People's campaigns against large-scale mining in Negros, Philippines intensify

People in Negros island, Philippines are stepping up their campaigns against large-scale mining by big local and transnational companies. They are blaming large-scale mining for the massive environmental damages in the island and economic dislocation of rural folks.

"The river is retreating fast," Tay Pudot said ominously as he led me towards the riverbank to show how the gold mining and exploration of the local mining giant Philex Mining Corporation has slowly drained the river that has long been the source of water of his village.

"When I was still young, my friends and I used to swim in this river but look at it now, the water barely reaches your ankle." He explained how the whole village witnesses the river degenerates from a deep and fast-flowing water to a shallow and laterite-ridden stream now.

"Fish is now scarce, you're lucky if you caught one kilo of fish when before we could catch as many as five kilos; the fish is even getting smaller. Before Philex Mining started its mining, this river was rich in life, sustaining its surrounding communities," he lamented.

Roberto Cordova, 65 years old, or Tay Pudot as he is fondly called by his co-villagers, is a community health worker in Talacagay village in the town of Hinobaan, the southernmost town of Negros Occidental province. The said village is one of the program areas of Negros Island Health Integrated Program (NIHIP), a community-based health program under the Council for Health and Development (CHD), TWHA partner in the Philippines. Functioning as an integral part of progressive social movement in the Philippines, CHD works not only in laying down the foundation of alternative health care system in the communities but also in strengthening the people's struggle for social change.

Tay Pudot's work as a health worker goes beyond giving health services to the people; he also leads in the village's campaign against the operation of Philex Mining Corporation, the largest gold and copper producer in the Philippines, which obtained exploration permit covering thousand of hectares in Hinobaan and the adjoining Sipalay City.

Negros Occidental is located in the Western Visayas Region. The province is known for its vast tracts of sugar plantations hence it is tagged as the "sugar bowl of the Philippines" producing more than half of the country's output. It is also home to the largest haciendas (hacienda is a large landed estate or plantation) in the Philippines. Hacienda system originated in the Spanish colonial period and survives until the present. Negros Occidental is dominated by a few rich plantation owners while majority of its population are landless and poor.

Many peasant uprisings in the country's history were triggered by unjust  practices, exploitation and abuses inside the haciendas. Attempts to break up the hacienda system through land reform have not been successful due to the political clout of the landowners. In fact, the family of President Aquino is a co-owner of one of the largest and highly controversial haciendas in the country: Hacienda Luisita located in Tarlac province in Luzon island.  According to a study, sixty percent of all agricultural lands or almost 9 million hectares are privately owned by just 13% of landlords in the Philippines.

Now, poverty in the province due to landlessness is aggravated by the entry of big local and transnational mining corporations which are encroaching on what is left for small farmers to cultivate while destroying the remaining forests and polluting and draining the rivers. In fact, 30% of the province's land have mining claims according to the anti-mining group Defend Patrimony. The province is rich in mineral resources such as gold, copper, silver, nickel and molybdenum.

Philex Mining, in particular, started its gold mining operation in the province in 1996. The mine was decommisioned in 2002 due to low metal prices prevailing at that time. But lately, when metal prices went up again, the company also started exploration activities. As of now, the company temporarily suspended its operation following the attack of the New People's Army (armed wing of the underground Communist Party of the Philippines) on one of its sites.

Tay Pudot strongly believes that Philex Mining is the culprit of the drying up and pollution of the village's river. The river may be several miles away from the Philex mining site but he cannot think of any other cause of the depletion of the water. "The streams that end in this river come from the mountain where the mining site is located," said Tay Pudot.

Concerned government agencies have not done anything about the worsening environmental damage of  mining and economic dislocation suffered by the affected communities, so the locals like Tay Pudot have taken matters into their own hands. With support of NIHIP and CHD, they started to organize and form people's organizations to strengthen their fight against large-scale mining in the province. NIHIP has actively built their capacity to organize and launch campaigns. The provincial chapter of Defend Patrimony, a national coalition of several people's organizations, health and environmental groups and non-government organizations, and in which NIHIP plays an important role, is the most active in opposing the destructive operations of big mining companies in Negros.

Last month, it launched a province-wide campaign to bring to the public attention the continuing  plunder and destruction of the province's natural resources. It kicked off with fact finding missions in areas severely affected by large-scale mining. The results of the fact-finding mission were presented during the mining conference in Bacolod City, Negros capital, which was attended by close to a hundred people composed mostly of environmental activists, health workers, students, farmers, women and church leaders and government employees.

They also conducted mining forums in several villages, schools and universities to raise awareness among local residents and students on the mining situation and the people's struggle against large-scale mining in Negros. A signature campaign was launched to press for the scrapping of Mining Act of 1995 which has opened the country's natural resources for plunder by large transnational mining companies and the passage of a mining law that is pro-people, pro-environment and will contribute to the country’s development and industrialization. A people's caravan was also held to register protest against large-scale mining activities in the province.

Tay Pudot who actively participated in said activities is hopeful that through the strength of mass movement against destructive large-scale mining, Philex gold mining that slowly kills the river in his village will finally stop and the river will become a source of life in his village again. He feels that with the support of NIHIP, they are on the right direction.#