Philippines: Face Lost Livelihoods, Damaged Environment Due to Rapu-Rapu’s Large-Scale Mining

Apr. 23, 2007

As we observe Earth Day, the countrys leaders should be reminded of the
damage that large-scale mining has done to the environment and livelihood
of residents in mining communities such as Rapu-rapu.

By Glenis Balangue
IBON Features

MANILA — For the nearly 50,000 residents of Rapu-Rapu, Albay and the
adjoining municipality of Prieto Diaz, Sorsogon, fishing has been the
primary livelihood for generations. The fish that they catch from Lagonoy
Gulf and Albay Gulf is not just their staple food, it is also a main
source of income for the communities, no matter how modest. Twelve out of
thirteen barangays on Rapu-Rapu are fishing communities, while Prieto
Diazs people survive on marine, aquaculture and industrial production.
Rapu-Rapu and Prieto Diaz are also among the poorest municipalities in the
country, and government services are generally hard to come by.

But their simple lives were abruptly disrupted when Australian mining firm
Lafayette NL started its Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic Mining Project in
mid-2005. Mining and quarrying had not been alien to Rapu-Rapu as the
community had already hosted several mining operations over seven decades
starting in the 1930s, though they had never become major industries. But
it was the arrival of Lafayette that really brought to the fore the
destructive effects of large-scale mining.

It also showed how eager the Arroyo administration is to open the
countrys natural resources to big mining transnational corporations.

A new, responsible mining industry?

The Arroyo administration has been aggressively promoting mining as an
area for foreign investments. The Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic Mining Project
held much promise, for it represented for the government the flagship of a
new, responsible mining industry. Lafayette is one of the first foreign
mining companies to invest in the Philippines following a Supreme Court
decision upholding a provision in the 1995 Mining Act allowing 100%
foreign ownership of mining projects in the country. The Project is
expected to yield some 50,000 ounces of gold, 60,000 ounces of silver,
10,000 metric tons of copper concentrate and 14,000 metric tons of zinc
concentrates a year.

Lafayettes mining claim in the municipality of Rapu-Rapu is 42 square
kilometers or roughly 80% of the islands total land area. The current
operation is focused on mining the Ungay Malobago deposit located in
Barangays Malobago, Pagcolbon and Binosawan using the open pit method. The
gold-rich ore is treated in a cyanide-in-leach plant adjacent to the
18-hectare pit while the rest of the ore, which yields copper and zinc, is
treated in a separate floatation plant.

But there were alleged irregularities in the implementation of the mining

For example, the Office of the President issued Proclamation 625, which
declared the mining area a special economic zone upon petition of
Lafayette Philippines, Inc. Lafayette under this status was entitled to a
six- to eight-year income tax holiday and exemption from paying
value-added taxes because extracted metals are exported with minimal
processing. However, it was later alleged that Lafayette country manager
Roderick Watt, in a letter to President Arroyo, threatened to withhold $55
million in capital investments from Lafayette Ltd. and the LG Group of
Korea if they were not granted special economic zone status.

There were also irregularities in acquiring the consent of local
communities to the project. According to residents, although community
organizers had arranged meetings at the three barangays nearest the mining
site, only the benefits of the mine to the community were discussed.
Villagers said they were never informed of the environmental effects of
mining an ecologically sensitive island eco-system such as Rapu-Rapu.
Tinopan residents even recall watching a film in which Lafayette
organizers discussed responsible mining and promised them that the ores
would not be processed on the island. A certain Engineer Palomaria also
told the residents that their barangays could even become cities in the
near future. To further bolster the acceptability of the project,
residents were also promised free electricity and medical services.

But according to residents of Prieto Diaz, they were never consulted on
the project despite being the nearest municipality from Rapu-Rapu and
sharing a major fishing ground.

It was in Oct. 2005 when residents learned that there had been not one,
but two, cyanide tailings spills from the mining site in Barangay
Pagcolbon. Reports said that the first spill was due to a failed pump at
the mine, causing an overflow of cyanide-laden spills into nearby creeks.
Three weeks later, a heavy six-hour rain resulted in the tailings pond
overflowing into the nearby Ungay and Hollowstone creeks. Both incidents
resulted in fish kills.

Mining advocates such as the Philippine Chamber of Mines and the
government Mines and Geosciences Bureau sought to downplay the spills,
claiming that the amount of tailings released were relatively small and
calling the incident a drop in the ocean. But a government-convened
Fact-Finding Commission on Rapu-Rapu assailed the gross negligence of
Lafayette and even went so far as to call for a suspension of mining
activities in the country, a call that President Arroyo rejected.

Sino ang Nakahuli?

Sixty percent of the households in both Rapu-Rapu and the neighboring
Prieto Diaz depend on fishing as a primary livelihood. Majority of these
families engage in small-scale and subsistence fishing. After the tailings
spills, many fishermen told IBON Features that their catch declined. One
resident even narrated that fishermen used to ask ilan ang nakahuli?
(How many were able to catch fish?), but now they ask sino ang nakahuli?
(Who was able to catch fish?).

Fishermen from Barangay Binosawan said that before the mining operation,
their boat of three to four crew members used to catch around 70 pieces of
blue marlins a year. Last 2005 and 2006, they averaged 20 pieces. In
neighboring Barangay Brillante, fishermen said a boat used to average four
pieces of fish per trip. Now they consider themselves fortunate if they go
home with two pieces. There are even times when they can go for a week
without catching a single fish.

These fishermen are now reducing the number of days they go out to sea.
From six or seven days a week they now go out to fish for only three or
four days. They explained that they would only waste money spent on fuel
just to catch enough fish for a days meal. Some fishermen have even opted
to work as pedicab drivers, carpenters, and other odd jobs just to make
ends meet.

But even fish vendors found themselves indirectly affected by the tailings
spills. A fish dealer from Barangay Tinopan said that her regular buyers
in Legazpi started to become wary of buying fish caught near Rapu-Rapu. As
a result, her buying price fell by as much as 60% while her selling price,
by half.

Even those engaged in the small-scale agriculture were not exempt from the
negative effects of the spills. Farmers noted a marked decrease in water
supply after Lafayette started its operations, resulting in a mini-water
war in Barangay Poblacion. It should be noted that Rapu-Rapu is a small
island with a limited supply of freshwater, and this was further diverted
to Lafayettes operations.

Water supply for domestic needs has also become scarce. Malobago residents
said they have difficulty sourcing water for drinking and washing. They
are also afraid of drinking the water that comes from the taps, fearing
cyanide contamination. A community leader remarked, Ang cyanide ba at
iyong ibang kemikal nadadaan sa kulo? (Can cyanide or other chemicals be
removed by boiling?)

In Barangays Binosawan and Tinopan, coconut farmers said their trees have
become stunted even if these were still young. The fruits have also become
smaller and fewer, meaning decreased yields. The farmers said that this
was the first time that this happened to their source of livelihood.

The farmers further told IBON that the blasting activities of Lafayette
have weakened the rock foundation in the area, making it vulnerable to
landslides. When typhoon Reming (international name Durian) struck the
Bicol region, landslides occurred in Barangays Malobago and Tinopan,
killing eleven people. Residents stressed that stronger typhoons had
visited Rapu-Rapu but no landslides happened until last year.

Stark contrast

In stark contrast to the poverty of the affected communities, wherein 60%
of families are forced to live on less than P100 (US$2) a day, the
Lafayette Group expects to earn US$350 million a year over the entire
duration of the mine. But the local government in 2005 received only P2.1
million (US$42,857) in excise tax collections from Lafayettes gross
revenues of P134.4 million. The national government also lost tax revenue
from the many incentives the mining firm was granted, earning only US$8.68
million from a possible US$20.48 million.

Further, although Lafayette claimed to hire 900 residents as workers, in
reality only some 300 were hired. Residents said that of this number, only
5% were regular workers (meaning that they would be employed for five
years, although the projected span of the project is eight years) while
the rest were hired on a contractual basis. There is no labor union and
the workers are discouraged from negotiating for better pay and more

The aftermath of the spills saw an increasing number of locals opposing
Lafayettes operations. Thus, more soldiers and policemen were deployed to
the area, plus 150 militiamen in civilian clothes. Residents reported that
these military forces roam the barangays in an apparent effort to
intimidate them.

The basic services promised by the Australian mining firm to the
communities also did not materialize. Malobago, Tinopan and Binosawan do
not have health facilities and personnel except for one or two barangay
health workers. Malobago residents, however, have occasional access to the
mining companys health clinic, but only in case of emergencies.

Stop the plunder

On February 8, 2006 the government Department of Environment and Natural
Resources (DENR) permanently lifted the cease-and-desist order it had
earlier issued on Lafayettes operations on Rapu-Rapu in the wake of the
spills. In doing so, it went against the wishes of the residents for a
stop to mining operations on the island.

Although Lafayettes operations were supposedly turned over to Filipinos,
it is clear that the company is exploiting loopholes in the Mining Act and
the Philippines corporate laws in order to avoid its accountability to
the people of Rapu-Rapu and Prieto Diaz.

By 2013, Lafayette will have packed up and left after extracting all the
minerals from Rapu-Rapu. All that will be left for the residents is a
giant pit and a damaged eco-system, which can no longer provide for their
needs. Residents and various environmental groups demand that government
step in now to prevent irreversible damage to Rapu-Rapus fishing waters
and the residents livelihoods, or should be held to accountable for it.
With reports from Joseph Yu. IBON Features

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