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Double trouble: Compounded Effects of El Nino and Mining in Isabela

Cheamson Boongaling

While barely recovering from the havoc wreaked by typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng during the last quarter of 2009, the Cagayan Valley region has been hit by an equally devastating menace through the El Nino season which struck in February 2010. Local governments declared the province in a state of calamity while the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) categorized it as the region most affected by the typhoons with the highest worth of estimated damages to agricultural products amounting to P6.2 billion.

Isabela province, the known rice and corn granary of Luzon, was among the most heavily devastated provinces, with 62.25 percent of its total land area planted with palay and some 73.43 percent planted with corn. Damages to local agriculture amounted to an estimated P4.09 billion which affected a total of 112,000 farmers from the 34 towns and two cities in the province. Natural disasters however, were not the only problems the province had to deal with in relation to their environment. Human-induced activities such as mining were rampant in the area, placing its mostly agricultural communities under perilous circumstances.

In response to this onslaught caused by El Niño, and recognizing the existence of mining in the area that may have compounded the dire effects of the disaster to the farmers and their environment, an Environmental Service Mission (ESM) was held last April 7 to 8, 2010 in the city of Ilagan, Isabela.

EIM team visits communities

The ESM seeks to assess the environmental, social and economic impacts of a certain natural phenomenon and how it was aggravated by irresponsible man-made activities, neglect and flawed governmental policies. It also aimed to provide recommendations and concrete actions to prevent or minimize the effects of natural and man-made disasters in the future.

Spearheaded by Taripnong, a Metro Manila-based organization of Cagayan Valley advocates, in partnership with Lakbay Cagayan Valley and farmers’ organization Danggayan Dagiti Mannalon ti Cagayan Valley, the ESM mobilized a team offarmer-leaders, scientists, students, and volunteers to visit communities from four depressed barangays in Ilagan namely: Batong Labang (formerly called Bintacan); Cabecera 14-16; Cabecera 25 and Cabecera 27.

Using a Participatory Rapid Rural Appraisal method to gather qualitative information, the team held focus group discussions, key informant interviews, spot mapping, water source mapping, and ground truthing. Community meetings spearheaded by the ESM team were attended by approximately 800 families in Brgy. Batong Labang; 600 families at Cabecera 14-16; 400 families at Cabecera 25 and 100 families at Cabecera 27.

Impacts of El Nino on water, crops El Nino is a phenomenon caused by warm wind from unusually warm oceans in the Equatorial Pacific, through the process of oscillation. The ESM team gathered community views on how well this phenomenon and its effects was understood by most. Asked about what the El Niño phenomenon means to them, some community partners expressed a general notion of “punishment from God” for man-made evils and errors such as the destruction of the environment, such as the cutting of trees.

Community folk were able to describe in detail the the effects of El Nino on their lives and their environment.

Some effects of drought that the community reported were difficulties of water sourcing in the area. Pumped water used for drinking has gone below the regular water basin levels while rivers have run dry in most tributaries as recorded in their statements. As a result, livestock were dehydrated, animal diseases spread further in the fields and deaths of both crops and livestock due to extreme drought became prevalent. There were also recorded cases of diarrhea in the area.
This lack of access to adequate freshwater sources for irrigation caused devastating impacts on the local agricultural productivity. The average harvest for the season reached only a minimum low yield of six to right cavans per hectare for both rice and corn productsin irrigable and irrigated lands. Rain-fed plots, however, recorded a much lower yield.

This situation has contributed to worsening the lives of community members, who have often nothing left but their piles of credit lists from sari-sari store owners and usurers in the area who lend money at interest rates as high as 30%.

Large-scale mining

In addition to the drought season caused by El Nino, the area's agricultural and freshwater resources are also threatened due to the exploration operations of large-scale mining companies.

Partner interviewees reported that the presence of an exploratory open pit mining for iron started as early as 2006 in the area by Altera Mining Company. However, they stressed that no information campaign and public consultation was conducted by the company despite their hiring of some residents as stone/brick lifters and the knowledge of local officials about the operations.

Community informants recalled their surprise when bulldozers, backhoes and other large equipment started to dig a pit for the mining bio-prospecting activity. Residents disclosed that a 20-fathom deep open pit was dug in the vicinity of Barangay Batong Labang or Bintacan. Lifters hired were paid P80.00 to P 150.00 for one cubic meter of piled stones extracted.

Residents associate the ongoing mining operations with the landslides, pollution of the rivers, destruction of crops, and fishkills that happened during the last rainy season. George Domingo, a resident of Cabecera 25, reported that his irrigation went down because of heavy siltation that eventually destroyed some fourteen farm lots dependent on it. Because of the exploration activities, soil and rocks near the site has become loose and was prone to erosion. The mining company did not pay for any of the damages.

Residents also observed that brackish water with metal sludge had seeped into the water basin of household water pumps that they use as a source of drinking water.
Because of these effects, the community expressed ambivalence on the prospects that mining operations will continue in the area. Some had justified their participation in the mining activity as hired stone lifters only because of their poverty. Others said that they had turned down participation in mining activities during a certain mining proposal hearing in the area. Meanwhile, an earlier petition signing activity was undertaken to stop mining operations in Barangay Batong Labang but has managed to push through because certain officials had approved its operations.

Conclusion and recommendations

The team concluded that, like other agricultural provinces characterized by widespread landlessness, poverty-stricken farm households of the four barangays visited suffered more with the onslaught of extreme drought, after their regular yearly dose of floods. Mining operations have further aggravated this situation because of its direct environmental and economic impacted on the livelihood of farmers.

The team recommended the following measures: 1. That food relief be provided to the community until after the next cropping season to help them adapt to the immediate effects of El Nino; 2. That contingency measures should be put in place as La Nina takes place right after an El Nino episode; 3. That in the longer run, proper planning for food production towards food security be developed; and finally, 4. That the mining activity created environmental problems in the community and should be stopped.