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_Davao City, Philippines November 27, 2005 | VOL. 1 ISSUE NO. 3
Letters to the Editor
Bulletin Board

Diwalwal's Never-Ending Tragedies

The series of violent incidents in Diwalwal last October - a huge fire, a gas poisoning, and a cave-in - could be part of the plot by vested-interest groups to drive small-scale miners out of Mount Diwalwal.

DIWALWAL, the Philippines -- Alma Placio, 33, looked exhausted. She just had a baby. Six days after the child was born, Alma lost her husband. On this day, she was at the mining company's small office here, sitting in a corner.

Evidently grief-stricken, Alma sits calmly as she stared blankly at the television in front of her. The TV was showing images taken days before of a rescue operation inside one of the mining tunnels here, where several died. One of those who perished was Alma's husband, Al.

Alma was new to this place, so was Al. The lure of Mount Diwalwal, however, was no stranger to them. Earlier this year, they left their home in Manila, where they had stayed for almost two decades, and found their way into this mountain village. Al's brother had worked here and had convinced Al that he, like him, could work here as a "helper."

Al went to Diwalwal ahead of his family. In June, Alma and her two children reunited with him. Little did Alma know that the reunion would be short-lived.

Alma's husband was among the 31 declared to have died in the October 26 tragedy inside the mine tunnel operated by the JB Management and Mining Corp (JBMMC). The cave-in, which was said to be precipitated by an explosion, is the latest reminder here that the main issues about this contested gold-rush mountain village in Monkayo town, in Southern Mindanao, are far from resolved.

Alma's grief was shared by the others in the same predicament in two other incidents within two weeks last October in the mountains of this hotly contested gold-rush site. In one incident, a day after the Oct. 26 Sunshine tunnel tragedy, poison gas seeped through the Licayan tunnel above, killing a miner and nearly poisoning 11 mine workers.

Days before, on Oct. 14, fire engulfed a populated area, burning down the houses of 189 families and killing a nine-year-old child. The local fire department said the cause was faulty electrical wiring but residents told a recent fact-finding and relief mission that the fire had been a case of arson.

These incidents in October, said the party-list group Bayan Muna and environment alliance Panalipdan, who organized the mission in November, "could be interrelated and not accidental."

JBMMC, one of the few big mining companies operating here, had said that the Oct. 26 cave-in was an accident. JBMMC's Sunshine tunnel has been closed down, along with all "illegal mining operations" here. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had issued the closure order while the environment secretary, Michael Defensor, blamed "illegal mining operations" for the tragedy.

The closure of mining tunnels, however, creates serious implications to thousands of mine workers and abanteros - those who do the actual mining of the tunnels -- whose scant livelihood depended on the mine sites, according to Diwalwal barangay leader Franco Tito.

"I don't give a damn about the owners, because they are already millionaires. But what about the abanteros and the workers?" Tito said in an interview.

The closure order, according to the fact-finding mission, "does not resolve" the series of events that happened in Diwalwal last October. The closure order, the mission said in a six-page mission statement, only "bolstered all along what many feared as the Arroyo administration's scheme to gradually dislocate small-scale miners in the area."

The solution, said Tito, is for government to support the endeavors of the Diwalwal miners and workers -- from the environment to safety and tools. The government must also resolve who should mine the gold rush site, he said.

Government took over control of Diwalwal three years ago, and declared it part of the 8,100-hectare mineral reservation area. Two primary agencies had been put up, the National Resource Development Corporation (NRDC) for tax collection, and the National Resource Mining Development Corporation (NRMDC), which actually does the mining and controls the gold-rush site.

Under the government's Diwalwal Direct Estate Development Project, the existing mining operators became "service contractors." They have paid 15 percent of their produce, called run-of-the-mine ore, to government as taxation. The government, said Tito, has collected 44 million pesos in the past two years, but has yet to give the local government their share based on the agreement. The government has yet to build the 50 million pesos tailings dam it promised years ago. "The government reneged on its part," Tito said.

The NRMDC, meanwhile, had planned a joint venture agreement or a buyout of the existing mining companies. It has already bought the strategic and controversial JBMMC's Victory tunnel for 80 million pesos, which was originally priced at 300 million pesos.

JBMMC's Reynaldo Espanola vice president for administration said the government has so far only paid the company about 25 million pesos. The Victory Tunnel is located way below and cuts across almost all the mining tunnels in the gold-rich bowels of Diwalwal. The military is heavily guarding the said mining tunnel and the same contingent patrols day in day out around Diwalwal. It has also established encampments in the middle of populated areas in Diwalwal.

With the present setup, the existing mining operators and the small-scale miners are left with areas that are almost completely mined. A small-scale miner told that their "corpo" or joint venture with other small-scale miners wanted to go mine deeper. This can be very expensive but the constraints have increased ever since the new setup was in place.

The fact-finding mission, meanwhile, has recommended, among others, that all concerned government agencies, including the Commission on Human Rights, should conduct a "thorough and transparent" investigation of the incidents. It also said that the JBMMC and the Arroyo government "must be held accountable for these incidents, and indemnify the victims of the tragedies."

NRMDC, which has continued the Victory Tunnel operations, had declared losses from last year's operations. But it had planned to make an initial public offering, which Tito interpreted to mean that the government was offering Diwalwal to foreign miners. Consequently, he said, all the Diwalwal miners would become mere workers. Worse, they could be booted out of Diwalwal.

In the early 2000s, Tito was at the forefront of the series of protest actions by small-scale miners and workers protest against the foreign-owned Southeast Mindanao Gold Mining Corp, which had a tie-up with JBMMC. In those years before the government took over, a series of murders, violence and gas-poisoning incidents occurred here to, according to Tito, force the Diwalwal folk out of the gold-rush site.

The series of violence and tragedies last October, Tito now said, was no different. He said it could be the handiwork of those who have vested interests and who wanted to drive the people out of Diwalwal.

They have succeeded, at least in the case of Alma. She said she is just waiting for JBMMC's plans for her - whether it will indemnify her, for example - and then she and her children will go back to Northern Mindanao, out of Diwalwal for good. (Daisy C. Gonzales,


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