Miners forage the forbidden tunnels of Pantukan

By
April 22 2012
CLOSED. Tunnels owned by small-scale miners are ordered closed by the government following the tragic January landslide in Diat Uno, Napnapan village. (davaotoday.com photo)

CLOSED. Tunnels owned by small-scale miners are ordered closed by the government following the tragic January landslide in Diat Uno, Napnapan village. (davaotoday.com photo)

Defiance is high for abanteros (mine workers) who solely rely on their daily existence in crude, small-scale mining.  They face only two options: bend rules or die of hunger. 

By ALEX D. LOPEZ
Davao Today

PANTUKAN, Compostela Valley, Philippines — Three months after the government-imposed closure of some mining tunnels following a deadly landslide last January, mine workers remain firm in, literally, holding ground, in the gold-rich peaks of Diat Uno, Napnapan village.

Defiance is high for abanteros (mine workers) who solely rely on their daily existence in crude, small-scale mining. They face only two options: bend rules or die of hunger.

“No one can save us and our families from starving,” Kabong (not his real name), an abantero for more than five years, said.

Kabong is one of the abanteros who defied the government’s order of no habitation policy, an order from the local government and by the Department of Interior and Local Government last January.  He risked life and limb by continuing to mine the dark and claustrophobic tunnels that are 60 to 70 feet deep.  And he did it surreptitiously, consciously evading legal sanctions.

Kabong and his colleagues tore some of the tunnels which were already closed.  “We feared getting caught, but we had no choice,” he told Davao Today, adding that these fears always accompany the risk of landslides and other natural calamities that might recur.  The January 5 landslide killed at least 40 people, including women and children.

No alternatives

Small-scale miners and tunnel owners have complained the government offered them no other options after implementing the no-habitation policy.  Mining has been the main source of livelihood for residents of Pantukan over the last 40 years earning for the national government a substantial part of the PHP 26.6 billion (USD 0.62 billion) in gross revenues from Compostela Valley province.

“The government did not offer us any alternative to mining, any substitute to feed the workers here,” said Raul Dion, owner of four tunnels here.

PURE GOLD. A mine worker in goldfield Pantukan shows pure gold weighing three to four grams. The stone's value is enough to feed, clothe and educate his children for a month. (davaotoday.com photo)

PURE GOLD. A mine worker in goldfield Pantukan shows pure gold weighing three to four grams. The stone's value is enough to feed, clothe and educate his children for a month. (davaotoday.com photo)

Dion, one of the local leaders who engaged in small-scale mining for the past twenty years said forcing them to vacate Diat 1 without giving them other options to survive is a violation of their rights.

“We believe the no habitation policy is a ploy to completely remove us from Diat 1 and pave the way for open-pit mining operations of Russel Mines,” Kokoy (not his real name), a leader of small-scale miners, said.

Dion, together with Kokoy, other mine workers and small-scale tunnel owners in Diat 1, considers the entry and full operations of the US-based Russel Mining and Minerals Incorporated (RMMI) as the main threat to their existence.  On May 17, RMMI’s exploration permit will expire, after which it is expected to extract gold and copper using the open-pit operations.

RMMI had already cashed out millions of pesos for their operations.  It’s believed to have spent PHP 15.8 million (USD 0.37 million) since the start of its exploratory operations in Pantukan town.  It expects to secure 791.5 million tons of gold and copper worth USD 70 billion or more than PHP 3 trillion in its MPSA (Mineral Production Sharing Agreement) concession.  Thirteen out of Pantukan’s 15 villages are gold and copper-rich.

Davids vs. Goliath

Dion said if the people in Pantukan will just unite, Davids as they are, they can defeat the Goliath that is RMMI.  He added that they have seen the impact of the three-day 2,000-strong camp out of miners, farmers and supporters last March, saying that “it registered the miners’ firm stance against the foreign, large-scale mining.”

And yet, “to downplay the weight of our cause, Russell Mining spread the lies that there were only 500 miners who joined the camp-out,” Dion said.

Another impact of the camp out was the opportunity to unite the small-scale tunnel operators, abanteros and other individuals whose existence rely on mining, according to Dodong (not his real name), another leader here.

“In that activity, we’ve seen the need to unite because of our common interests,” Dodong said.

For Dion, “The move has definitely shaken them but we’re not taking them lightly.”  (Alex D. Lopez/davaotoday.com)

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