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CEC joins groups in probing possible effects of mining operations in Lobo, Batangas

Canadian gold miner threatens food security in Batangas town
CEC joins groups in probing possible effects of mining operations
Ryan Damaso

Lobo is a 4th class coastal municipality near the southern tip of the prodominantly agricultural of Batangas in the Southern Tagalog region. Home to over 37,000 people in 6,611 households, Lobo is filled with forests, straddled by mountains and surrounded by the rich waters of Batangas Bay and the Verde Island passages, the latter declared by marine conservationists in 2006 as the “Center of the Center of Marine Shorefish Biodiversity.”

In terms of natural resources and wealth, Lobo has been known for its white sand beaches, flowing rivers, and fertile agricultural plains filled with rice fields, coconuts, mangoes, bananas, atis, and tamarind trees. It also houses the Mount Banoi watershed, which is among the main sources of potable water for the rest of Batangas province.

However, the ongoing exploration activities of a foreign mining firm threaten to degrade and destroy the vast ecological wealth found in Lobo. Since 2003, Mindoro Resources Limited Gold Philippines (MRL Gold), a 99 percent Canadian-owned and one percent Filipino-owned firm, has explored around 29,000 hectares of mountainous land within Lobo, gathering rock and soil samples and drilling hundreds of holes approximately one kilometer deep in four barangays (villages) to search for gold deposits.

Large-scale mining threatens Batangas

The Philippine government granted MRL two Minerals Production Sharing Agreements (MPSAs) in 2002, spanning the towns of Rosario, Taysan, San Juan, Lobo, and Batangas City. It is not the only mining firm to enter into Batangas; the government has also granted large-scale mining permits to other firms such as Egerton Gold Philippines, Inc. (EGPI) and Asturias Chemicals Inc. under San Miguel Corporations, paving the way for more conversion of fertile agricultural lands into mining areas.

All of the four barangays affected by MRL's exploration depend largely on backward agriculture, with atis and tamarind fruit harvests as their main source of livelihood. However, a mealy bug infestation which hit the area a few years ago affected the yield and quality of the fruits. Residents feel that large-scale mining will further degrade their fragile lands and exacerbate the existing hardships that they are facing.

Batanguenos, however, are opening their eyes to the perils of large-scale mining on their lands. Residents, concerned citizens, and cause-oriented groups recently united to form the Bukluran para sa Inang Kalikasan (BUKAL), a broad alliance against large-scale mining in Batangas composed of Church workers, professionals, environmental advocates, entrepreneurs, youth, students, and women. BUKAL called for a mining moratorium in the province and the stoppage of MRL's exploration activities.

Future Impacts of Mining Probed

BUKAL and Bishop Arguelles of the Archdiocese of Lipa collaborated with CEC-Philippines and other groups to hold an environmental investigative mission (EIM) in Lobo. From February 20 to 23, a team went around the municipality of Lobo to gather facts and data on the extent and possible impacts on mining in the exploration-affected barangays. The EIM team was composed of representatives from BUKAL, CEC Phils, Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), Southern Tagalog Environmental Action Movement (STEAM), St. Bridget's College, Batangas Integrated Human Rights Advocate (BIHRA), AGHAM, the JPIC of Baclaran Redemptorist Church, and St. Scholastica's College.

The EIM aimed to study the possible impacts on the environment and the affected communities in Lobo municipality if MRL's exploration operations proceed to the extraction and production state. On it's sixth year of exploration, MRL has created a total of 173 drill holes approximately one kilometer deep in the ground and is currently working to drill more holes to complete its exploration. MRL has two years left to finish its exploration under the permit issued.

MRL has announced that it will proceed to the production stage if the exploration yields are favorable.

Environmental Impacts

Among the findings of the fact-finding team noted the presence of pyrite from rock samples within the drill holes. Pyrite is an iron ore found in sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rock areas and is popularly known as “Fool's Gold” because of its resemblance to the latter. It is used for car batteries, appliances, food cans, paper, tools, some jewelry, and machinery.

Pryite is exposed to the elements during mining, reacting with oxygen and water to form sulfuric acid which leaches back into the ground and the water table, contaminating sources of groundwater in the vicinity. This outflow of acidic water, or acid mine drainage (AMD), can cause heavy damages on the people's health and livelihoods.

The AMD can potentially leach out into the rivers of the Mt. Banoi watershed which are the source of potable water for Lobo residents and farm animals as well as irrigation. Lobo's climate, where the rainy season lasts from June to October, is also conducive to the formation of AMD if large-scale mining commences.

The areas where mine production is expected to start are relatively near the sea. The current exploration areas are located in steep and mountainous areas around one to two kilometers away from the shore fronting Batangas Bay. This proximity to major and critical bodies of water makes contamination and pollution by the mine a real threat.

Once actual mining operations start, there is also the possibility of contamination of these bodies of water by chemicals, such as mercury and lead, used in the separating and processing of minerals from ore and which can also leach into the water sources.

The effects of AMD and contamination of water sources by mine waste will bring untold hardships on the people and their livelihoods in Lobo, impact heavily on marine life in the rivers and waters in the area, and leave large tracts of fertile land virtually useless for further agricultural development.

“The adverse effects of large scale mining even at its exploration stage of drilling can immediately be felt by the host communities through destroyed vegetation and altered landscape thereby disturbing thriving ecosystems in the area. Once the operation reaches large extraction and production stages, it will surely be a blow to the rich biodiversity of forest and marine ecosystems in Batangas,” said Fr. Oliver Castor, spokesperson of BUKAL.

Social and Economic Impacts

The team also probed into the possible effects of any future large-scale mining on the livelihoods of the communities in Lobo.

Presently, many of the residents in the villages of Calo, Balibago, Biga and Mabilog have little or no means of long-term employment. There is also little and inadequate state support for their existing problems regarding the mealy bug (pseudococcidae) pestilence. The atis industry, on which around 85% of Lobo's residents rely on for their livelihood, is already mired in crisis for the past four years.

Large-scale mining threatens the already fragile state of food security in the municipality, which is already bogged down by a backward and underdeveloped agricultural system and the entry of large commercial vessels which compete with and displace local fisherfolk.

The fact-finding team supported the calls of the residents, mainly:

    To stop the ongoing mining exploration in Lobo, Batangas
    To call for a moratorium on large-scale mining in Batangas
    Support and save the local agricultural industries producing atis, sampaloc, and other fruits
    Resolve the problem between large commercial fishing interests and support small fisherfolk
    Provision of immediate livelihood opportunities to the community
    Protect the environment and the remaining forests and watersheds of Lobo
    Declare Mt. Banoi and Mt. Lobo as protected watersheds