Precious metals-rich Philippines encounters powerful opposition to mining

Activists point to rights abuses, ecological disasters and what they believe to be unfair distribution of profits.

OceanGold open pit mines
OceanaGold’s open pit gold and copper mine in Didipio, Philippines. Image: Keith Schneider via

Before OceanaGold began to systematically remove any trace that Dinkidi Mountain ever existed in northern Luzon’s Sierra Madre range, 100 farmers raised rice and citrus crops on farmland they had cleared in the mountain’s shadow.

Didipio was a village of 700 residents, many of whom settled on Dinkidi’s east side in the 1960s and 1970s after walking, with their children in tow, for two days on steep forest trails.

In many ways Didipio was a rare place of hard work and solitude, a village difficult to reach by vehicle or on foot, and distant from the mainstream of Philippine life.

Many of those settlers — a minority in a village that today has 3,000 residents — blame Australian-Canadian mining company OceanaGold for ending Didipio’s era of agrarian calm.

Starting with construction in 2011, it took just two years for the company to replace Dinkidi with an open-pit gold and copper mine nearly a kilometer in diameter and nearly 300 meters (~1,000 feet) deep.

Millions of tons of mine waste forms a perimeter of terraced rock around half of the mine. Above that is a green lagoon filled with liquid tailings, spreading over more than 100 hectares (~250 acres) where rice was once cultivated.

A portion of the public opposition to the mine also is due to financial fairness. The company earned $275 million in copper and gold sales last year, according to the Philippine Mines and Geosciences Bureau.

The company says it employs 1,800 people on 12-hour, 14-day-on, 7-day-off shifts. It houses and feeds its staff in a 566-bed compound within the mine’s fenced boundary. OceanaGold says that 40 per cent of its workforce comes from Nueva Vizcaya, the local province.

The village of Didipio, in the meantime, looks to have benefited from virtually none of that wealth. A number of residents work at the mine, earning about $1 an hour. But there are no restaurants, no hotels, and just a handful of front porch stores in a collection of shabby wooden homes.

“It hasn’t made life here better,” Lorenzo Pulido, a Didipio resident and board member of Desama, a mine opposition group here, said through an interpreter. “Farming is gone. A lot of trees were cut. When the mine closes what will we have here?”

OceanaGold disputes Pulido’s assessment. In a message to Mongabay, the company said mine workers are paid 50 per cent above the prevailing regional wage, and since the mine’s opening “there has been a significant increase in large-scale vegetable farming. What used to be idle mountainside contours are converted.”

The company also noted that it had spent an average of $3.4 million annually “for the development of host and neighboring communities.”

It hasn’t made life here better. Farming is gone. A lot of trees were cut. When the mine closes what will we have here?

Lorenzo Pulido, resident, Didipio

Since the first engineers explored for minerals near Dinkidi Mountain in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Didipio and other communities of northern Luzon Island have been at a rolling boil over mining. 

A 2012 investigation by Esther Roxanne Bans-Veridiano, the executive director of Kaduami, a regional development group, found numerous clashes between indigenous people and mining companies seeking mineral claims. From 2006 to 2010, the national government deployed military units to put down opposition campaigns. Bans-Veridiano counted eight opposition leaders murdered between 2005 and 2007.

In 2010, Gensun Agustin, a 30-year-old leader of an anti-mining group, was assassinated by two men on a motorcycle.

The Philippines’ largely untapped mining potential

Not all of the distaste for mining that opponents express about the Didipio mine can be laid at the feet of OceanaGold. Hard rock mineral mining in the Philippines, as it is almost everywhere else in the world, is not only a threat to the environment and a hardship for residents — it is also an ordeal for mining companies, investors, financiers, contractors and customers.

Developers probe and produce where minerals lie. The islands that rise from the Pacific to form the Philippines are the product of molten magma, which boiled up near the beginning of planetary time, collided in great tectonic shifting, and cooled in trenches and thick zones of sediment.

The volcanic flows and colliding plates contained deposits of gold and copper and nickel that eons later Filipino citizens and modern day geologists discovered in alluring abundance.  The Philippine Bureau of Mines and Geosciences values that mineral treasure trove at nearly $1 trillion.

But tapping into the rich veins of copper, gold, nickel and other metals, a powerful lure during Spanish colonisation of the Philippines, has proved to be one of the seminal cultural and economic struggles since an independent democracy was established in 1946.

The world’s big and small mining companies arrived at the invitation of the Philippines government to stake out gold and copper claims in northern Luzon. Reserves of nickel and copper lay on Mindanao and smaller outlying islands.

The mineral feast that the Philippines anticipated, though, has not materialised. Like the fires that strip gold and copper and nickel ores of impurities, the reasons behind the fractious Philippines mining struggle are heated in a crucible of conflicting forces. Two are especially significant.

The country and the mining industry are devoted to expensive design principles that focus on building big open-pit mines to take advantage of economies of scale. But operating such mines in a wet, muddy, tropical environment yields ecologically ruinous practices that cause rampant erosion, ocean pollution, and in 1996 produced one of the world’s worst toxic mining disasters.

The toxic tailings pond at the Marcopper mine on Marinduque Island, east of Manila, ruptured. Millions of gallons of poisonous muck poured down the river and into the sea, displacing 20,000 people and wrecking a vital river and near-shore fisheries.

Influenced by conflicting demands from the mining industry to make it easier to invest, and by thousands of people affected by ecological disruption, the country has never settled on a stable mining policy. In 1995, it approved a national statute to encourage investment through tax abatements, allowing 100 percent foreign ownership, and generous land grants.

The Marcopper disaster the following year called into question the wisdom of the open door policy.  In January 2004, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled the 1995 policy was unconstitutional. Eleven months later, following intense pressure from mining companies and their allies in Congress, the court rescinded its decision.

This story was published with permission from Read the full story.


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