July 16, 2024

■  Rimaliza A. Opiña 

ITOGON, Benguet – A community of small-scale miners have appealed to Benguet Corporation (BC) and Itogon-Suyoc Resources Inc. (ISRI) to allow them to pursue their livelihood by letting go of the interests they have over the mineral-rich town.

Unable to enter the tunnels which miners have been carving for years in search of gold after the Benguet Provincial Mining Regulatory Board (PMRB) issued a cease order on May 6 and the mining portal’s padlocking on June 13, the community operating at Purok Manganese, Sitio Da-licno, Barangay Ampucao fear the prolonged closure of the tunnel will result in the displacement of the entire community due to loss of livelihood.

“A few more months and the children will enroll in school. But without their parents’ livelihood, how can they pursue their education?” a community member asked.

The economic backlash of the closure which has entered its 10th day as of press time is already being felt in the community.

Storekeeper Leoman Mendoza told the Midland Courier he felt the miners are feeling the financial pinch when not one of his regular customers sent money to their families via his e-wallet.

“You will know that there is not much money circulating when the miners are not able to send money via GCash and are unable to pay their credit in my store,” Mendoza said, narrating that when the tunnel was actively operating, miners whose families live outside Benguet would frequently send money to their love ones.

Those who buy items items from his store on credit were also able to pay in full, every time they are able to sell gold.

But the bust-ling economy in the mining village has changed.

Mendoza said even jeepneys have less cargo now compared to the past when jeeps were always full not just of passengers but of food and grocery supplies that they buy in Baguio.

Community members led by elders reiterated their appeal for BC and ISRI to cede their interest and allow them to mine what is left of the minerals extracted by the two companies.

“We implore you (BC and ISRI). Whatever is left (of the gold) here, leave it to us,” said senior citizen Juanito Arciba, one of those who joined active and former miners who barricaded the mine portal at Purok Manganese hoping that this will not be closed by the PMRB.

In the morning of June 13, the PMRB, assisted by the police hiked to the mining site and padlocked the portal.

Linda Tibangwa, the only woman who joined the barricade said they were caught by surprise when not one from the community arrived at the site to give them their supply of food for the day. She later learned that those assigned to deliver food to them could not proceed because of the presence of the PMRB and the police.

The Midland Courier once visited the site at Purok Manganese. It is about two kilometers away from the residential area and could be reached by hiking to the mountain through a rocky and dried creek.

The mining tunnel is operated by the Dontog-Manganese Pocket Miners Association (Domapma). However, the area is contested with BC claiming that it is within its patented mining area.

Upon seeing the authorities, Tibangwa said they retreated by exiting through another tunnel that is rarely used by the miners because it is cramped, so they could return to their community.

The closure has sent a chilling effect to other small-scale miners associations.

Small-scale miners at Sitio Dalicno who recently submitted to the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples their opposition to ISRI’s application for production sharing agreement (APSA) said other SSMs in the Cordillera might also be ordered to stop operating.

“We lament the June 13 incident. Full force pa ang police. We are a peaceful people. Humane naman sana ang approach sa mga small-scale miner,” said Alfredo Bugnosen, representative of the informal workers sector in the National Anti-Poverty Commission.

Bugnosen said the community is traumatized by what happened.

He said the small-scale miners have been unfairly treated and their operations are considered illegal when they made it clear that small scale mining groups are willing to comply with government regulations but the stringent requirements have made it impossible for them to apply for Minahang Bayan.

The Benguet Federation of Small-Scale Miners Inc. (BFSSM) has the same sentiment.

In a statement, BFSSM president Norberto Cobaldez said they fear that the incident in Dalicno is just the beginning of a series of stoppage activities.

“We fervently pray and hope that the law will not be weaponized against us; instead it will be humanized so that the marginalized like us small miners will not be left behind as we had been told that those who have less in life should have more in law”, Cobaldez said.

BFSSM suggested for BC and Domapma to have a dialogue.

The affected miners are also set to meet with Presidential Assistant to the Cordillera Asec. Antonio Tabora Jr. so he could bring their appeal to the Office of the President.

The Mines and Geosciences Bureau earlier said due process was observed prior to the implementation of the stop and closure orders.

In a previous statement, MGB-Cordillera Director Fay Apil said the mining operations were stopped due to a ban on small-scale mining issued in 2018 during the tenure of then Department of Environment and Natural Resources Sec. Roy Cimatu.