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Vol. IV,    No. 39      October 31 - November 6, 2004      Quezon City, Philippines











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Special Report
Samar Folk Struggle to Regain a Paradise Lost

A mining company has allegedly destroyed a historic and stunningly beautiful island in Eastern Samar. Now, the residents are fighting back to protect their environment, themselves and their future, facing a formidable enemy that has been, according to them, deceiving the residents and pitting them against each other.


TACLOBAN CITY – The  stunning shorelines of Homonhon island remind you of pictures in postcards, but the island’s interior are bald mountains -- denuded and hollowed out by mining.           

Homonhon, in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, about 65 kilometers northwest of Manila, is marked in Philippine history. On March 16, 1521, Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition first dropped anchor on its shores before saying the first mass in Limasawa of southern Leyte.  Pigafetta, Magellan’s chronicler, called it “waters with good signs” because it was where they first saw signs of gold, one of the objects of their expedition.  

In a Department of Tourism brochure, Homonhon is described as a beautiful haven, where “white corals can be found around the island, where much of the land is rugged and vast parts are covered with forests. The interior part is rough and hilly, covered with dense tropical vegetation but drained by numerous rivers and creeks. Mountain ranges and peaks abound in its interiors. Narrow plains hug most of the most of the coastal areas and in some instances, the banks of its principal rivers and their tributaries”.  

Under threat 

This paradise, however, has been under threat by a corporate mining operation since 1983. This was confirmed during a visit by Bulatlat and other media outlets to the area on September 13-15, 2004. The team was greeted by glorious beaches, but as the journalists went near the mountains, they saw telltale signs of fires, streams without water, the loose soil only a few meters away from the nearly 10 deep pits in every mining site. 

There has since been a popular resistance by the island’s residents, through their organization, Homonhon Environmental Rescuers Association (Hero), who promised environmental protection from perils of mining. “We will not allow them to continue destroying our island. We will continue our resistance and if we need to establish barricades in order to halt their operations, we will do it,” declared Ma. Josefina Montes, the secretary of Hero. 

“I want Homonhon to be celebrated as a part of history and tourism, and not as a mine,” said Freddie Gapati, chairman of Pagbabangnan village. 

However, Gapati’s aspiration now seems unreachable as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, through Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) regional director Loreto Alburo, said “the possibility of halting the chromite mining operations of Heritage Resources and Mining Corp. (HRMC) is remote, since its lease contract is approved for 25 years.” 

Chromite mining 

HRMC started its chromite-mining operations way back in 1983; the company was then known as the Alamag Processing Corp. It uses open-pit mining in extracting chromite; near the mining site, mounds of excavated soil and deep pits are noticeable. The approved mining claims of HRMC extend up to 3, 713.6724 hectares but only 100 hectares are presently being utilized.

In an interview with Bulatlat, engineer Alfredo S. Dolores, its corporate services manager, said “the people’s perceptions that mining will cause Homonhon to sink is wrong, since the deposits are only located near the surface. There is nothing but rocks beyond that point, and we do not touch it anymore. We only dig an average of 7 to 12 meters in every mountain that has a chromite deposit.”

HRMC boasts of its Homonhon Livelihood Mining Program as an example of a “success story beyond compare.” Dolores said the community supports the program because of the benefits it provides to the island.  

The company has since expanded from a single barangay to all the eight barangays of Homonhon. It also established associations that guaranteed the continuation of mining operations within the mining are. 

“Under the law, mining operators are required to allocate one percent of the total mining cost for the Social Development and Management Program and what HRMC is doing now is way beyond this requirement,” the MGB’s Alburo said of the firm’s program. 

Opposition despite the benefits 

“Whatever HRMC gives us, we will accept it. But our opposition to the continuation of their mining operations will not change. In the end, these benefits will amount to nothing if Homonhon is gone,” Gapati, the village chairman, told Bulatlat. 

Hero’s Montes said the opposition to HRMC’s mining operations began a long time ago. However, she explained, the people had not yet been organized. There had been individual complaints that later compelled the diocese of Borongan to act. Through its Social Action Center, the local Church conducted an investigation into these complaints and met with the affected residents. This led to the creation of Hero in July 2003.

The provincial board also investigated the complaints against HRMC. Karen Alvarez, a member of the provincial board, observed that “reddish coloration that was considered silt was visibly noted on the mouth of Cantilado River, Magellan and Capaopawan Creeks and at the Culasi Point. Silt was pasted on the stones and rocks. White sand was also mixed with silt.”

Marcelo Itaas, chief of operations of the Community Environment and Tourism Office in Guiuan, told Bulatlat that HRMC’s mining is destructive. “Even though no chemical flows out of the tailing ponds of the mine, since the soil flows out with the water into the sea, it results in siltation or the covering up of the weeds, which eventually leads to their death. The fishes are deprived of their shelter and source of food,” he said. 

Moreover, a forest fire had earlier destroyed more than 2,000 hectares of forest in the area and subsequently affected the residents’ water supply.  

“The mining operation does extensive damage to Cagusuan and to the nearby barangays (villages) for a number of reasons. First, we have lost our water supply. During El Nino, the water supply ran short for after about seven months, but now, only two months has passed, and we no longer have water,” said Caberio Vencion, a village councilor and Hero’s vice-president. 

Vencion believed the fire was deliberate. “I cannot pinpoint the exact perpetrator but this is a result of the mining operations since our forests were once filled with trees,” he said. The HRMC is now mining in these former forests. 

According to the Rev. Fr. Alejandro Galo, a parish priest of the nearby Manicani island who did a study on the forest fire, there are different versions of fire that razed the mountains of Homonhon in the 1980s and that HRMC had denied the allegation that it started the fire. The mountains, according to HRMC, burned 10 years before the firm began operations and that residents who gathered honey were the ones responsible for the fire. The government never identified the culprits. 

Divide and rule  

Norman Bocar, the Provincial Environment and Tourism Officer (Penro) of Eastern Samar, revealed that HRMC uses “divide and rule” tactic against the people of Homonhon. He said the company provides superficial benefits to the village in order to obtain their sympathy and, thus, enable the company to continue its operations despite the opposition of the other residents.        

“Aside from environmental destruction, the other negative effect of mining on our island is the disunity of the people. Even siblings fight among themselves due to different perceptions regarding the mining operations,” said Hero’s Montes. 

Some residents extol HRMC for sending their children to school and for giving them galvanized iron sheets to replace their nipa (grass) roofs. They said their lives have gotten better and those opposed to the mining are disturbing them.

“All I can say to those opposed to the mining operations is that we should unite in persuading the government to provide us with employment opportunities in our area. We do not intend to fight with them. It is difficult to unite a barangay whose residents fight among themselves,” Roberto Lagamina, president of the Cagusuan Wage-Earners  Association, told Bulatlat.

Rosario Abueme, a resident against the mining, said fishing alone can sustain the community. “We are able to survive even if our husbands rely on fishing alone. The problem with them is that they are selfish and only think of themselves, they do not think of the future.”

Montes accused the HRMC of using its livelihood and support program to quell resistance to the mining operation. “While is true that HRMC does provide benefits to the residents such as a school bus for the children, free rides aboard their motorboat, and providing a generator to the barangay, these are all meant for those who do not oppose their operations,” he said.

Vencion, the councilor, said he has not lost hope that the majority of the residents will join Hero’s call to stop the mining operations. Hero has gotten support from such groups as the Regional Peasant Alliance in Eastern Visayas (Sagupa), a group that campaigns against mining.

“We do not oppose mining operations per se, since it forms the backbone of an industrialized nation. But at present, it is untimely to conduct such since it does not respond to the need for the sustainable development of our economy and livelihood of the people,” said Diana Ragub, campaign officer of Sagupa. “While it is true that it provides immediate relief, minerals -- unlike a plant that can be harvested and replanted -- are slowly being used up with only the foreign capitalists enjoying the benefits, since they have the technology and capital to process them.” 

Ragub explained that the environment is not the only victim of HRMC’s operations but also the sustainable livelihood of the people.

She predicts that, because of the mining operations and the residents’ opposition, the area will be militarized. “The strong opposition of the people is always met with state fascism,” Ragub said. She also pointed out that there have been cases where the residents’ opposition stopped mining operations in several places in the region.

“I am calling on the members of Hero to be with us in the steps we will undertake in the future to protect not only the island of Homonhon but the whole region of Eastern Visayas,” Ragub said. Bulatlat

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