Sunday, March 21, 2010

Illegal miners flock to Zamboanga gold mountain; environment under threat

Government militias patrol a mountain where small scale miners and child laborers dig for gold in the remote town of Diplahan in Zamboanga del Sur province in the southern Philippines. Small scale miners digging for gold use mercury and cyanide in extracting the precious metal from rocks and soil and threatening streams and rivers in the province. (Mindanao Examiner Photo)

ZAMBOANGA DEL SUR, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Mar. 20, 2010) – Mercury and cyanide used by illegal miners searching for gold is threatening the environment and health of thousands of villagers in the southern Filipino province of Zamboanga Sibugay.

And small scale miners have been operating the past decade in the province, particularly in Diplahan, a remote mountain town where tunnels dotted the once beautiful mountain.

“These illegal miners have been operating here for many years now, perhaps over a decade after gold was discovered in the area. Now the environment is under threat since miners still use mercury and cyanide to extract precious metals from the earth and these chemicals find their way into streams and rivers and pose a danger to the health of thousands of people,” said a government militia deployed in the village of Balabag.

And the tunnels dug by miners – some under their houses – are also in danger of collapsing due to poor construction and the lack of safety equipment.
There are no hard hats or gloves for miners working inside the tunnels. And authorities are hapless in preventing, if not, stopping the illegal mining operation.

“This mountain is our home, our life and future and gold is life. We have sent our children to schools, gave them good education because of our hard work and same with the others,” said Ofelia, an elderly woman who operates a ball mill in Balabag.

Her house also serves as center of the family’s gold mine operation, milling and office as well. Three workers operate the mill – one doubles as a rock crusher and the two help each other in running the 24 hour facility.

Although there is no electricity in Balabag, miners and ball mill operators use generators to power their facilities. Gas sells for more than P60 a liter - at least 25% more than the prevailing retail price of fuel.

“We are not harming the environment. This is our livelihood. We only dig for gold and that’s it,” said Armando, a small scale miner, who uses horses and paid labors to haul tons and tons of rocks taken from the tunnels and mountain.

He said he earns at least P50,000 a month and enough to feed his family and two dogs. But despite the high prices of gold, basic commodities in the mountain also cost like gold with a bottle of soft drink selling for P25.

And as many as 5,000 small scale miners, he said, are operating in Balabag alone. “There could be more,” he said, pointing to a nearby mountain where villagers are also digging for gold.

Even children, some as young as seven years old, are also mining for the yellow metal – helping their father to earn money instead of going to school. Child labor is common in the area, some earn as low as P30 a day.

Aside from the hazards to environment, prostitution and child trafficking have become a big problem in Diplahan. Many were lured into prostitution in exchange for money – P1,500 for three-hour of sex at thatched houses that served as dens to miners wanting a good time after a day’s hard work.

“Child trafficking and prostitution are a big problem here. We have filed criminal cases against some people involved in these nefarious activities and as a matter of fact some of them have already fled Balabag because of the warrants for their arrest,” Inspector Arnel Galaben, the town’s chief of police, said.

For the miners, Balabag is a haven – gold, women and more gold. (Mindanao Examiner)

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