THE landslide that destroyed the shanties of small scale miners in Ucab, Itogon in the aftermath of the strong rains brought by typhoon “Ompong” was tragic enough. But for certain anti-mining groups, no tragedy is too unfortunate to take advantage of -- for their own interest, to lay the blame on the industry they abhor.
Benguet Corporation (BC), which has been falsely accused of endangering the lives of small scale miners by allowing them to operate within its property, has opted to prioritize the giving of assistance to victims and helping in the search, rescue and retrieval operations first. Instead of hitting back at detractors, it has used its resources to support the efforts of government agencies to mitigate the effects of the natural calamity not only in Ucab but in other areas of Itogon, where numerous landslides (with fatalities) have occurred (in Baguio City, and other parts of Mountain Province as well). Without going on the defensive, BC is confident the facts will bear out the truth.
What are the facts? The affected small scale miners whose shanties were swept by the landslide are illegally operating in the company’s Antamok claims. Their illegal mining and gold processing activities in Antamok are without the permission of BC. Following the suspension of its Antamok underground mining operation in 1992, and open pit mining operations in Antamok in 1997, the small scale miners gradually encroached into the area despite the company’s efforts to stop them. Not even a mining moratorium issued by the DENR through then Secretary Lito Atienza in 2009 was able to curtail the unregulated small scale mining activities.
Numerous warnings have been issued by the company over the years, criminal cases were filed and counter actions taken against the illegal miners to the point that BC even conducted blasting/blocking of portals but the tunnels were re-opened by the small scale miners afterwards. The problem of illegal small scale mining affects the entire Itogon municipality and the ill effect of their illegal mining is the progressive degradation of the environment.
As early as 2000, the company diligently gave notices to the small scale miners and their families occupying illegal structures in the vicinity of Antamok underground mine including the old bunkhouse near L070 portal in Ucab or who have built numerous shanties there, to vacate the area, only to have the notices totally ignored and resisted by them. The entire area has been classified by MGB-CAR to be within geohazard zone and prone to landslides.
While BC had not abandoned Antamok during the suspension period because of its remaining resource potentials, its present condition where rampant uncontrolled small scale mining activities have permanently damaged the underground infrastructure finally forced upon the company the decision to give up Antamok and to offer to the DENR in Dec 2017 the donation of the patented claims as Minahang Bayan. In donating the property, the company wants that all small scale miners in its surrounding claims relocated and their activities confined within the proposed Minahang Bayan where their mining will be strictly controlled and regulated by government.
On May 15, 2018, the company wrote a letter to the DENR National Task Force Mining Challenge requesting assistance for the permanent closure and stoppage of all illegal mining and processing activities within its Itogon mining claims and for the relocation of the displaced small scale miners into the planned Minahang Bayan sites in Antamok.
The regulatory bodies like MGB-CAR and its mother agency, DENR, are also being blamed for the incident by these opportunistic groups and accused of laxity and negligence. But the problem of small scale mining is very complicated. In the past, joint efforts by the company and the regulatory agencies to address the problem of illegal mining have been met with resistance by the community and LGU. At the core of the issue is livelihood. The small scale miners, who are mostly Indigenous People, are forced to dig the earth for lack of other viable alternatives and take certain risks in the search for gold because of the need to earn sustenance for their families and mining has always been their traditional source of work. Government has to carefully tread the fine line between necessity of livelihood and its regulatory frameworks.
For its part, BC has done its share to help the small scale miners in its Acupan mine to legitimize their presence, to keep safe their mining activities and to bring to regulatory mainstream their operations. In 2002, the company in coordination with MGB-CAR and LGU established its Acupan Contract Mining Project (ACMP) which is intended to provide livelihood to the community. The small scale miners from the community who have encroached into Acupan, were organized into groups as cooperatives or associations to become legitimate mining contractors (rather than to forcibly remove them from Acupan). The contractors were accredited by MGB-CAR and were given by the company fixed contracts to work in the upper levels of Acupan underground.
Under a large scale mine setting, the mining activities of these contractors are regulated by MGB-CAR and supervised by the company’s mining and safety engineers. The ACMP contractors observed all labor, health safety and environmental standards of the government. There is a centralized mill operated by BC where the ore production is processed to contain pollution and where the gold output is properly monitored/reported for taxation purposes. Compared to Antamok where unregulated small scale mining activity is uncontrolled, the former small scale miners in Acupan have been incorporated into large scale mining operation of the company in partnership with the community.
Unlike in Antamok, there were no untoward incidents that happened in Acupan after typhoon “Ompong’ that threatened the safety of the miners of the contractors or place them in any danger. With ACMP being an exception although it is under a large scale mine setting, the company has not entered into any kind of profit-sharing arrangement with the small scale miners elsewhere, most especially in Antamok.