investigation Mission by Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment and Agham discovered that even during the exploration and construction stages, “FCF Minerals’ (operations) already showed impact of mining brought about by massive soil disturbance and the removal of vegetation. This would lead to further environmental degradation once the company started its full mining operation.”
Aside from those of OceanaGold and FCF Minerals, there are 9 existing mining operations with Minerals Production Sharing Agreements (MPSA) and 29 mining operations with exploration permits in all of Cagayan Valley region. Alarmingly, there are 170 mining applications waiting for approval from the national government, 6 of which are FTAAs.
Meanwhile, in the Ilocos region, there are 118 approved mining permits as of January 2015, with another 34 for renewal and 78 under process. These mining operations and applications cover almost 350,000 hectares of land.
In the Cordillera region, despite decades of unrelenting extraction from corporations such as Lepanto, Philex and, of course, Benguet Corp., mining operations continue to exist and more mining companies continue to apply for permits. MGB said that as of 2013, mining operations have covered 1. million hectares of land in Cordillera, while 773,570 hectares are under application. Many of the mining companies belong to imperialist countries that are member of APEC: Australia, Canada, United States and China.
But resistance is rife in Northern Luzon.
In many of these mining operations, communities have been organizing resistance for years, launching legal campaigns to challenge the mining companies, as well as direct-action protests to derail the operations. The Cordillera People’s Alliance in the Cordillera region, as well as many people’s, environmental, and church organizations have led the campaign of resistance against large-scale mining.
Quite a few indigenous and peasant communities have turned to the ever-strengthening revolutionary movement of the New People’s Army and Communist Party of the Philippines that are waging an armed struggle to overthrow the political and economic system across the country. On October 29 of this year, guerrillas torched equipment and vehicles belonging to Geogen Nickel Asia Corp., which extracts nickel, iron, chromite and limestone in Isabela.
Meanwhile, in Metro Manila, as a direct response to the holding of APEC Economic Leaders’ Summit there on November 18 to 19, people’s organizations have revived the People’s Campaign Against Imperialist Globalization (PCAIG). The PCAIG was first launched during the first Manila summit in 1996, which saw massive protests against APEC despite repeated attempts at dispersing the protesters.
This time, the PCAIG features people’s organizations travelling from across the country to converge in Metro Manila. From the northern Luzon, Amianan Salakniban (Defend the North), as well as CPA and many others, including groups from the many tribes of indigenous peoples there, will launch a caravan called Martsa Amianan (March from the North) from their provinces to the nation’s capital to join the nationally coordinated protests under PCAIG.
On October 26, more than 700 members of Lumad (indigenous people from Mindanao), Moro and peasant organizations arrived in Manila under the Manilakbayan ng Mindanao. The caravan from the south, composed mostly of the Lumad, was launched to campaign against the series of killings of Lumad leaders, environmental activists, etc., as well as against attacks on their communities and indigenous schools. Lumad communities have also been target of militarization because of mining applications and operations, as well as expansion of agribusiness plantations in Mindanao.
It will be, PCAIG organizers said, a protest of the North and the South, as well as all sectors from the other provinces and in the urban center. Since its founding in 1989, APEC has been a key venue for imperialist countries to unabashedly push their agenda of strengthening their foothold in neocolonial countries such as the Philippines through neoliberal policies like the Mining Act of 1995.
It will also be an occasion to register the Filipino people’s (and the rest of the world’s people’s) desire for a better, more equitable, and prosperous world.