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Itogon tragedy yet another wakeup call vs mining ills

THE typhoon-induced landslide that buried a bunkhouse in the mining village of Ucab in Itogon, Benguet, is yet another tragic reminder of the perils of mining, particularly small-scale mining.

The Ucab landslide victims, according to the Chamber of Mines, were among those engaged in illegal gold-mining activities near the bunkhouse that used to be occupied by Benguet Corp. The area is a few kilometers away from the company’s Balatoc and Dalicno mines.

The village mine site, it should be noted, had been declared by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as a geohazard zone prone to landslides. Benguet Corp., in fact, had sent letters to the small-scale miners to leave the area.

As of this writing, the military’s Northern Luzon Command has recovered 39 bodies from the site of the bunkhouse, which local authorities said was also used by residents and workers as a place of worship. Rescuers fear that dozens more trapped under mud and rocks are now dead.

Itogon was by no means the first time such an accident happened. Landslides are common in small-scale sites in Compostela Valley in Mindanao, for example.

In April 2011, heavy rains loosened the slopes in the gold-rush area of Kingking, burying shanties and killing 14 people. The following year, rescuers pulled out 42 bodies from a landslide in nearby Pantukan Village.

The mounting death toll from mining landslides alone is a clear justification for tougher rules on small-scale mining operators, which have largely escaped regulation.

Because they are practically unregulated, these operators do not pay national and local taxes, and cause irreversible damage to the environment. They also use banned toxic chemicals.

Small-scale mining is said to account for a whopping 60 percent of the gold produced in the Philippines. Given the wealth prospects, social problems such as child labor, prostitution, illegal drugs and gun-running are said to be prevalent in illegal mining communities.

Secretary Roy Cimatu of the DENR did the right thing in ordering the suspension of all mining and the revocation of all small-scale mining permits in the province of Benguet.

In June, Cimatu exempted small-scale mining projects in areas declared by the government as “People’s Small-Scale Mining Areas” or “Minahang Bayan” from the moratorium and audit imposed by his predecessor, Regina Paz “Gina” Lopez, in 2016. According to the MGB, 10 miners’ associations were given small-scale mining permits in the Cordillera Region alone.

It now appears that small-scale mining should have been included in the moratorium. We hope this was what Cimatu meant when he said on Monday that small-scale miners would be given cease-and-desist orders and would not be allowed to operate until the Minahang Bayan scheme is “fixed.”

As a long-term measure, Congress should give due consideration to President Rodrigo Duterte’s position that the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 be “abrogated” to put an end to mining once and for all, “never mind” the P70 billion in revenues estimated to accrue to the government.

Immediate policy action is needed in the Executive and Legislative departments, even if the result is not a total ban on mining operations. At the very least, mining should be severely restricted, if only to ensure that tragedies such as those in Benguet and Compostela Valley do not happen again.

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