Gold and Indigenous People: Small-scale mining in Benguet

Demie Dangla, ABS CBN News

Posted at Mar 21 2017 12:56 AM

It was like any other day for Mariano Waclin, a 60-year old small-scale miner in Barangay Ucab in Itogon, Benguet in the Cordillera region. 

He got up in the cold morning, sipped his hot Barako coffee, and then started working inside a small tunnel where he spends most of his day, hoping to get as much gold from the ores he would collect.

Wearing his old jumpsuit and headlight, he crawled into a dark tunnel and started digging and pounding rocks using a hammer and a long bar. 

He quipped: “Para kang nakabaon sa ilalim ng lupa." 

(It’s like you are buried alive.) 

He was alone and it was dark, but he was not afraid. 

Small-scale miner Mariano Waclin uses a wheeled cart to transport collected rocks. Photo by Demie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

Waclin is just one of the estimated 15,000 small-scale miners in Itogon, according to Municipal Livelihood Coordinator, Patrick Alceda. 

Many Itogon residents rely on small-scale mining as their main livelihood. This is also the case in three other towns in Benguet: Tuba, Mangkayan and Kabayan.

“'Yun talaga ang trabaho namin, wala akong ibang alam na trabaho. Ginagawa ng mga magulang ko, siya ang ginaya ko rin na trabaho nila. Hindi naman ako nakapag-aral eh," Waclin said. 

(This is the only job I know. It has been passed on to me by my parents. I just followed what they did. I was not able to go to school.) 

Waclin says has been mining since he was 15 years old.

Small-scale miners in Itogon were worried that they might lose their livelihood because of the staunch opposition of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Gina Lopez to mining. 

However, they saw hope in Lopez's statement that she is not against small-scale mining. 

During her confirmation hearing before the Commissions on Appointments last March 9, Lopez said small-scale mining was working in the Cordillera region.  

Lopez said she was open to small-scale mining operations in Antamok mine in the Cordillera after the locals assured her that it would not harm the environment.

“They are not using mercury, they do tunneling. They use cyanide and it dissolves after 72 hours so it's not harmful to the environment as long as it is contained," Lopez said.

She added: “I've only been here for 8 months. We are already beginning to address it (small scale mining) at the soonest possible time.” 


MINING WITHOUT MERCURY, AN INDIGENOUS PRACTICE

After spending several hours inside the dark tunnel, Waclin put the rocks he collected into sacks and then moved them outside using his cart. 

Not all the rocks they collect are useful. Rocks dubbed as “usal” are rejected. The useful ones are called “naba.” These are valuable because they contain minerals. 

The “naba” will undergo the long process of extracting gold. They will be ground into smaller pieces, mixed with water, and crushed inside the ball mill.

Waclin guards his ball mill. It takes two hours to pulverize four sacks of ores. Photo by Demie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

After the rocks are pulverized, the minerals will be separated using a special cloth that will be washed inside a basin.

Waclin’s daughter, Donna, separates the minerals on the cloth by washing it in the basin. Photo by Demie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

Waclin says they do not use mercury to extract ores. He says some small-scale miners use chemicals, but not the ones in their area. 

He recognizes that using the toxic chemical makes extracting gold much easier than the manual work they have to do. But Itogon's small-scale miners still prefer their traditional methods. 

“Wala kaming ginagamit na kemikal. Ang ginagamit namin 'yang ball mill,” he said. 

The Waclins gather at least five grams of gold each month. If they are lucky, they could get as much as 15 grams in a month. 

A gram of gold usually sells for P800 to P1,000, depending on its color, weight and dollar exchange. Waclin says they are not the ones who dictate the price but the buyers. 

“E kung mas mababa ang presyo, ibebenta pa rin namin para may pangkain, he said. 

(We would sell it even for a lower price so we could eat.)

They also sell the mud left over from the extraction process at P25 per sack.


FROM AGRICULTURE TO MINING

Waclin born in Barangay Ucab in Itogon. Just like most residents of Itogon, he belongs to the Kankanaey ethno-linguistic group. 

The Kankanaey meanwhile are part of a much larger group known as the "Igorot" or “mountain people.” 

Fernando Mangili, another small-scale miner, meanwhile belongs to another Igorot group called the Ibaloi. Mangili says their ancestors were the first ones to do mining in Itogon, starting in the 14th century. But it was different back then.

"Ang small-scale mining kasi hindi pa siya tinatawag noon na profitable, o tinatawag na kabuhayan. Ang gold noon ay parang way of life nu'ng mga katutubo noon ,” Mangili narrated. 

(Our ancestors did not seek profit from small-scale mining then. Instead it was their way of life.)

He added that indigenous people would often use gold for decorations, rituals and as accessories.

Fernando Mangili, Secretary General of the Benguet Small-Scale Miners Association Photo by Demie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

According to anthropologist Dr. Evelyn Caballero in her book on traditional miners in the Philippines, gold mining predated the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500s. Back then, Filipinos traded with the Chinese. 

The Spanish observed that gold was worn by Filipinos as jewelry or ornamentation. It was also traded for food, such as pigs, carabaos and rice.

They noticed that Filipinos only took a little gold, and not more than what they needed because of the belief that this would anger the gods. 

The Spanish were impressed with the abundance of gold in the Cordillera. They saw the potential of gold extraction, and thus conducted mining expeditions in various parts of the country.

This led to numerous tunnels for exploitation by foreigners. The Spanish issued laws and regulations in developing the mining industry in the Philippines.

When Americans arrived in 1898, they organized companies for commercial gold extraction. 

In 1903, Nelson Peterson and Harry Clyde established the first mining company in the country, which was the Benguet Consolidated Mining Company (BCMC) now known as the Benguet Corporation. 

“The activities of expansion and infrastructure development by Benguet Corporation led to the exclusion of the Kankana-ey from their land used for swiddening and the river space used for placer mining,” Caballero stated on the book.

Waclin blames the mining corporation for the irresponsible extraction of gold.

“‘Yung malalaki [na kumpanya] malawak ‘yung masira nila…. Siyempre bulldozer, may trak sila. Maraming kukunin nila dito hindi ginto lang. Copper, silver, ginto ang kukunin nila,” Waclin said. 

(The big mining companies bulldoze the mountain, destroying a large part of it. They extract not only gold, but also copper and silver)

“Noon mayaman [sa ginto ang kabundukan], ngayon wala na. Kinuha ng malalaking company ‘yung laman ng bundok dito. ‘Yung tinira nila ‘yung maliliit lang na naba," he said with dismay. 

(Before, the mountains were rich. But the big mining companies extracted a lot of minerals. What they left for us are small ores).

Scrapped part of the mountain where mining companies used to operate, but now small-scale miners operate here Photo by Demie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

Mangili, who is also the Secretary General of the Benguet Small-Scale Miners Association, also narrated that their ancestors did not need to earn money because food was readily available from their rice fields. 

Planting crops was still possible in Itogon then. But now the mountains have become unsuitable for farming.

Waclin attested to this and said his parents used to plant root crops in the mountains until water became unavailable.

“Nagtatanim ‘yung mga tao, pero ngayon wala nang nagtatanim. Malalaking butas nila [large-scale mining], bumaba ‘yung tubig kasi nawala dito sa surface. Walang tubig dito. Kahit magtanim ka, wala na. Pagdating ng summer, patay uli," Waclin said. 

(Residents used to farm here before. But water became unavailable due to large-scale mining. Even if you try to plan crops, they will just die during the dry season.) 

Waclin added that they now have to buy gallons of water for gold processing and everyday use.


"MINAHANG BAYAN"

To address the concerns of small-scale miners in Benguet, an application to establish a ‘minahang bayan’ at the Antamok area is now pending before the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).

In a phone interview, Alfredo Genetiano of Mines Management Division of MGB said the application is already on the publication phase and they are positive it will be approved.

Sec. Lopez also met with small-scale miners in Itogon where residents expressed their concerns to the secretary. 

Last March 3, small-scale miners in Itogon had a meeting. According to Alceda, the ‘minahang bayan’ received positive feedback from small-scale miners. 

Small-scale miners were assured that they will not be evicted from their tunnels, but they must accomplish several certifications to allow them to operate. 

Alceda said the required papers have yet to be finalized, but they may include certifications from the DENR, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, Department of Social Welfare and Development, among others. 

He said this is to regulate small-scale miners and ensure responsible mining. Failure to get these certifications may revoke their right to mine in their tunnels.

Small-scale miners have built structures near their tunnels. Photo by Demie Dangla, ABS-CBN News

However, Mangili believes that if the proposed ‘minahang bayan’ is approved, it should be turned over as property of the community. 

The ‘minahang bayan’ will be established within the Antamok area which is still owned by the Benguet Corporation. Benguet Corporation is one of 23 mining companies ordered closed by Lopez due to environmental and safety violations.  

Despite some reservations, Mangili is not against the idea of a ‘minahang bayan’ because it has been practiced by indigenous peoples long before. 

 “Yung minahang bahay, the community works together, may system of sharing, may system of working relations, may system of traditions and culture ‘yan. Hindi ka basta-basta pupunta d’yan if you do not follow the rules sa cultures and traditions,” Mangili said. 

(The real concept of minahang bayan is that the community works together, there is a system of sharing and working relations. There is also a system of traditions and culture. You can't mine if you do not follow culture and tradition.) 

He added that in the original concept of ‘minahang bayan’, there was sharing through "kanyaw."

“Dapat ‘wag ka maging maramot sa ginto, ‘wag mong solohin ‘yan, that is an indigenous law. You contribute. Kaya nga meron kaming kanyaw e," Mangili said. 

(You should not be greedy with gold. That is an indigenous law. You contribute. That is why we have "kanyaw.") 

"If you're able to accumulate money through gold, you're obliged to butcher a carabao to feed the people. That is "kanyaw," that is our way of sharing,” he explained.

Mangili, however, is afraid that the ‘minahang bayan’ will be used by Benguet Corporation. The company has expressed its support for the ‘minahang bayan’ in their mine site.

Mangili believes that the current system of mining favors corporations and foreigners. He says that it is only through the nationalization of mining that people will truly benefit from mining.

"The government should have a nationalistic view on our natural resources para magamit natin,” Mangili said. 

-- With reports from Cherry Mae Salazar

Small-scale miner Mariano Waclin was featured in ABS-CBN News Channel’s documentary program ‘Mukha’ on March 8, 2017. For more stories, check out Mukha’s Facebook page.