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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Philippine Mining Legacy

Air Date: Week of

In the Philippines, president Fidel Ramos is pushing an aggresive plan to industrialize the nation by the year 2000. A cornerstone of his program is mining. But last year a major accident at a Canadian-operated mine spilled millions of tons of waste into the Boal river, virtually destroying the economy and ecology of the island of Marinduque . Producer Orlando de Guzman recently visited the island and found that the disaster is putting a chill on the President’s plan.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. In the Philippines, President Fidel Ramos is pushing an aggressive plan to industrialize the nation by the year 2000. A cornerstone of his program is mining. The Philippines boasts vast and untapped mineral wealth, including one of the world's largest gold reserves. But the president's effort is being overshadowed by an event which took place last year. A Canadian-operated mine spilled millions of tons of waste into the Boak river, virtually destroying the economy and the ecology of the small island of Marinduque, which lies just south of the main island of Luzon. Producer Orlando de Guzman recently visited Marinduque and found that the mining disaster is still reverberating.

DE GUZMAN: At dusk in the village of Lupac, farmers and fishers are gathered around a small altar decorated with plastic flowers.

(People praying)

DE GUZMAN: They're here to mourn the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

(Praying continues, with singing in local language)

DE GUZMAN: Marinduquenos, like most Filipinos, are deeply religious, their faith a fusion of local animism and Catholicism. But here, people are not only mourning the death of Christ but also the death of their river.

JANAP: [Speaks in local language]
TRANSLATOR: Now, when I look at the river, it looks like an like onimous cemetery.
It is quiet. You will not see any children swimming in the river.

DE GUZMAN: Uldarico Janap's life was changed on the night of March 23, 1996, when millions of tons of tailings surged from a pit at the Canadian-operated Marcopper Mine into Marinduque's main river. In a matter of hours, the Boak River's entire 16-mile stretch, and the coastal area at its mouth, were smothered to death.

JANAP: [Speaks in his language]
TRANSLATOR: The poor people who make a living catching shrimp are having a very hard time. They are just loitering on the street corners because there is no more shrimp to catch. Marcopper did not give us progress. All they have done is destroy the island of Marinduque.

DE GUZMAN: Hundreds of families can no longer fish for shrimp or other species, do laundry, or water their farms from the river. Emelita Rivera now ekes out a living by clearing and burning the steep slopes along the river to plant bananas and corn.

RIVERA: [Speaks in local language]
TRANSLATOR: Before, we got fish from the river and we didn't have to go buy it in town. But there's no more fish here any more. So instead of saving our money to send my children to school, I have to spend it to buy fish from town. That's become a big hardship here.

DE GUZMAN: Many residents of this small island just south of the main Philippine island of Luzon live in remote villages without electricity, paved roads, or hospitals. Before the disaster, there were few regular jobs here besides those at Marcopper. Now, the mine is closed and even those are gone.

(Traffic sounds)

DE GUZMAN: A dusty road ends at a deep pit that Marcopper had filled with tailings: the crushed rock left over after the copper has been extracted from the ore. It looks like a big lake with copper green water. The disaster began when a drainage plug under the pit broke. For 5 days tailings spewed out at a rate of 100 dump truck loads a minute. Karen Vidler is a marine biologist who saw it all happen.

VIDLER: Once it happened, the day after, it just became like the stuff you see coming out of a cement truck when you're pouring cement, and the river had become that, and everything was gray. So, you can just imagine that instead of like when you turn on the tap, instead of water coming out of it you've just got cement.

DE GUZMAN: Now, millions of tons of muck line the bed of the Boak River and its banks. If they're exposed to air, the tailings will eventually produce toxic sulfuric acid. So Marcopper has been pushing the material back into the river and waiting for the monsoons to wash it out to sea. This is the biggest part of the company's clean-up. But biologist Karen Vidler says it's also the company's way of limiting its liability, which is based on what are known here as direct links between the smothering muck and its effect on specific people.

VIDLER: If it's on the land, it's going to directly affect the farmer who owns that land, and there's direct links. In the coastal areas, it's a shed resource, it's open-access. So drawing direct links to people and individuals or, you know, there's no sea holders, is more difficult to do.

DE GUZMAN: Placer Dome, Incorporated, Marcopper's parent company, denies it's trying to reduce its liability, but says Marcopper's responsibility is limited because the disaster was unforeseeable. Hugh Leggit is Placer Dome's spokesperson.

LEGGIT: We believe what happened was that there was a fracturing of the rocks surrounding the tunnel plug, which may have been exacerbated by a 3.2 magnitude earthquake a week earlier. And we had everything under control up to that time.

DE GUZMAN: But an investigation by the United Nations found that the disaster was preventable, and critics say Marcopper had a history of disregard for the local environment.

(A motor starts up and runs)

DE GUZMAN: Fisherman Ben Alfonte starts a rusty irrigation pump he's rigged to power his boat. He glides across the calm water of the Calancan Bay, where Marcopper dumped 145 million tons of tailings over 16 years. Mr. Alfonte estimates that about 50 square miles of coral reefs, crucial fish habitat, were ruined by Marcopper's tailings, and that 2,000 families lost their livelihoods.

ALFONTE: [Speaks in local language]
TRANSLATOR: This shore was like a paradise. The fish were abundant here. But now there is nothing. Even if you are here the whole night, it's hard to catch even a kilo of fish. What happened here is worse than World War II. At least then, the Americans and Japanese paid us war damages. But these Canadians from Placer Dome, they're not paying anything.

DE GUZMAN: Marcopper began as a secret partnership between Placer Dome and former president Ferdinand Marcos. When Marcos's dictatorship was overthrown in 1986, his half ownership was taken over by the government of Corazon Aquino. Local residents successfully sued the company twice to stop the dumping in Calancan Bay, but both presidents Marcos and Aquino personally overturned the rulings. Eventually, the Aquino government ordered Marcopper to pump the tailings further out to sea. Instead, the company began dumping its waste into the pit that eventually failed and killed the Boak River. Howie Severino, a Manila-based investigative journalist, says Marcopper's story was very typical.

SEVERINO: In the political regimes of Marcos and Aquino, it apparently was enough that they were well-connected, that they had the support of both presidents, which allowed them to defy environment authorities and totally ignore local community sentiment, including environmental considerations.

DE GUZMAN: Unlike his predecessors, President Fidel Ramos has not intervened on Marcopper's behalf. In fact, his government has taken the unprecedented step of filing criminal charges against 3 company executives. It also temporarily stopped processing new mining permits while it improved its monitoring, brave moves at a time when Ramos is wooing foreign investors. Howie Severino says the Marinduque spill moved public opinion in the Philippines more than previous disasters, and that for once the government seems to be listening.

SEVERINO: Many communities have known all along that mining has had destructive effects on their natural surroundings. But to many influential people living in cities, to the middle class, urban people, urban voters whose opinion politicians and policy makers value the most, the effects of mining have not been as obvious. But the Marcopper disaster almost overnight created awareness of the impact of mining, and the possible disasters that could occur.

DE GUZMAN: But the death of the Boak River has not caused President Ramos to cut back his aggressive mining plans. The liberalization of mining laws 2 years ago still stands, and the government is now reviewing about 100 mining applications from foreign companies. And the disaster has not led to broader changes. There are still only a dozen officials in charge of monitoring all environmentally harmful industries in the country. And the Department of Natural Resources is still in charge of both promoting mining and protecting the environment. Repeated requests for interviews with officials in charge of mining were denied. Today, Placer Dome is looking for gold in the northern Philippines. The company has sold its Marcopper shares, and it's unclear whether the mine will reopen. The clean-up operation will end next year and the river will be left for nature to slowly heal.

(People praying and singing)

DE GUZMAN: Monsoon season has started on Marinduque, and flash floods from the island's barren hills are known to race down the now lifeless Boak River. Along with choking it to death, the tailings have raised the river's floodplain by as much as 6 feet. Many here are left with only one hope: that like their savior Jesus Christ, the Boak will resurrect from its death and show some mercy.

(Praying and singing continue)

DE GUZMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Orlando de Guzman.



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