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Continuing Crisis: Solidarity Mission affirms problems of mining in Rapu-Rapu island

Years after the Arroyo administration allowed a controversial large-scale mine to operate in the fragile and typhoon-battered island of Rapu-Rapu in Albay province, affected communities continue to suffer from mining-related pollution, poverty, and health problems.

This was affirmed by a Solidarity and Fact-Finding Mission organized from May 11 to 13, 2009 by environmental activists, health professionals, fisherfolks, Church people from the National Capital Region, Bikol region and Japan. The mission was organized to confirm reports of continuing and worsening negative impacts of large-scale mining on the local communities of the island.

The mission was comprised of 37 participants from 28 organizations: Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC-Phils), Sagip Isla Sagip Kapwa (SISK), Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD), Community Medicine Foundation, PAMALAKAYA, Peace for Life, Philippine Collegian, Bulatlat, AGHAM, Redemptorist Baclaran, Takagi Citizen Science Foundation, Friends of the Earth – Japan, Bayan Bikol, KMP Bikol, UMALPAS KA Bikol and Camarines Norte chapters, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-Camarines Sur, PAMALAKAYA Masbate, Kilusang Mayo Uno-Bikol,
ABAKA Catanduanes, KADAMAY Bikol, CSPO, Bikol Express Multimedia, AMLDM, and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines.

Probing into the people's condition

The Rapu-Rapu mine project was formerly owned by Australian junior mining firm Lafayette Mining, Inc. Lafayette announced bankruptcy in early 2008 following continuous protests from the community for its closure due to economic displacement and negative environmental effects of mining. The affected villages have yet to receive compensation and the area has yet to be rehabilitated. Lafayette's share in the mine project was sold to a Korean and Malaysian investors, Korea Resources Limited and Malaysia Smelting Corporation, who intend to continue with the mining operations.

The Solidarity and Fact-Finding Mission intended to conduct a survey and check-up on the local situation after these developments in the mining areas. A series of consultations, with the residents of Rapu-Rapu's barangays, experts and other advocates, was held throughout all the stages of research to ensure that the study was grounded on the aspirations and needs of the people of the said areas.

The mission was composed of two technical working groups, composed of experts, environmentalists, Church and health workers, and leaders from different sectors, which focused on the environmental degradation and the health situation of the communities.

Persistence of Poverty

The mission concluded that the coastal degradation due to mining operations has resulted in a decline of fish catch and consequently, more poverty for the island's residents, most of whom rely on fishing for a living.

The mission participants observed that the coastal areas adjacent to and surrounding the open-pit mining operations, particularly Barangays Carogcog, Tinopan, Viga and Buenavista, have experienced rapid loss of coral covers because of pollution. Residents of Barangay Buenavista estimated that they have already lost almost 50% of their coral reefs after Lafayette’s large-scale mining operations started in the island.

“The major source of livelihood in the area is catching Malasugi or Blue Marlin, a type of tuna, in Albay Gulf. However, there is alarming reduction of fish catch reported by the fishermen in the island. Our collated data points that the people experienced an estimated fish catch loss of 80-90% since the mining operation of Lafayette mining started to dispose mine wastes into the sea,” pointed out Fernando Hicap, chairman of the nationwide fisherfolk federation PAMALAKAYA.

“The fishermen are forced to fish in as far as Catanduanes province which increases their working time and production expenses.,” he added.

Malasugi and other tuna species are believed to have moved farther away from Rapu-Rapu island because of marine pollution, degradation of the local marine habitats and blastings of the mine operation. Some of the communities have also observed decreasing population and loss of marine species such as seashells and small fishes that they usually catch for food.

“People are fast losing their livelihood and food sources in the island. The extensive pollution and degradation of the local marine ecosystem and water sources in the area resulted in the drastic decrease in people’s income and livelihood. We believe that the main factor in this environmental degradation and pollution is the continuing massive release of mine wastes to the rivers of Rapu-rapu and Albay Gulf,” said Clemente Bautista, spokesperson for the mission.

In 2007, Ibon Foundation, a research NGO, conducted a study on the economic impact of Lafayette mining on the local communities and reported that there was a 30-70% decrease in income of fisherfolk after two years of mining operations.

Health Impacts

The medical and health services team accompanying the mission also noted the presence of medical ailments and diseases in the communities covered by the survey.

“We have noted several cases of dermatological problems, such as itchy lesions among the residents in several barangays in Rapu-rapu. The residents told us that these dermatological problems started to surface since the start of large-scale mining in the area. They also reported an unusual increase in the occurrence of respiratory problems such as cough and colds in their community,” said Dr. Geneve Rivera, Secretary-General of Health Alliance for Democracy and head of the mission's medical team.

“What aggravates the situation is the lack of medical services in the area. Majority of the residents are very poor and cannot afford to go to medical facilities in Rapu-rapu or Legazpi City. This situation leads to several deaths, particularly among children, from simple illnesses such as diarrhea and vomiting,” she added.

Residents want mining stopped

The mission also reiterated the demand of local residents and organizations for the closure of the mining project in the island.

“We continue to suffer the adverse effects of mining operation of Lafayette. Foreign mining companies have
grabbed our lands, poisoned our seas and destroyed our environment. Worse, the Arroyo government instead of helping has abandoned us and is stubbornly forcing us to accept these destructive operations,” asserted Antonio Casitas, leader of the local organization Sagip Isla, Sagip Kapwa.

“Our situation is becoming worse every year. In order to arrest this, the local government should urgently suspend the mining operations, investigate the marine degradation in the area and immediately provide financial and food assistance to the poor communities of Rapu-rapu. Once and for all, the Arroyo government should listen to the people and immediately stop the large-scale mining in our beloved island,” Casitas ended.