June 14, 2024

ITOGON, Benguet – Pocket miners in Sitio Dalicno, Barangay Ampucao in this town are ready to defy the government order stopping their operation just so they can continue to feed their families and send their children to school.

Shortly after the Benguet Provincial Mining Regulatory Board (PMRB) issued a cease and desist order on May 6, miners and mine workers belonging to the Dontog-Manganese Pocket Miners Association (Domapma) camped out in one of their mining portals at Purok Manganese as their way of protesting the PMRB’s decision and to assail the government in what they think is the government’s prejudice to big mining companies.

Domapma alleged the PMRB issued the stop order based on the complaint of Benguet Corporation (BC), which has a stake at the area where the pocket miners operate. 

Domapma officials said the area where they operate is outside the patented area of BC. They insist BC has no basis for complaining as its application for mining sharing agreement (APSA) has been denied by the MGB. This application covers not just Dalicno but some portions of Virac and Ampucao as well.

Mines and Geosciences Bureau Regional Director and PMRB chair Fay Apil said due process was followed when the PMRB issued stop orders not just to Domapma but other pocket mining associations in Benguet, most of which are located in Itogon.

She said pocket 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 Secretary Roy Cimatu. The directive was never lifted despite appeals of small-scale mining operators and even elected officials of Benguet.

“Regardless of who is the complainant, the PMRB had to issue the stop order because they are operating without a permit,” Apil said, adding the affected miners were advised to legalize their operation by applying for a minahang bayan

The PMRB’s hardline stance on small-scale mining is however, affecting the livelihood of thousands who depend on pocket mining for their sustenance.

In the case of the Domapma, 500 to 700 mine workers, including surface workers such as women and senior citizens, will be affected, said 70-year-old Juanito Arciba.

A respected elder in the group, Arciba said he is one of those who continue to earn from the mines even if he no longer goes to the “usok” (tunnels).

Through benefit sharing systems called sagaok, linang, keddaw, and balato, Arciba said everyone in the community of miners earns a little something from the mines.

“Amin ditoy ket kumitkita uray saan nga direkta nga agmining. Nu agsardeng kami amin apektado,” added Cristeta Caytap, a member of the community who joined the encampment.

Sagaok is when a tunnel owner who finds high grade ore allows other miners to mine in the tunnel for a limited period; linang is when non-miners such as women, children, and the elderly further extract ore from the discarded mine tailings.

Keddaw (ask) is similar to the sagaok where even those who do not enter the tunnels may ask for ore which they can process for extraction. Balato is sharing of goodwill money to the community if there is a high yield in the sale of gold in the market.

Kids who want to work parttime are welcome to also work here so they can save some for their school needs,” Arciba said.

Miners coming from as far as Cagayan and the Davao region also occasionally join them in the mines, Arciba said.

Fifty-one-year old Robert Pimentel is one of those apprehensive that he might not be able to send money to his family in Bauko, Mountain Province because the PMRB might enforce the stop order anytime.  

Pimentel, who has been mining in the gold-rich province of Itogon in the 1980s, said mining is the only occupation he knows.

This is the only job for the unschooled like us, Pimentel said.

At seven years old, Pimentel lost both his parents and since then has been living with different relatives and his siblings to survive.

He joined a sibling who was able to find work in the mines of Itogon and has been mining since then.

He said there was a time when he tried farming in his native Mountain Province but income from mi-ning was higher so he decided to return to Itogon and continue mining.

He supports his wife and four children in Mountain Province by regularly sending them money. His wife adds to the family’s income by working por diya (parttime daily wage earner) in vegetable fields in Bauko.

His eldest son, 20, has recently joined him in the mines as he has not shown interest in studying. His wife and other children are studying in Mountain Province.

Domapma is appealing to the PMRB and the MGB to show leniency on them. The group has applied for minahang bayan but the rigid guidelines is affecting their livelihood, forcing them to operate illegally.

Another Domapma elder, Nicolas Tibangwa, said they will go hungry if they stop operating, while waiting for the MGB to act on their application.

For indigenous peoples who have not been able to fully utilize natural resources from their ancestral domain, Domapma members said indigenous cultural communities should be allowed this time to benefit of the little that was left from the operation of big mining companies that have been operating for over 100 years now.

“100 years dan. Isubli da metten iti community,” Caytap said.

The MGB maintains that laws have to be implemented.

Apil said guidelines in the screening of minahang bayan are indeed strict to ensure that the extractive industries – whether these are small-scale or large scale mining – are regulated so that their impact on the environment are minimized.

The ban on small-scale mining was triggered by the massive landslide in September 2018 in Ucab, Itogon, Benguet. Over 70 people perished in that landslide.

In February 2021, the provincial government of Benguet led by Gov. Melchor Diclas asked the DENR to lift the ban on small-scale mining in the Cordillera.

Diclas then said thousands of small-scale miners have been affected by the lockdowns at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and allowing them to resume operations will help them recovery financially.

Cimatu denied the petition but directed the PMRB to streamline the screening of applications.

Currently, there is only one minahang bayan permittee in Itogon, the Loacan Itogon Pocket Miners Association covering 64 hectares, which was declared on Jan. 15, 2019. – Rimaliza A. Opina