Miners in Surigao watershed issue conflicting claims on use of chemicals

SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews/07 February) – A group of miners operating near this city’s critical Parang-parang watershed assured they were neither cutting trees nor using chemicals that harm the environment, but some residents were not convinced.

Local officials who led an ocular inspection last week said they found no evidence of mercury use and illegal cutting of trees for the mining tunnels in the watershed that straddles Barangays Mat-i and Mabini, the city’s primary source of clean water.

Provincial Board Member Simeon Castrence, chairperson on the committee of environment and one of the inspectors, noted that many residents fear that their potable water is already contaminated with harmful chemicals commonly used in mining like mercury, cyanide, borax and carbon.

But Castrence said that miners in the area under the Nagkahiusang Gagmayng Minero (Nagami) denied using any of these chemicals. He said he only observed the use of “high level liquid acid,” a chemical used to extract ore.

The official said this type of chemical has no chance of mixing into bodies of water because it immediately evaporates when used.

Mayette Suan, 44, one of the miners in Sitio Pinaypayan, Barangay Mat-i, said in the vernacular: “We don’t use chemicals because we’re afraid of their harmful effects.”

She however admitted they use acid to separate the gold from dirt. She echoed Castrence’s statement the acid would not mix into water bodies.

Miners said they buy this chemical from gold buyers in the city, whom they say are in the black market but claim to be accredited with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.

Castrence also said they saw no signs of rampant cutting of trees in the area for the tunnels they had inspected.

Nagami chairperson Ignacio M. Arevalo said it was impractical for them to cut down trees because they help stabilize the soil, which in turn prevent landslides.

Arevalo said they even planted more trees in the area. He said the wood slabs used in their tunnels are bought in the city’s lumberyards.

He alleged that some miners who are not under their group use mercury and other chemicals. This is one argument, he said, for the legalization of their operations.

“Water in some creeks have whitened due to mercury,” he said.

Arevalo said that after World War II two Americans and other miners before used highly mechanized and harmful chemicals in the area but that they themselves would never use such chemicals.

Opposition to mining

The assurances failed to assuage some residents who expressed fears that Surigao’s source of potable water would always be endangered as long as mining activities persist in the area.

“To think that the 20 hectares is just beside the watershed. Now, where will their wastes go? In fact, a toilet should be built at least 30 meters from a water pump, how much more for this one which is beside our source of water,” said Joselito M. Ramirez in mixed English and Surigaonon.

He believed that the creation of 20-hectare proposed Minahan Ng Bayan (People’s Small-Scale Mining) will cause a severe degradation of the watershed.

He added that based on the studies by experts, 20 hectares can be mined really fast because one ounce of gold requires some 30 tons of soils.

“It (mining) is so destructive. I doubt where they got the lumber because there’s a log ban, and the lumberyards don’t sell lauan that they’re using for their tunnels,” he said.

Ramirez noted that Surigao Watershed is the smallest watershed in country with only 967 hectares.

What’s at stake, he said, is the water supply for the18,000 households that depend on the watershed.

Lumad Mamanwas into mining, too

Meanwhile, the native Mamanwas in the area have also gone into mining activities near the watershed.

One of them is Rommel Yubos, 33, who said they began to build their tunnel just last month, which was already three meters deep. He said they were getting the lumber for the tunnel up in the mountain.

Yubos admitted that their mining activities have caused turbidity downstream, affecting Surigao River, the city’s future source of
potable water.

“Our operations really affect the water here because water coming from the tunnel is murky. But maybe with utmost care it can be avoided,” he said in the vernacular.

He said some miners in the area are using asugi or mercury, a statement that contradicted claims by Nagami officials that they were not using chemicals except for the “liquid form substance.”

“Yes, they really use it, but we don’t because it’s dangerous. We just have to find ways to get gold,” he said, adding mining is a very laborious job and costly.

Asked if they had the means to start mining, Yubos said: “This is solely our own effort. We can’t even work straight because we run out of means. But if there are people out there who are willing to finance, we will accept it.”

Yubos used to work as a miner in other tunnels. Now already armed with skills, he said natives like him  should exploit the area as the land was owned by their ancestors.

“So that we can also send our children to school and benefit from gold,” he said with a smile.

He confirmed that one of the twelve tunnels in Sitio Pinaypayan is owned by Datu German Tiambong.

These twelve tunnels are inside the buffer zone of the watershed, according to Surigao Metropolitan Water District general manager Ben Ensomo.

Tiambong is a head claimant of Mamasansisu, an organization of Mamanwas composed of 16 communities in the towns of Mainit, Malimono, San Francisco and Sison and Surigao City.

Earlier, Tiambong had warned Nagami that they might block their application for a Minahan Ng Bayan if they will not undergo a Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) process. He said they may allow Nagami’s application if they are given the rights to mine a portion of the proposed 20-hectare area.

After years of operating illegally, Nagami, whose members number over a thousand, wanted to avail of the government’s Minahan Ng Bayan. This was opposed, however, by the local water utility because a portion of the 20 hectares under Nagami’s pending application is located within the buffer zone of the Parang-parang watershed.

But Surigao del Norte Gov. Sol F. Matugas has supported Nagami’s effort to legalize its operations, saying it would be more beneficial and practical if the miners are under government regulation. For one, the lady governor said this will also redound to economic benefits for both the miners and the local government.

No landslide – as yet

Miners said that for decades of living and mining in the area as their source of livelihood, they never heard of any occurrence of landslides.

Zosimo M. Bustillo said that since childhood he has not heard of any landslide in the area unlike in Pantukan, Compostela Valley where the soil is soft.

Nagami spokesperson Junribel M. Bustrillos said that miners ensure that their tunnels do not crisscross to avoid a possible landslide.

Bustillo however noted that city residents would liken them to a bamboo plant, which looks good on the outside but is hollow inside, an allusion to the existence of several tunnels in the mining site.

Too far?

Castrence said that mining activities in Nagami’s area are too far from the watershed.

“Talking about Nagami’s mining activities, it’s really too far from the watershed, and I’d vouch for it in my recommendation to the governor,” he said.

He said that since all small-scale miners in the area are illegal the provincial government might consider legalizing all of them so that they will no longer be prosecuted.

The official said he could not speak for the 12 newly created tunnels owned by Mamanwas because the Department of Environment and Natural Resources still had to determine whether these are inside the buffer zone or the watershed itself.

Castrence said that all the debris inside the tunnels contained no chemicals but said the miners should look for ways that the wastes will not go into streams and rivers.

Edwin A. Mollanieda, focal person of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau in Caraga Region, recommended that Nagami should build tailings ponds, so that waste from tunnels may not go directly downstream.

He said their office will not issue an Environmental Compliance Certificate if Nagami would not build tailings ponds.

For Minahan ng Bayan

Matugas meanwhile said she just wanted to protect both the source of potable water and the people who for decades have relied on mining as their source of livelihood.

Saying mining would not be harmful if done well, she declared support for the Minahan ng Bayan.

The governor said the Minahan Ng Bayan would contain the waste produced and stop the wanton destruction of forested areas at the watershed. (Roel N. Catoto/MindaNews)