BUTUAN--Four barges, each carrying 1,000 tons of nickel-rich soil, leave Agusan del Norte frequently to transport raw quarried land to mainland China. Locals would joke that in a few years, there will be another Tubay in China.
Tubay is a municipality in Agusan del Norte where the San Roque Metals Inc (SRMI) is currently conducting mining operations for low-grade nickel and iron. Instead of shipping these ores, tons of quarried land from the nearby mountain is sold to other Asian countries like China and Korea.
The literal shipping of Philippine soil has been in practice not just in Tubay but in other mining sites in Caraga since the mining boom in 2006. Caraga, otherwise known as Region 13, is composed of five provinces: Agusan del Sur, Agusan del Norte, Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, and Dinagat Islands.
Since it resumed operations in April 2008, SRMI has been transporting 800,000 tons of soil. It had shipped out 1.6 million tons during its 2006 to 2007 operations. These lands contain 1.6% nickel and 35% iron.
Local governments and potential investors identified the region as the biggest iron deposit in the world and second biggest in terms of nickel deposits. The mineral reserves of Caraga are said to be about US$10 billion.
National Economic and Development Authority regional director Carmencita Conchingco said that land shipping is due to the lack of mineral processing plants in the region. "Unfortunately, there are no processing [plants] in Caraga. The mineral gets out in its raw form." Raw form means shipping out the earth itself.
Since it became a separate region in 1995, Caraga has been in the list of the poorest regions in the country. It has been consistently ranked among the bottom until the mining boom in 2006. Caraga is currently the second poorest region.
"Our economy is considered the second fastest growing economy in 2007. We have grown more than 8% primarily because of mining. It is currently driving our economy." Conchingco told abs-cbnnews.com.
Constructing processing plants could permanently remove Caraga in the list. Surigao City, considered the most developed city in region 13, is already negotiating with the Philippine Nickel Corporation (PHILNICO) for the construction of a processing plant in Nunuk Island, a former mining site.
SRMI, a Filipino-owned company, also plans to put up a processing plant in Tubay to upgrade the value of the ores mined in their area. As of the moment, they can only sell to China and sometimes, Korea.
Nickel is used to make computers, laptops, cell phones, utensils, and cars.
There are many investors, says Conchingco, but there are constraints like the lack of infrastructure in the region: "Production areas are hard to reach because the roads are unpaved."
There are also conflicting land uses and ancestral domain claims that need to be addressed. Aside from that, some municipalities still lack local government policies on mining.
'Threat to tourism'
The current mining wave that swept over Caraga has opened questions on its adverse effects on tourism. Felipe Espejon, municipal mayor of General Luna in Siargao Island, staunchly declared that "mining is a threat to tourism."
There are currently no mining activities in Siargao but there are motions to "free" some municipalities in Siargao to cater to mining operations. The island, touted as the surfing capital of the country, was declared a protected area by the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB).
The island municipality of Bucas Grande, a part of the protected zone, contains high-grade nickel and chromite ores. Espejon said that the municipalities argue that they will earn additional revenues from mining. Opening the island to mining can also generate employment for the locals. If a plant should open in the island, 10,000 locals can be immediately employed.
Nearby municipalities like General Luna are wary of the move because of possible water contamination. Bucas Grande is only an hour away from Siargao. "They will do a lot of preparation before we allow it," Espejon said.
Sustainable mining does not end in shipping the land, said Glennadi Rualo, mining enhancement protection and environmental office (MEPEO) manager of SRMI.
The mining company practices progressive rehabilitation. "If we mine, we return the top soil and plant on it," Rualo said. Rehabilitation starts by the second year up until 10 years after the end of the mining activity. Of the 72 hectares mining land given to SRMI, there are roughly 30 more hectares left to be drilled.
A requirement of the Mining Act of 1995 is the establishment of a MEPEO to oversee the rehabilitation of the area. The primary focus of the department is solid waste management, environmental engineering work and pollution control.
To prevent siltation, they have a series of ponds called siltation ponds constructed in each galley to prevent contamination. MEPEO also conducts quarterly monitors for heavy metal or silt contamination.
Although the land cannot be returned to its original height, the rehabilitated areas can be transformed to fishing grounds, golf courses, or subdivisions.
Local government units and the Catholic Church would approve of mining if it is sustainable, according to Conchingco. "We need to mine but at the same time streamline the protection of the environment."
Likewise, Conchingco said that mining firms should have provisions that when they get out after extracting the minerals, the community would be left with viable livelihood.