I wrote about this issue last 2014, when this subject matter was at its peak. Today, I am surprised to hear about Benguet Corporation’s (BC) raising of its tailings dam again after six years.
Last Sunday, they announced after our mass at Saint Charles Borromeo (Itogon, Benguet) that the community will be holding a public meeting regarding their position whether or not BC should raise its tailings dam.
It is but normal for people to contest whatever it comes in between their lives and livelihood. That explains the cry of the people of Itogon, Benguet
How it used to be
I remember when we used to wake up at 5AM and jog the trail from Poblacion to Batuang. The fun starts by scaling the Carantes Road and then continues when you run passing through this forest of pine trees. Feeling exhausted, we would always end up drawing in this fresh breeze of air. When we reach the end of the concrete road beside Tailings Dam No. 2, we stop to do some exercises and get some rest. While doing that, we cannot fail to appreciate the green landscape of the environment around us. The grass carpeting the dam is green, wild, and robust. The trees circling the dam are homes for wild birds and shelters for cows, goats, and other animals. Funny that sometimes, we have to reroute and run like hell because we encounter herds of cows.
The people here rely on the rich sources the river provides. Other people discovered gold panning to be a source of their living. Some also ventured on sand and gravel business. I see some men who would gather loads of rocks, stones or sand and wait for the trucks to do the hauling. The water from the river also supplies sufficient hydration and cultivation to the farms in the neighboring barangays of Tinongdan and Dalupirip. And of course, the famous 1300L Swimming Pools, also known as, “Trese” and a few of fishponds are situated along the riverbanks.
Large-Scale Mining and Water Pollution as told by our folks
Following the road going down to Barangay Poblacion, my grandmother used to tell me how they were able to catch fish in the clear and clean river. She also told me that the river turned brown and polluted when big mining companies started to operate. Indeed, water has been called “mining’s most common casualty” (James Lyon, Interview, Mineral Policy Center, Washington DC).
Today, the dam is starting to be filled with these green-blue-gray materials, I can’t even tell the right color. The grasses have withered, the trees have turned dry, dead, and brown, and a number of cows have already died. The river down below is colored muddy brown and contaminated.
The People’s Fear
Gravity will tell us that when the rain comes and the dam reaches its maximum capacity, any spill will go downstream. The river itself, the farms, houses and schools alongside the river including those swimming pools and resorts will be affected by that adverse possibility.
All those people who are depending on the richness of the river will be affected adversely. Remember that they also have families to feed and properties to protect.
Interestingly, you’ll see previous statements of BC saying that they have already concluded talks with the affected villagers or communities of Itogon, Benguet. That in fact, a memorandum of agreement was already finalized. But if you look through it, the barangays and communities mentioned therein are villagers upstream. It is as if BC is trying to show that the people of Itogon have Okayed the raising of the dam when in fact, they failed to get the consent of the people downstream. These are the people who will be more affected by any adverse effects.
Typhoon Ompong and BC’s tailings dam
True to what we feared, on September 15, 2018, Typhoon Ompong made its landfall in the Philippines. Sadly, the death toll rose up to 70 plus.
Aside from losing loved ones, Typhoon Ompong did not also spare the people’s livelihood and hard-earned properties. During the onslaught of typhoon Ompong, houses and properties of people downstream were destroyed. The swimming pools and resorts in Trese, Poblacion, Itogon were washed out. The farms alongside the riverbanks were eroded. Some folks believe that these tragedies were not only caused by Typhoon Ompong which is an act of nature that is inevitable. Many believe that these tragedies were also aggravated by the tailings dam of Benguet Corporation.
Following their logic, it is their theory that sediments and silt have settled at the bottom of the dam and thereby clogged the drainage. Because of the unusual heavy rainfall brought about by Typhoon Ompong, the water level rose rapidly causing them to discharge the sediments and silt to the river. That was why people were surprised to see unusual volume of “muddy” water in the river. They believe that the sudden discharge of the sediments and silt caused the collapse of the properties downstream.
I bet they will say that it was an act of nature in order to deflect the blame on them. But if you look at it clearly, maybe natural disasters aren’t natural at all. That sometimes, it can be caused by humans or other times, by big mining corporations. Char.
So is it a yes or no?
While we have always been thankful that the oldest mining company in the Philippines provided wealth, development, and living to the people for more than 40 years, we are in the same way terrified of the results of their decisions. We cannot simply shrug off the problem because this concerns our properties, livelihood, and most importantly, our lives.
We expect that the years of their corporality should equate their efficiency and expertise in the field of mining industry. I guess they failed to prove that.
Therefore, according to the meeting of the leaders and elders last Sunday, the stand of the community is to say NO WITHOUT CONDITIONS.
But what happens when another typhoon hits us? Will the water including the silt or sediments therein rise again? In addition to protesting against the raising of its dam, is it about time to demand also for the dam’s environmentally sustainable closure?
The Backpacking Lawyer is a practicing lawyer and a nurse by profession in the Philippines. While she enjoys her day job, she loves traveling and sharing her adventures and misadventures with you.