REVERSED PUNCH: Go, Regina, go!

Secretary Regina Lopez is standing 10 feet tall in my estimation these days. And ironic it may seem, Lopez appears to be the only cabinet member of President Duterte with balls judging by her order to close several mining firms and to suspend others.

This is not to diminish the others who are content on parroting President Duterte’s policies every which way it seemed convenient. But it certainly takes a lot of courage and conviction to come up with the order to close several mining entities and to suspend the operations of several others. You are not talking here of several mines or of a particular region, but nationwide, from the open pits of Surigao to the underground tunnels of Benguet.

God bless the Philippines for having one Gina Lopez. And God bless the Philippines for having one Digong to back her play. Take it from a 30-year journalist who have had occasions to observe mining operation up close and personal, the most memorable being as an adventurous young man as part of a mining outfit Monkayo’s Diwalwal mining community way back 1984. There for six months, I worked as a small-scale miner in the company of several province mates who taught me my Mining 101 hands-on.

Diwalwal in those days acted like magnet to thousands of people who were glued to the activities that revolved around several productive mines. The big mines that were to take over as the decade came to a close were not in circulation then.

The first tunnel I entered was newly-opened. The ore simply stuck out from the slope and the group merely decided to follow it after samples showed the color of gold in dust. It was relatively quite easy at first for we merely shoveled the ore into sacks which we then hauled to a ball mill for milling.

There, I learned how to prepare my tools and to help reinforce the tunnel’s roof with round timber which we cut and hauled from the nearby forest. I also alternated as cook and could come up with a concoction of soup consisting mainly of pork garnished with a variety of dried beans or root crops. For cigarettes, we dried the leaves of a brush plant called pedped then sliced them thin which we wrapped and smoked with gusto. Its aromatic smell often attracted the curiosity of other people who wondered if we were smoking marijuana or not.

We stuck to the tunnel for at least a month but the sample petered out and we simply abandoned it. The 10-man outfit I joined went the rounds on the look-out for ‘shifting,’ a term used for an opportunity to work the shift in one tunnel. In exchange, we got 60% of the ore we mined, and left the remaining 40% to the tunnel owner.

The income was not much and in those days, a gram of gold ranged from P120.000 to P140.00 considering the relatively low karat. But there were times when we were able to work on a shift where the ore was high grade, and it was in those times that we decided to take breaks to the cities.

In those days, we processed the milled ore with mercury to separate the gold from the mud. The mud is then washed downstream to the lowlands of Monkayo for all we care. Certainly, part of the mud was arrested down slope by a tailings pond but it was only temporary because it was always washed away by the rains.

I recalled that in those times some communities downstream complained of their animals dying from poisoning at the foothills of Monkayo. But there was no Duterte and Gina Lopez then, and like the thousands that made the trip to Diwalwal, I was of no mind to care. No one really cared. The law was seemed non-existent.

I do not know if that part of Davao del Norte, which later became part of Compostela Valley, benefitted from mining. Did the local population benefit as well in terms of improved income? Maybe yes and maybe no. There was no way of knowing.

After six months, I parted company and it was back to newspaper desk jobs in Davao.

Later, in September 20, 2003 this time as a staff member of a community newspaper in my hometown, I was invited to a cultural presentation by the Lepanto Mining Company, 90 kilometers north of Baguio City. The company’s Makati-based CEO, a Filipino Chinese, was among those lined up to perform.

Unfortunately, before the evening presentation began, a group of armed men waylaid a company convoy just after it left the mill site. Four of the security guards were killed and the armed men made off with the newly-minted bars of gold to the mountains.

The CEO was immediately informed of the incident. But rather than postpone the cultural show, he decided that the show must go on, with him as one of the singers.

But there was no hiding the gloom and the sad look in the faces of those who came to see the show.

More than a year after the company was locked in a bitter dispute with the labor union that lasted for months, finally draining the company’s coffers. In the end, it was forced to retrench hundreds of its labor force. It also never recovered economically and to make matters worse, it was ordered closed by Secretary Gina Lopez the other day.

The company can argue that its presence formed the main lifeblood of the economy. That it was also able to help provide livelihood assistance to communities, helped build schools and roads and helped send students to college.

But this much also is obvious: downstream to the towns of Cervantes and Quirino in the neighboring province of Ilocos Sur, what were once verdant rice fields before the company started operating from the 1960s gave way to a solidified mine tailings that chocked off the life of the river and erased the rice fields from the map. The Ilocano-speaking communities along the river blamed the company for what they termed was an irreversible damage inflicted on their homeland. No wonder they are also fiercely anti-mining.

“If you kill the watershed, you kill life itself,” said Secretary Gina Lopez. Indeed, mining may have brought prosperity to some communities but it came at so steep a price: irreversible damage to the watersheds, ecosystems and the environment.

We are fortunate that when all hopes seemed lost, we have a caring administration that puts premium to social justice and care for the environment above the greed of a few. Change, must indeed, come. Go, Regina, Go!