On the northeast side of Camarines Norte lies the small town of Paracale, home to at most 60,000[i] residents in 27 barangays.
Locals call their beloved Paracale “Gold Town”. Sixty-nine-year-old resident Vicente Racelis says “Karamihan ang inaasahan lang ay ang ginto … dahil kahit saan ka mag hukay, ay may natatagpuang ginto,”. (Most of the residents here depend on gold for income, since this is called gold town… You can dig anywhere and find gold).
The Gold Town provides its residents economic opportunities specifically in mining since there are numerous operational gold processing facilities in the town. Despite the growing quarrying and mining industry, the artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) operations in Paracale remain largely informal. Local miners attribute this to the tedious Minahang Bayan approval process—in Mang Vicente’s case, it spanned for at least six (6) years.
The battle for Minahang Bayan approval
“Nung araw pa, 2011 pa, nag apply na kami ng Minahang Bayan. Kaya lang, napaka hirap ng proseso at di namin malaman kung ano ano ang mga requirements at bigla nalang pag nakapag process na kami… mayroon na namang panibagong requirements. Kaya hanggang sa ngayon, hindi padin kami naaaprubahan ng Minahang Bayan. Mahigit nang anim na taon na, ay wala,” Mang Vicente relates. (Since 2011 we have been applying for us to be approved as Minahang Bayan. However, the process is tedious. The requirements are endless. Once we’ve complied with all the documents, new requirements will be requested. We have applied for it for more than 6 years, still no progress.)
ASGM operations, loosely characterized as gold extraction using rudimentary techniques, minimal equipment, and heavy manual labour are prohibited since the only legal mining operations are conducted in the Minahang Bayan. However, most of the residents proceed to mine without permits to operate (PTOs).
Their operations, in turn, remain unregulated and may not necessarily comply with all the safety standards for small-scale operations. Non-compliance with health and safety measures in the already-hazardous occupation poses significant threats to the miners.
“Kasi ang hirap po pag illegal …may mga… pinagbabawal na sinusunod nila kahit bawal,” says Julie Andrade (33) of Purok Kwatro Tugos in Paracale. (Since operations are illegal, methods regardless if prohibited are still carried out.)
The dangers of unregulated mining
In Camarines Norte, there are two methods of gold extraction: tunnel mining and compressor mining. Tunnel mining is conducted by building either vertical or horizontal paths on the mountains for mining. Since operations are small-scale, miners dig for weeks before they can locate gold ores.
Compressor mining is an illegal mining method wherein workers dive on shallow portals underwater using only a hose attached to a compressor as a breathing device. Miners blast holes using dynamites and manually search for gold under murky waters. Considered as one of the most dangerous methods of gold extraction, its risks include suffocation, drowning, and underwater collapses.
Julie lost her husband Luis Sayson in a compressor-tunnel mining accident in Sitio Bulaay, Paracale in November 2012.
She describes “Sabay sabay po kasing nagpaputok eh… yung tubig pumapasok sa loob ng pinagbabalunan nila. Andun na yung paglulunod tapos sa kuryente, nakukuryente sila.” (The miners simultaneously blasted several portals. The water then overflowed from these holes. They drowned and got electrocuted.)
Unregulated mining coupled with mismanaged preparatory activities and lack of protective gears breed insurmountable dangers. Julie adds that because of the concurrent blasts, the upper part of the well where Luis was working on collapsed instead of its bottom part therefore caving in on the miners—including Luis and Carlo Salen.
Like Luis, Carlo supported his family by braving the hazards associated with the illegal mining operations in Paracale. Both men earned between 300 pesos to 1000 pesos a day. “Kinakailangan magsakripisyo, para makuha ang kinakailangang hanap buhay. Yun talaga ang pinakahanapbuhay dito,” Nanay Consuelo Salen, Carlo’s mother, says. She admits that it is hard but the miners do it to survive. (Sacrifice is needed in order to earn, mining is the only source of income here).
But survive they did not. Mang Vicente imputes the Sitio Bulaay incident which claimed the lives of Luis, Carlo, and other miners to the informality of the ASGM sector in Paracale. He emphasizes “Ay kung kami ay nabigyan ng permiso sa Minahang Bayan, walang mangangahas dito sa tubig, diyan kami sa lupa dahil madali ang control sa lupa. Pag nalagyan mo ng proper timbering, wala ka nang problema sa aksidente.” (If we were given a permit as a Minahang Bayan, no one will risk to work underwater through compressor mining. We will operate on land because we have more control here. With proper timbering, accidents should not be a problem.)
Divers commissioned by the financers and the local government searched for the bodies of the miners for at most one week. They found Luis and Carlo’s bodies after 6 days of search. Nanay Consuelo relates “Nang mamatay po siya nun, gabi gabi na po kami. Anim na araw po bago makuha siya. Alas nuwebe ng gabi, talagang ano na po siya, mataba na, kumbaga bloated na ng tubig, sa buong katawan niya,”. (Since he died, we have been looking for his body every night for 6 days. We found him at 9 in the evening. His body was already bloated because of the water.)
An estimate of at least a hundred miners died during the incident. “Karamihan lang po kasi talaga nung 2012, diyan po maraming naaksidente. One hundred plus pong tao ang namatay po nun. Na sabi nila mga 50 lang, mga 40. Pero halos lahat naman po ng mga motor ng mga nagtatrabaho dun, nandun sa plaza. Na talagang hindi pa kineclaim. Di samakatuwid, yung taong may-ari ng motor na yun, naaksidente dun… So umabot po yun ng 100 plus yung namatay dun,” (Most of the accidents happened in 2012. More than a hundred people died then. However, they only estimate it to 50 or 40. But almost all of the motorcycles parked at the plaza were owned by the workers. Many motorcycles were left unclaimed. Therefore, the owners of the motorcycles got in the accident. So at least a hundred people died there.)
According to Julie, financers underestimate this number to avoid controversy. She admits that they even went so far and offered the bereaved families a hundred thousand pesos (100,000 pesos) for them to keep mum. The official record of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB)- Bicol Region states that there are only 5 fatalities from this incident[ii].
No one was convicted for the tragedy. “Masakit man pong tanggapin kaso inisip ko po, andun na yun, wala naman akong magagawa… Hindi ko naman pwedeng sisihin yung financer. Kasi yung mismong asawa ko rin naman po ang nagpursige na pumasok dun sa balunan na iyon,” Julie concludes. (It hurts to accept it but it already happened. I cannot do anything about it… I cannot blame the financer because it was my husband who went to the portal.)
Limited economic opportunities force the locals to the only source of income in the municipality. Hence, despite the hazards, they engage in tunnel and compressor mining. If there is one thing that Julie wants, it is legal and decent work for the Parakalenos. “Kung ako po’y papipiliin, mas gusto ko po sa legal. Kasi sa hirap ng buhay dito, napapansin ko naman po sa mga tao kagaya po niyan nandyan sa kabilang tulay, nagpupursige sila kahit 290 lang ang araw nila, para may ma pang araw araw lang baga po sa hirap ng buhay,” (If I were to choose, I prefer the operations to be legal. Life is hard here but I notice that people work hard even though they only earn 290 a day so that they have money for every day.)
Mang Vicente explains that small-scale operations when legalized will not only benefit the ASGM community but the whole Paracale as well. Furthermore, he emphasizes that legalization will significantly lessen, if not avoid, accidents in the mining sites. “At ang aksidente maiiwasan basta’t legal ang operation. Mayroong nag momonitor, may nag mamanage, may nagkokontrol. Pero pagka indibidwal na hukay, walang mag mamanage niyan, basta’t sige lang yan ng sige, di nila alam yung danger, yung safety di nila iniisip yun.” (Accidents are avoided in legal mining operations. There are monitoring, managing, and controlling mechanisms. However, in individual operations, they do not know the dangers and they do not think of their safety because no one is managing the operations.)
The Compassionate Gold brand is an offshoot project of the US Department of Labour (DOL)- funded CARING Gold Mining Project which aims to alleviate poor working conditions and combat child labour in the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASGM) sites in Camarines Norte by providing mechanisms to legalize the sector. The brand is launched by the environmental organization BAN Toxics in partnership with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Philippine Fashion Week. The brand features gold extracted through legal methods under safe working conditions. It puts the welfare of the ASGM community and the environment in every gram of gold.
[i] Philippine Statistics Authority (2015)