Approaching Didipio, an upland village in Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya, at nighttime can be no less than surreal. It means travelling for two hours on a 22-kilometer dirt road through isolated mountains—much of it in pitch darkness, except when pierced by hurrying headlights of identical white pick-up trucks. And then, suddenly glimpsing from behind dark crags what looks from afar like a modern city, awash with twinkling lights, yellow and white. It means finally passing through a security checkpoint manned by civilian guards, much like entering a private subdivision.
Inside Didipio, it quickly becomes evident that while it is not a city or a subdivision, it is not an ordinary rural village, either. Much of the lights belong to a processing plant, bulldozers and trucks, guard posts and workers’ bunkhouses, all of which hum with activity even at the dead of night. At the heart of it all is a huge, open pit mine, its depths unseen even at the light of dawn.
Didipio is now a mining community, one that centers on a gold and copper mine owned by the Australia-New Zealand firm Oceana Gold. It is difficult to say whether the company owns just the mine, or the community as well.
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Oceana Gold announced the start of its full commercial operations in Didipio last April 1. Oceana Gold holds one of the six mining projects in the country covered by a Financial or Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA), the very first awarded to a foreign company back in 1994, a year before the Philippine Mining Act was passed. But because of fierce resistance from the community, legal setbacks, as well as the firm’s own financial woes, it was only this year that it was able to finally ship its first 5,000 dry tons of copper-gold concentrate. Oceana Gold expects to produce “10,000 ounces of gold and 14,000 tons of copper per annum” from the 765-hectare mine.
The open pit mine gapes where once stood Dinkidi, the biggest hill in the village, the locals say. Today, Dinkidi—discovered as an orebody through exploration by the Australian firm Climax-Arimco, before it merged with the New Zealand firm Oceana Gold—is gone from the peaks of Mamparang, a significant wildlife and biodiversity corridor along the Sierra Madre mountain range. The locals who used to plant rice in its terraced slopes, or maintain citrus orchards in its lush valleys, are now displaced, clustered in uniform wooden houses outside the gates of the mining complex, most working as laborers. They trudge around in boots and yellow and blue coveralls, only their habit of chewing betel nut betraying the fact that they are from indigenous Ifugao tribes.
Some remain as small-scale miners, chipping away at the remaining ground at the peripheries of the mine, panning for gold as they have done for years, with the most basic implements—not to haul away gold in huge quantities, but only to collect a few grams per week, enough to feed their families. They will not remain miners for long. In Sitio Dinauyan, only three families of small-scale miners have houses still standing in their original location. Only one of them is adamant to stay; the other two are already trying to negotiate the best price for their land.
A handful of the biggest landowners, who sold the choicest parcels of land to the company, or else ramped up their own mining activities before the pit opened and gobbled up all the gold, are either conspicuously present or absent. They moved to capital towns Bayombong or Bambang to start over, or else built huge, concrete houses in the village, out-of-place with their Italian architecture and gaudy paint, as if establishing permanence only to oversee the slow but sure destruction of their village.
Akino Beduya, a local pastor of an evangelical church that was demolished during the peak of land grabbing, says that the worst thing about the entry of large-scale mining is how it turned the people—even family members—against each other. What started as a clash between anti-mining and pro-mining sentiments among the people turned into feuds over land ownership and compensation when the company eventually gained a stronger foothold after years of bribery, deception, harassment and use of brute force.
Akino now preaches from the shed of his house, which is just a stone’s throw away from the mine. Trucks and bulldozers rumble above, moving like giant ants carting away pieces of food. A creek of orange-brown waters flows below. Locals say that they can no longer catch mudfish, snails and prawns from the river, whose waters have changed in odor and appearance. Akino does not feel safe. He fears that heavy rains may cause a landslide, or that the mine tailings dam may break and cause the toxic wastes to reach his house.
Oceana Gold’s mine tailings dam lie a bit further into Sitio Dinauyan, where wider roads have been paved and security guards mill around piles of dirt and crushed rock. The ponds that contain mine tailings—normally a mixture of toxic wastes such as arsenic, radioactive materials, sulfur, mercury, and cyanide—are greenish-brown. Logs are stockpiled near one pond, and in another, the white branches of dead trees stick out. Beyond the ponds, what is left of the lush forests begin.
These forests were once the haven of wildlife such as makawa (local deer), hagiit (wild boar) and kalaw (hornbill). Now, such wildlife is gone, says Luis Paulino, a barangay official in the neighboring village of Lower Alimit. “Nawalan sila ng tirahan, at naistorbo siguro sa ingay. (They lost most of their natural habitat, and probably were disturbed by all the drilling and blasting),” he said.
Lower Alimit is a target for Oceana Gold’s expansion. It is a snapshot of what Didipio used to look like—rice terraces, citrus orchards, and farmers’ houses wide apart. Only three kilometers from the mine, Lower Alimit is now also affected by its operations. Rice fields are filled with silt, and the river is “the color of sardines.” At certain times of the day, when the mine is said to release yet unknown toxins into the river stream, it becomes odorous. When the rains are heavy, waters are even said to suddenly turn white.
Celia Bahag, who runs a small sari-sari store in the center of Didipio, confirms that rice plants are stunted and diseased, because of silt and suspected toxins in the water used for irrigation. Their source of drinking water has been affected as well, as evidenced by increased incidents of diarrhea. “Sabi ng kompanya, pagdating ng panahon ay sosolusyunan natin ‘yan. Pero babayaran na ang tubig. (The company says that they will find a solution to this problem. But we will have to pay for water),” she said. Already, a shop in a newly constructed building along the same road boasts that it will start selling purified water. “OPENING SOON: HEAVEN’S DROPS,” the tarpaulin sign says.
In Lower Alimit, an elderly Ifugao rejects the cash economy that residents of Didipio have been sucked into. Grinning while sitting on a hammock under a tree laden with citrus fruits, “Hindi namin kailangan ng pera. May tanim naman kaming bigas, at laging may makakain. (We don’t need money. We have everything we need, rice and food to eat),” Pedro Panghogan said.
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But in Didipio, where most farmers have become mine workers, livelihoods now depend on wages. Laborers earn P50 per hour, revealed Simeon Ananayao, a community relations officer for Oceana Gold. “Local hires” also say that they experience discrimination versus “Manila hires,” who are paid twice as much and receive greater benefits.
This discrimination compelled Martin Duhalngon Jr., who was hired as an engineer, to become active in the workers’ union. But only a few weeks after he started organizing and speaking up against the management, he, along with union president Wendy Nicano, were dismissed last November 2012 on grounds of petty offenses. It was a move that Martin calls “a clear case of union-busting.” In protest, the workers staged a blockade of Oceana Gold’s vehicles and heavy equipment, but were quickly dispersed by the police.
Martin’s grandfather is Didipio barangay captain Ereneo Bobolla, who also led a road blockade on February this year, after the company refused to pay the 2% excise taxes on processed minerals. The company, however, claims a five-year tax exemption under the FTAA, while undergoing a “recovery period.” Oceana Gold has reported that the Didipio mine has produced 20,553 ounces of gold and 9,373 tonnes of copper during the first half of 2013 alone, far surpassing its per annum target.
But it’s not just the taxes—many locals say that Oceana Gold did not honor much of its other commitments to the people.
Margarita Licyayo claims that they were outright deceived into selling their eight-hectare land in Sitio Bacbacan. She and his husband Eduardo were made to sign an easement agreement, which they did not understand since it was in English. They were made to believe that they were acquiring a loan, with the land as collateral. But when they were given the check, they were told that it was already payment for the land they sold.
Last August 29, Eduardo went to their remaining land near the riverbank to check on their corn and squash. He was astonished to see that his plants have been covered with concrete. Three of Oceana Gold’s security guards blocked his way further. And when Eduardo insisted that the land was not part of the company’s, they wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him. Later, he was charged with attempted homicide because he allegedly “unseated his bolo and tried to hack” the guards, an incredulous accusation that the Licyayos are now fighting in court.
Margarita could not believe that this was how the company repaid her generosity in welcoming Climax-Arimco, when it first started wooing residents during the early 90s: “Gusto ko kasi noon ng development. Gusto kong mag-operate ang mina at magkaroon ng permanenteng trabaho. Pero ano ang ginawa nila sa amin? (I wanted development then. I wanted the mine to operate so that we can have permanent jobs. But what did they do?)” She said that the company laid her off in 2008, even as she has not yet reached the age of retirement.
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The mine itself on what used to be Dinkidi Hill won’t retire, at least not for the next 16 years, its projected “life span.” The company plans to drill 800 meters, and they have not yet gotten past the 150-meter mark. There are 16 other exploration sites within Didipio—one of them is said to be Dibio, a hill that sits right next to the open pit.
Oceana Gold’s FTAA is not confined to Didipio, but covers 37,000 hectares of land straddling the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya, Isabela, and Quirino. The agreement is set to expire on 2019. But like most Philippine legal instruments that award land and natural resources to foreign companies, it is renewable for another 25 years, or a quarter of a century more.
The struggle against large-scale mining in Didipio had its strong moments, followed by moments of crushing blows. In 1994, the year Oceana Gold’s FTAA was approved by former president Fidel Ramos, a farmer shot down a helicopter engaged in aerial mapping of the area. In response, the Philippine Army encamped beside Dinkidi Hill and sowed terror among the people. In 2008, the people set up a barricade to try to prevent the forcible demolition of their homes. A combined force of Oceana Gold’s guards and military soldiers crept up at the barricaders at dawn and opened fire.
Today, locals say, not without bitterness, that many of their leaders have sold out or have become resigned to the situation. Some of those who promised to help have abandoned them. Agencies such as the National Commission and Indigenous Peoples and the Commission on Human Rights have come, but were unable to do anything to stop the mine. Local media have interviewed them, only to twist their words and come up with false reportage.
So what the people do now is cope. They cope with wage slavery and discrimination, with the constant rumble of heavy equipment that drowns the music of night cicadas, with the choking dust that fills the air during summer, with the almost daily rock blasting that shakes the foundations of their homes. They cope with the fact that their forefathers were displaced from the adjacent province of Ifugao when the construction of Magat Dam in the 1960s submerged their rice fields, and that now they have once again lost their homes—and identity as a people—to so-called “development” pushed with the full force of the government.
Leaving Didipio, one can only hope that the start of full mining operations can only mean the emergence of the people’s next phase of struggle, as blinding and bright as vast twinkling lights that slowly emerge from the crags of dark mountains.