In the aftermath of the fatal landslide in Itogon, Benguet, caused by Typhoon ‘Ompong,’ Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu ordered the temporary suspension of small-scale mining operations in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR).
He also directed the Mines and Geosciences Bureau to review all small-scale mining areas under the Minahang Bayan program of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for geological hazards. The program is aimed at regulating small-scale mining operations nationwide.
There are calls by some sectors to impose a total ban on small-scale mining in the CAR to prevent a repeat of the landslide that has resulted in the death of 59 people (as of Sept. 21). The number of fatalities is expected to rise as the rescuers continue to dig in the rubble.
Although motivated by good intentions, a total ban on small-scale mining in the CAR would have adverse economic consequences to the people in the region who depend on it for their livelihood.
In Itogon alone, there are about 10,000 small-scale miners. That number may double, or even quadruple, if we include the residents of adjacent towns who prefer small-scale mining to agricultural farming.
Despite its risks, small-scale mining remains attractive in the CAR because of the expectation (and hope) to stumble on precious mineral ores that command high prices.
Mining is a family tradition in the CAR. Generations of its residents have worked in mining firms or on their own to extract the bounties of their fertile mountains.
Banning small-scale mining in the CAR and in other parts of the country is better said than done. It is a knee-jerk reaction to the Itogon incident.
In the first place, the government does not have the manpower and resources to post policemen or soldiers in small-scale mining sites to prevent miners from entering and exploring them.
Even if it does, the immutable “law of the stomach” will not deter the miners from looking for ways and means, even at serious risk to their lives, to get their hands on the ores that can put food on their table.
Experience has shown that people who are willing to work but are deprived of the opportunity to earn their livelihood turn to crime or engage in unwholesome activities to make for the deprivation.
In the 1990s, when the government banned small-scale mining in Compostela Valley, the ranks of the New People’s Army in the area received a boost in membership from the displaced miners.
To prevent the insurgency problem from getting worse, the government backtracked on the ban and let small-scale mining operations continue.
Unless done in prohibited areas or concession sites that have been awarded to others, small-scale mining is not, by itself, illegal or a proper subject for total stoppage. It is an honest living that contributes to the national economy.
No doubt, it can be dangerous to life and limb. Considering the improvised facilities often used to search for mineral ores, it is prone to accidents or deaths, especially during sudden downpours or uncoordinated blasting done at the mining site.
But that should not be a reason or excuse for the government to order its cessation. All work activities or professions have their share of risks or peril, but that is never used as justification to ban or stop their continued operation.
There are rules and regulations already in place that can make small-scale mining viable and safe for Filipinos who look at it as their only way out of poverty given their limited educational capacity.
All that’s needed is for those regulations to be conscientiously and effectively enforced by the DENR. A proactive, rather than a reactive, DENR is essential to make sure mining sites under the Minahang Bayan program do not go the same way as that of Itogon.
Small-scale miners are hardworking people. They deserve government protection and assistance. The Itogon landslide should not result in the loss of their livelihood.