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Suspended mine leaves deep scars in Philippine village

Nickel-tainted silt poisons Santa Cruz's waterways and farmland
Suspended mine leaves deep scars in Philippine village

The waters off Santa Cruz have turned a reddish color due to silt and mud that has flowed downstream from the mines (Photo by Vincent Go)

Published: October 07, 2014 09:19 AM GMT
Updated: October 06, 2014 10:20 PM GMT

"You know you've reached Santa Cruz when you hit the potholes," says Josephine Astadan. 

She isn't joking. The degradation of the road is evident the moment one crosses into Santa Cruz, a tiny village in the far northwest corner of the northern Philippines province of Zambales.

The village's mining operations have been still for three months, but the potholes, says Astadan, are but one of the visible scars that remain.

Lifelong local Astadan is the general secretary of the Concerned Citizens of Santa Cruz. The coalition's main mission since its formation in early 2012 has been to give big mining the boot.

Four mining companies operated in the area from 2006. The companies extracted nickel ore from the mountains that shade the village, barreled it down to the village in heavy trucks (cue potholes), and deposited it at one of three purpose-built ports for export to China.

Earlier this year, operations at the mines were suspended after the national Environmental Management Bureau demanded they comply with environmental standards.

But according to the coalition, it's too little, too late. "Just look at this," says Astadan, indicating the Pamalabawan River, whose sickly brown waters pass through the town and into the sea.

"This used to be beautiful," Astadan says. "We used to swim here. People would wash their clothes. Now look at it." 

Santa Cruz's vibrant river systems feed the region's major industries, including rice farming, fish farming, and small-scale commercial fishing. Now they have become clogged with nickel-tainted silt displaced by the mining operations. 

This has turned irrigation waterways to slovenly mud, exacerbated crop-destroying floods, and poisoned the once fertile seawater for hundreds of meters from shore. The beach itself is thick with trash, a testament to the lax attitude toward waste disposal in the area.

Fisherman Romy Marave has lived on that shore his whole life. He went on his first fishing trip when he was just 10, and set out solo for the first time when he was 18. He's now 37, married and has a young daughter. On the day ucanews.com visits, he’s landed a smallish 20-kg catch.

Since big mining came to town eight years ago, Marave says he now travels 37 kilometers to net anything like a substantial haul. Previously, he traveled about 15 kilometers. The extra outlay for fuel cuts significantly into his profits.

Of course, fishing is unpredictable at the best of times. "But we could always receive a continuous income by catching small fish close to shore and selling them to the fish farms," Marave said. "Now they are gone."

Romy Marave (left) and another fisherman carry their catch after a night of fishing. Marave blames pollution caused by mining operations near Santa Cruz for his meager haul (Photo by Vincent Go)


Upriver, the rice and fish farmers are faring little better. The proprietor of one fish farm wades into the middle of an irrigation inlet to indicate where the water level once was. The eight-meter wide waterway ought to be thigh deep, yet he stands up to his knees in sludge. 

Rice farmer Marciano Bucat explains how the siltation of the rivers resulted in shoulder-deep floods last rainy season that devastated his crops. "Usually, the crop would bring in 400,000 pesos (US$8,950)," an impassioned Bucat explains. "This year: zero."

Not everyone is angry, though. Nearby, a tractor is dredging silt from the river as part of one mining company's compliance obligations. The operation is overseen by one Ernesto Bucat — a rice farmer who, since April this year, has been working for one of the mines.

Bucat is president of Santa Cruz's Irrigation Association, and is thereby perhaps uniquely skilled for this dredging operation. However, his reasons for "defecting" to the mining company are purely pragmatic. "I need to support my family," says the 41-year-old father of five.

Bucat earns about 10,000 pesos ($225) per month working for the mine, which already is almost half of what he’d previously earned per year through farming alone.

"People's anger toward the miners has calmed down," he insists. "In fact, some farmers are pleased that their farms have been widened as part of the dredging process."

"They would be in a minority," says rice farmer Marciano when this claim is put to him later that day. 

Marciano, 60 — a first cousin of Ernesto — and his wife, Josie, 61, have been married for 35 years. They farm the same land that Marciano's father did before him, and it has recently been dredged of silt as part of one mining company's compliance obligations.

"This year is the first time we have tried to grow rice on the reclaimed land," says Marciano.

The results have been far from satisfactory. "It does not compare to how productive it was before," he says. He has doubled the amount of fertilizer used, and still the yield is feeble.

In the process of dredging the land the company also felled a plantation of bamboo — another saleable commodity as well as a construction material — along with five 50-year-old mango trees, whose annual yield Marciano estimates at being worth about 100,000 pesos ($2,250).

He says the mining companies' "have not done enough" to help the farmers restore what once was.

Farmers say that rice yields have significantly decreased due to the influx of silt from the mines (Photo by Vincent Go)


A troubling subplot to all of this is the position of the local Catholic Church. An impressive new church belltower was paid for by a mining company, and last month the Church was fundraising for mining employees who had lost work due to the suspension of operations.

Astadan, a Catholic, is perplexed by what she perceives as an allegiance to mining interests, and left the Church because of it. 

But Fr Emmanuel Jose S Montes points out that there are two sides to every story.

"You have to look into where different groups are coming from," Fr Montes says. "What is their agenda? They do not necessarily speak for the whole community."

"Pope Francis always takes the side of the poor people," he adds. "But who are the poor people in our community? The original people who are from here, who have lived here their whole lives, are not poor. A farmer who has land is not poor. He has many resources." 

On the other hand, Fr Montes says he cannot simply lay blame for the fate of laid-off miners at the feet of groups such as the coalition, as many miners have. "I try to see both sides," he says.

"For those who lost their jobs … is this a loss, or is it an opportunity to try to find something else more legitimate, less destructive?"

The mines may be quiet for the moment, but as far as Astaban is concerned, the fight is far from over. "This [anti-mining activism] is now my belief," she says. "It is how I show my faith."

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