The Philippines has suffered numerous disasters from its mining industry over the decades, creating a legacy of health problems that continue to the present day. Now there is a proposal to reopen one foreign-owned mine with a checkered history, and the backlash from activists who are trying to stop it.
When a typhoon or heavy rain hits Marinduque island, many residents along the Mogpog River are evacuated to higher ground.
That is because the Philippine government says an upstream dam that holds back toxic waste from an abandoned copper mine is deteriorating and could overflow or burst, just like it did in 1993.
When that happened, the river was silted over with heavy metals and other debris, or tailings, from the mine.
Farmer George Hayno, 53, lives alongside a branch of the Mogpog, and he said the polluted river cost him his right foot.
He said he used to walk back and forth across the river. In 2012 he noticed a cut on his foot that would not heal. A doctor determined it was infected with arsenic and needed to be amputated.
Another leak at the Marcopper mine of millions of tons of tailings in 1996, led to the pullout of its Canadian operator, ending three decades of mining on the island.
Compensation for the environmental clean up was never received, say national and local government officials.
Adeline Angeles, a member of the Marinduque Council for Environmental Concerns and a provincial legislator, said mining never delivered the wealth that it promised.
“After decades of mining, Marinduque is one of the poorest provinces in the entire archipelago," said Angeles. "At the same time our waters are silted, the rivers cannot be used for irrigation and our farmers are poorer.”
In June, a court in the U.S. state of Nevada dismissed Marinduque’s lawsuit against the company that bought out the mine’s former operator on jurisdiction grounds.
For some environmental advocates, Marinduque is an example of why foreign mining firms should be banned from the Philippines.
Lack of accountability
An international anti-mining conference recently was held in Manila. Participants say that multinational corporations devastate communities across the developing world and are rarely held accountable.
Camilo Mano, with the Manila based anti-mining group Ayansa Tigil Mina, said the Philippines has long been a victim of foreign greed.
“Since the birth of the Philippines, foreign countries, foreign nationals or foreign corporations go here because of rich minerals,” said Mano.
Mano noted this plundering began with the Spanish and then American colonizations of the Philippines.
Today, Chinese, Australian and Canadian companies mine for gold, nickel and other precious metals.
His organization is backing a bill that calls for current mining laws to be replaced with more environmentally sustainable regulations. That includes restricting the types of minable minerals, as well as a ban on exports.
“We don’t want our minerals brought outside the Philippines, we want our minerals used here in the Philippines,” said Mano.
The Philippine government still wants foreign companies to develop local mines.
Roland De Jesus, a director at the Mines and Geoscience Bureau in Manila, said mining is safer than it used to be.
“I am confident we have a good mining law, one of the best in the world. Before there was a lack of transparency, but now we have a multipart monitoring team,” he said.
He added that these laws prevent environmental disasters, like the one on Marinduque, from happening again.
As for the island’s old copper mine, De Jesus said one option to rehabilitate the damaged ecosystem is to allow another, more responsible mining firm to resume operations there, and clean up the mess that was left behind.
Marinduque environmental advocate Adeline Angeles called that proposal unacceptable.
“We cannot take another risk. It’s just like trying to address a victim of rape by opening itself for possible rape again,” she said.
Angeles said the province is not giving up their fight. It now is considering launching a new lawsuit in Canada.