The grinding rumble of rock against metal is a constant soundtrack to daily life in Barangay Mount Diwata in Monkayo, Compostela Valley. The din comes from ball mills spinning away inside milling facilities distributed over 24 puroks.
Tumbling inside these steel cylinders are gold ores laced with mercury to coax the precious metal from the ore. The resulting amalgam is then heated to finally extract the gold granules, a process that sends mercury fumes wafting out of the ball mill facilities and into every nook and cranny of the cramped shanty town.
While Mount Diwata (or Diwalwal, because just the climb up the mines is already exhausting) is essentially a mining camp, more than 26 years of settlement have transformed the place into the home of an entire generation of mining families.
Founded as a barangay in 1990, Mount Diwata has most if not all of the infrastructure and facilities to be found in a typical small barangay. Aside from schools and a health center, there are also, just around this or that corner, convenience stores, eateries, ukay-ukay shops, beauty parlors, and basketball courts.
While Mount Diwalwal had acquired an early reputation of being a lawless outpost — what with the violent and lethal clashes between frontiersmen out to make a fast and dirty buck — a casual stroll about town now brings one face to face not only with weathered and hardened miners (they are still there) but also lolas carrying vegetables on their head, teenage girls having their hair straightened in salons, children in uniform marching off to school, and toddlers munching on chips in the shade.
Not visible but pervading these people’s daily lives is the mercury-laced air that they breathe. Mercury inhalation or ingestion is known to cause, among other sicknesses, body tremors and internal organ damage, which can lead to death. A grandmother recently lamented the death of her 9-month old grandchild, who had suffered from seizures and could not even smile.
Ban Toxics, a non-government organization that works toward a toxics-free world, is pushing for the adoption of the gravity concentration method, which is mercury-free, in Mount Diwata. They have established a demonstration facility near the Barangay Hall to entice miners to make the switch.
The adoption of safer mining methods in Mount Diwalwal is still an on-going process. Anti-mercury use miners have formed an organization, Lig-ong Asosayon sa mga Gagmay’ng Minero Nagtikad sa Bulawan nga Luwas sa Mercury (LAMBU) Diwalwal, in support of their advocacy. But many miners continue to rely on mercury, which they believe hastens gold production and thus the influx of income.
Ironically, while the grinding rumble of rock against metal is the heartbeat that keeps Mount Diwata alive, the ball mill facilities also exhale fumes that slowly take the breath from its residents.