Army squad sets up detachment in illegal gold mining area

MAITUM, Sarangani (MindaNews/21 March)—A squad of soldiers was deployed Sunday deep in the mountains as an advance unit for the setting up of a government detachment to curb the rampant illegal small-scale gold mining activities here.

MindaNews trekked with the soldiers for four-and-a-half hours, including pit stops for rest, to reach Sitio Kaffugan in Barangay New La Union, and found mostly abandoned makeshift camps as mine workers scampered to the woods for fear of getting arrested.

Large fallen trees and stockpiles of timber were seen in the mine site.

The Sarangani provincial peace and order council has resolved to set up a joint military and police detachment here to stop illegal mining activities, said 1st Lieutenant Rio Antony Gammad, Charlie Company commander of the 73nd Infantry Battalion.

“The establishment of a detachment is just a preventive measure to stop the really rampant illegal small-scale mining activities here,” Gammad said.

From now on, we will not allow any more small scale-mining activities here until the provincial government lifts the stoppage order, he added.

Gammad said that local police personnel will follow to complement the 9-member military team.

A handful of mine workers who preferred to stay complied with the military’s request to leave the gold-rich site after a dialogue with the soldiers who told them their operations are illegal.

Some of the remaining mine workers told MindaNews they were lured by financiers to dig tunnels on the “assurance that the operations have necessary clearances from the government.”

The function to grant permits to small-scale mining operations has been devolved to the provincial government, which according to Gov. Miguel Rene Dominguez is still in the process of forming a mineral resource board.

Dominguez earlier told MindaNews they are also still reviewing the applications for small-scale mining activities in the area.

Among the alleged financiers of the illegal small-scale mining in Sitio Kaffugan, said to be a watershed source, is Kiamba Mayor Raul Martinez, who was reportedly named by mine workers who were arrested following an operation last year.

Martinez said his application for small-scale mining permit was being processed.

Gammad said that based on information gathered from the mine workers, another alleged financier of the illegal small-scale mining activity was Mohammad “Bong” Aquia, reportedly a businessman from General Santos City.

Aquia, who also purportedly owns an ore processing plant in Kiamba town, could not be reached immediately for comment. Internet research showed that Aquia was former head in Mindanao of the Presidential Anti-Smuggling Group.

Mine workers whom Gammad’s team questioned claimed that among the other alleged financiers were Emma Bayonas and Jun Samulde, both reportedly also from General Santos City. They could not also be immediately located.

Gamad said that in fairness to the alleged financiers of illegal mining activities the mention of their names remains hearsay.

He said they did not arrest any mine workers on Sunday since it is a police function, and that the military at the time was not armed with an arrest warrant, only the authority to establish a detachment.

He estimated that there were more than 30 tunnels dug so far in the mining area.

A meeting on Monday between the military and the local police from Maitum and Kiamba is slated for the delineation of functions on the detachment and of the efforts to clamp down on the small-scale illegal mining activities, he said.

Earlier, residents wrote an open letter to Dominguez urging him to stop the illegal small-scale mining and logging activities in Sitio Kaffugan, and for the prosecutions of the operators.

The letter was signed by Elizabeth Palma Gil of the Maitum Advocates for Sustainable Environment, Inc.; Rolando Lequin of the Concerned Citizens of Maitum; and Daniel Evans of the Datu Wali Mission.

An hour after she arrived home on Sunday from the trek to the mining site with the MindaNews team, Palma Gil received a phone call from someone who identified himself as a “Banacon.”

“Magpasalamat ka at malamig ang ulo namin at nag-surveillance pa kami sa iyo, kundi pulbura ka na ngayon.  Pero hindi namin masiguro yung ibang units namin kasi galit na galit din sa iyo,” she quoted the caller as saying.

Feeling harassed, Palma Gil has taken taking extra-precaution after the call for security concerns.

MindaNews called “Banacon” twice but the other end did not answer.

But another phone number she provided, the one she supposedly owned that Banacon claimed was used to call Malacanang to “destroy our unit”, was answered by a male voice who claimed she did not know Palma Gil.

The line was then cut off by the man.

Palma Gil does not own that second number. (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)