Crackdown on small-scale mining in Camarines Norte hurting the poorest BAN Toxics renews calls for gov’t to formalize small-scale mining

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February 2017, Quezon City — On a good day, a woman miner earns PHP 162.00 after a hard day shoveling sand and panning gold in a remote town in Camarines Norte. Her income, together with her miner husband’s, is barely enough to put food on the table and send their children to school. Now, in the wake of DENR’s crackdown on mining that does not differentiate mining corporations from artisanal and small-scale miners, they have nothing.

As early as January 17, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) ordered an immediate stop to all small-scale mining activities in the mining municipalities ofJose Panganiban, Paracale and Labo, all in Camarines Norte. The crackdown on small-scale miners continues to plunge into hunger the poorest in these municipalities, the so-called camote miners who rely on scratching the earth for a living akin to digging for yam.

“Libu-libo ang nawalan ng hanap-buhay at dumami ang naghihirap. Ang ibang pamilya ay napipilitang itigil ang pag-aaral ng mga bata. Sa pagkain pa lang nga ay kulang na ang panggastos,” said Serafin Dasco, Federation President of Samahan ng mga Minero sa/ng Paracale.

“Pagmina ang aming alam. Wala kaming alternatibong hanap-buhay at iilan lang ang maaring makinabang sa tulong ng gobyerno. Napakasakit nitong nangyari sa aming komunidad. Lalong nagugutom ang aming mga kababayan,” he added.

“Artisanal and small-scale mining is a neglected sector largely ignored and unrecognized by the government,” said Evelyn Cubelo, Program Manager for BAN Toxics. “The government’s failure to recognize the sector has left communities mired in a cycle of poverty, without support from the government.”

Frustrated, abandoned and in dire need, the mining barangays in Camarines Norte are now abuzz with dialogues and town meetings to remedy their plight. More public actions are now being planned to call the government’s attention.

Small-scale mining is practiced in more than 40 provinces and provides jobs to as many as 500,000 people in far flung areas, but the government considers the sector largely illegal. Only five small scale mining areas have been recognized by the government as a Minahang Bayan (formalized small-scale mining area).

For Camarines Norte, a province where gold mining has been practiced since the Spanish period, all its current applications for the declaration of a Minahang Bayan in its area have not been approved despite consistent efforts supported by the local government. With no livelihood aside from a history of small-scale mining, people continue to mine despite the lack of permits.

Several small-scale miners associations have approached the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) requesting for a dialogue. In June last year, the National Coalition for Artisanal and Small-scale Mining submitted proposed revisions to small-scale mining laws since the sector was not consulted in their drafting—a situation that the MGB recognizes.

Later in November, small-scale miners together with then Camarines Norte acting Governor Jonah Pimentel, went to the MGB for a dialogue on why Minahang Bayan applications were not moving forward. In a surprise meeting with Sec. Lopez, however, they were ordered to immediately shut down their operations. The same order is now being carried out by the MGB in Camarines Norte this week.

However, in a live television interview earlier this week, Sec Lopez admitted that as a product of poverty, small-scale mining cannot be stopped without offering communities an alternative. But so far, no alternative livelihood or transition period is being offered to poor small-scale mining communities which operate outside of Minahang Bayan areas.

“Ordering the immediate shutdown of small-scale operations without a transition period for people already mired in poverty clearly goes against the thrust of the DENR to uphold social justice,” said Cubelo. “These communities know of no other way to make a living and if the DENR visits these areas, they will see that farming and fishing, or the government-proposed bamboo farming, are not viable options for putting food on the table today.”

“This crackdown on small-scale mining in Camarines Norte is hurting the country’s poorest communities. The DENR needs to approach poverty-driven small-scale, differently from large-scale. DENR should look at small-scale mining with a developmental—instead of punitive— approach. Communities must be given a transition period and must be guided to adopt less destructive mining methods in the short-term,” she added.

In the Philippines, artisanal and small-scale gold mining presents a complex development issue. The sector is usually a last resort livelihood when lack of economically viable alternatives ramps up the lure of a one-time big gold find.

Most small-scale mining operations are environmentally destructive and have no existing labor and safety standards. Workers use crude tools, manually carry heavy loads, use no protective gear and liberally use mercury, a potent toxic chemical that accumulates in the environment. However, these current conditions are largely due to the fact that they operate informally outside of the government radar.

Unlike formalized sectors which receive government support, small-scale miners have no access to technological assistance and monitoring mechanisms that can help them implement better labor practices. Lack of formalization has also prevented the equitable distribution of benefits from small-scale mining, with money going to foreign middlemen and illegal payoffs to corrupt authorities, instead of to legitimate payments that can augment local government income. However, the sector remains a major economic contributor, providing as much as 80% of the Philippines’ annual gold production.

BAN Toxics calls on the government to address the many challenges and deficits in the sector by strengthening the ability of ASM communities to understand and improve their situation. With the concerted support of a wide range of stakeholders—the sector’s economic actors, national and local public authorities and public and non-government service providers—efforts can be made to reduce if not eliminate mercury use and child labor, ensure fundamental rights and safety at work, prevent further environmental degradation, and realize sustainable development for ASM communities.

“The good thing is, the ASM sector can be transformed into a responsible venture—and the miners themselves are clamoring for it,” said Cubelo. “The DENR needs to listen and give impoverished communities a fair chance. Secretary Lopez must be open to a dialogue with miners to initiate a roadmap that will help lift small-scale mining communities out of poverty.”

“Formalization of the sector is a first step that leads to better regulatory and monitoring mechanisms and improved labor and environmental practices. The government urgently needs to recognize small-scale mining as a legitimate economic activity that can benefit communities by generating income and reducing poverty in the countryside,” she concluded.

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