CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 18 Oct) – Six barges working non-stop excavating for gold and several more hydraulic pumps tearing away whole mountainsides have turned the delta around Iponan River, once a Class A environment teeming with life and vegetation, into a wasteland.
This was the conclusion reached by officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Northern Mindanao and Sulog-One Sendong is enough, an environmental non-government organization, who met Wednesday to discuss the plight of the critically endangered Iponan River.
“The Iponan River system is so poisoned that even tadpoles no longer live there,” said Raoul Geollegue, a former DENR official who is now an environment advocate.
Rex Monsanto, DENR-10 regional director for mines, said what was once an idyllic waterway in the 1970s has turned into an environmental wasteland with the introduction of hydraulic mining in the river in the 1990s.
Prior to that, Monsanto said panning for gold was the main source of livelihood for the people of the hinterland villages until traders introduced hydraulic mining.
Using high-pressure water shot through a nozzle attached to pumps siphoning water from Iponan River, miners blasted entire mountainsides to get to the gold.
Geollegue said for every gram extracted from the river, at least a ton of soil and dirt have to be extracted from the mountains and riverbeds. “To get gold the size of a matchbox, an entire mountain has to be destroyed,” he pointed out.
Geollegue said the toll on the environment was catastrophic: heavy siltation has inundated thousands of hectares of farm lots along the Iponan River and turned them into virtual wastelands.
“Even fruit and coconut trees planted along the riverbanks were not spared from silt and mining wastes,” he said.
What made matters worse, Geollegue said foreigners, mostly Korean businessmen, came three years ago and introduced barges in the river on the pretext of quarrying sand and gravel.
“Why government agencies allowed them to operate with impunity is beyond me. The workers of these barges are not Filipinos but Koreans. Do they have working permits?” Geollegue asked.
Engr. Daniel Belderol, of the DENR Mine Management Division, said upon their inspection, they found the barges were disguised as dredgers but were actually excavators scooping the river bottom for gold.
“The barges have chains of extractors that scoops the soil on the river bottom. These have a mesh of filtering nets to separate the gold from the soil,” he said.
Photos from several aerial inspections made by the Philippine Air Force Tactical Operations Group 10 and Sulog this year revealed that at least seven barges are operating along the Iponan River.
A GMA 7 TV crew who went up to the hinterland villages to investigate the mining operations in Iponan River on Feb. 1, 2012 was allegedly harassed by a barangay official of Tuburan, who was reportedly a protector of the Korean businessmen.
Because of the resulting public uproar, Cagayan de Oro Mayor Vicente Emano issued an order on Aug. 2, 2012 putting a stop to all mining activities along the Iponan river.
The local government of Cagayan de Oro has not been very forthright over the mining issue in Iponan River. Several attempts made by local environmentalists and journalists to get copies of permits issued by the city government were not entertained.
Local officials insisted during interviews with the local press that mining operations have stopped after Emano’s order last Aug. 2.
An aerial inspection made again by the Philippine Air Force and Sulog last Sept. 21 found that the barges were still there and operating in the river.
Last Wednesday, DENR Regional Director Ruth Tawantawan revoked all the Environment Clearance Certificates (ECC) issued to all companies engaged in sand and gravel quarrying along the Iponan River.
The DENR said some 20 companies were affected by the order and have set up a task force to conduct site inspections.
“Apparently these companies have engaged in some technical malversation because their permits were for quarrying, not for mining,” Tawantawan said.
Meanwhile, farmers and fishermen who depend on the condition of the delicate ecosystem of Iponan River are losing the battle against the effects of mining.
Roldan Maglungsod, president of Baikingon Farmers Association, said heavy siltation has caused the river to change its course every time it rains heavily.
Because of this, Maglungsod said farmers have stopped investing in their farm lots because of the risk of economic loss.
Geollegue said not only the farmers are at risk but hundreds of fishermen along Macajalar Bay in Misamis Oriental are threatened.
He said fishermen suffer from declining fish catch because the siltation has flowed to the fishing grounds in Macajalar Bay.
“We see an entire ecosystem already dying before our eyes,” Geollegue lamented. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)