About a week ago I had the enviable opportunity to accompany Archbishop John F. Du to where no archbishop before him has ever gone before. The lightning visit to the mines located in Brgy. Imelda, MacArthur, Leyte was something bound to take place in a matter of time. The mine became operational once landowners had begun to sell or lease their lands to the mining company to the Nicua mining corporation, which exports magnetite to China. These had caused the farmers to be bereft of the land that they had tilled for so long, compelling some of them to work for the said corporation. Actually, the issue on mining had already been hot ever since it surfaced just a few years ago. It was one issue that had already been presented to the presbyterium of Palo some time ago, and awareness of it elicited a motion for a joined statement from the Archdiocese, in which it took a stand against it. Well, to be more precise, the stand was not against mining per se, but as an irresponsible lucrative activity. Personally I considered it an important thing that the local church and its pastors be made aware of this, but it did not affect me much. The mining issue was relevant in the metropolitan province of Palo; the advocacy against abusive mining activities was also in full swing in other areas comprising the suffragan dioceses near us. But as I said, it never affected me as much as it did when I finally get to know the issue in the biblical sense of the word.
That day we were in the locality of Mayorga, Leyte. The archbishop, concelebrating priests and the faithful had finished celebrating the fiesta mass in honor of the patron saint of the town, and we were already enjoying the sumptuous lunch that always followed every liturgical celebration (as we say it, after the Misa follows the mesa). Fr. Edwin Perito, the parish priest, was our gracious host. It was thanks to his insistence that the Archbishop had to change his flight itinerary in order just to be able to preside at the Mass. He also happened to be in charge of the Social Action Secretariat of the Archdiocese of Palo, under which the issue of mining was. He had some people from the NASSA( ). Towards the end of the meal I saw that the Archbishop had been introduced to Fr. Perito’s collaborators, one of which was Rodne Galicha, who was very much active in environmental advocacies and was working with the socio-pastoral arm of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines (CBCP-NASSA) concerning these issues on the environment. I had spoken with this young man the night before at dinner and I had no doubt that he was telling the archbishop about the situation at the mines. By the end of the meal, when it was time to go, the Archbishop Du inquired whether it was possible to go to the mines for a quick visit. Fr. Perito said that it was not far from his parish; in fact, it was in the next town, just a few kilometers from where we were.
And so we—Archbishop Du, Fr. Edwin, Rodne, Bro. Peter Ayaso, Sis. May Verona, FHL, me, and of course (an important part of the archiepiscopal retinue), Glenn, one of the Archbishop’s drivers, drove to Brgy. Imelda, MacArthur, Leyte. The town of MacArthur was divided over the mining issue, something that I would summarize as between those who wanted the income (which allowing the mining company to operate would suppose, especially to those who had the power to issue permits), and those who most likely suffer the immediate consequences of the mining operations. As we drove through the dusty neighborhood somebody was commenting that had it not been for the approval and the support of the local leaders it wouldn’t have been possible for the company to start their operations.
When we reached a certain place on the road, we turned left and entered into the lush green, going along a narrow dirt road which led us into a huge field. I turned out to be huge expanse of arable land. Rice fields stretched from where we were, until it met with the coconut trees on the horizon. Somebody once again commented that before us there were more or less 700 hectares of rice fields. Well, at least there used to be, for in the distance we could make out large patches of dry sand, as if the seashore was there. As we made our way through the path, we gradually observed that the irrigation system became drier, bereft of water. There were scattered groups of farmers, trying to get what was left after the first harvest. The irrigation trenches got drier, and the drier they where, the deeper they became, in search for new water. I learned that the mining operation needed lots and lots of water. Machines sucking the water through and from the soil had robbed the fields of the water necessary to make plants grow and harvests to be plentiful. But only the fields were made to thirst for water; the nearby Lake Bito’s water level had lowered drastically, it’s waters drained through ground by powerful machines to give way to the seemingly insatiable demand for more water. This gravely affected life in the lake, by endangering the fishes living there. But then in doing so, it was already seriously affecting the lives of those living around the lake, the fishermen who for so long had depended upon the fresh bounty of the lake for their living.
As we approached we could see how the mining had taken its toll. Where green and fertile fields once stood, only dry sand dunes were left. Basically, the mining operation was interested in a mineral called magnetite, which was found beneath the surface, a black substance that was part of the earth. The fertile topsoil provided little interest for the mines. The earth that served as a fertile bed upon which the palay grew was bulldozed as soon as it was purchased, seemingly, irrespective of the fact that a fruitful yield of palay was still on it, waiting to be harvested. A lot water was applied, and the barges with the powerful sucking machines and mineral separators were floated in. these machines separated the soil from the magnetite, and the rejected soil was spewed back into the surface with the water used to soften the earth and mine it. Stripped of its nutrients, the wasted soil was light and dusty. The soil’s nutrients mixed in wastewater issuing from the huge pipes of the barges: this promiscuity rendered the water poisonous. This poisoned water flowed downstream, away from the lake nearby. However months ago, heavy rains and flooding (now partly caused by the alteration of the immediate environment) caused the water to go back on its course, and so poisoned water flowed into the lake, causing a fish kill which was never before experience by the community, an unprecedented phenomenon that cost more than a million pesos worth of damages. This was the fish kill reported in the news just this April.
When we got out of the car our presence caused quite a stir. The Archbishop was dressed in his clerical shirt and wore a pectoral cross on a chain that hung from his neck. Bro. Peter and I still wore our white cassock, and Sister May was in her habit. The workers and the guards all stared at this strange group that had just alighted from the automobile. The guards didn’t seem to know what to make of our presence. They approached us and we began to engage them in conversation. When we asked them as to who was in-charge of the operation, they informed us that they were not here at the moment. After some moments of conversation the guards politely showed us the way to the protester’s camp, which was just on the other side of the pond that the mines had dug. I could see huge, ugly barges with machines and big pipes that brought and sucked water from the depths. Their activity caused the ground beneath our feet to tremble, and the steady hum of the machines was annoying. Tractors were working, stripping the land bare of its humus. We didn’t notice until late that the miners disappeared soon after we came, and the tractors have been silenced somewhat, but the barges were kept functioning relentlessly.
|One of the barges. they have placed one of the banners of the|
protesters from the barricade, as if taunting the plight
of the fishermen campaigning that the lake be spared.
|The only thing separating the brackish lake water and waste water |
is this thin film of material and sand barrier
We were able to make our way across stripped land to the where the farmers and fishermen where. They had established themselves upon the boundaries of the operations, so that the miners could progress no further. They were a poor lot, and distressed. Once introduced to the Archbishop, they opened up and shared their concerns. They showed us around the periphery of the mines. I only realized later on that we were actually trespassing, and that it was quite of a feat that it was the guards who showed us around, and how to go to the farmers in the first place. Perhaps they were just being considerate to the cloth, which led the Archbishop to conclude that the cassock had the ability to command respect. He would be singling us out later on for our “witnessing” with the cassock. (Actually I didn’t have a change of clothes with me, but hey, thanks anyway!)
|The Archbishop walking across the barrier.|
|The mines have reached so far up to the edge of the field. The application to|
proceed to mine off the hill in the background has been filed.
After showing us around, we ended up in the small shack that they had built, just on the edge of the pond. There the Archbishop addressed himself to the farmers and the fishermen. I wasn’t very attentive to what he was saying in the beginning, but what he said towards the end was that which struck me most. He had said that he would do everything that he could, but expressed his doubts that he could count much on getting the ear of the President and other officials, being as they are. However, one thing that they must not leave out of their struggle was God. Man could do something, but his limitations or those of others would always limit him. But God is powerful, and in the end, it is to Him that we ought to turn to, especially in our time of need. They could depend on the Archbishop for action, but they have to have in the Lord an ally who would never fail them. Impressed as I was with the deep spirituality and the practicality behind these words, I as one with the Archbishop in noticing that indeed they have may have counted out prayer as a powerful tool in their struggle.
After placing our names in the logbook, we made our way back to the car. By that time people outside were already aware of our presence, and the Archbishop didn’t want confrontation of any kind, and so we left.
many thoughts were running through my mind as the car slowly made its way over the dirt road. As we passed through the rice paddies that had just probably yielded their last harvest, I could say that I have just stared at corruption in the face. In the first place, it was the lure of easy money and a fixation on present comfort that had led to this, the lamentable rape of a good portion of our natural resources. A foreign mining company comes into a sleepy municipality, makes a business proposition to the town’s leaders, and covers up the adverse effects of their operation with generous monetary offers and promises of rehabilitation. The leaders let themselves be seduced without thinking too much of how it would affect not only the land, but ultimately, the lives of their people. I think that in this matter, what is at fault is not merely the greed of the privileged few, but also the shortsightedness of these few, and those whom they had managed to convince. Lured by the prospect of easy money, they have been blinded to the truth that the measly millions and thousands that they receive are not guarantees of a brighter future, either theirs or that of the town of MacArthur.
By allowing these things to happen, the privileged few have also become blind to something equally serious: the plight of the less privileged. By stripping away the fertile topsoil, mining operations have done away with the means of livelihood of the farmers who have lived their lives in communion with the land that they tilled. Through the harmful effects of mining which went unchecked, habitats once rich and biodiverse have become poisoned, affecting not only the wildlife that flourished in them, but also making the future more dark and uncertain for those whose livelihood depended on these same resources.
These things I had seen with my own eyes, in the midst of a greater international conflict between China and the Philippines. One in our company quipped—not without irony—that we were trying to hard to protect our interests in the Panatag shoal against the encroachment of China, but seem to be too complacent about the fact that the Chinese where making big profit from our own land in the other side of the archipelago, without much courtesy at that. The uncouth and arrogant attitude of the Chinese employers at the mines just adds insult to injury, with their disregard for their workers welfare and well-being. I had observed that the workers weren’t advised to wear protective clothing. I doubt that the Chinese would give them benefits for their pains, and I am quite sure that they would just leave them there once they’ve got what they came for. Shortly after we left, I was saddened to hear that the two guards who came out to meet us were given a good dressing down.
This is something that is not too known beyond the confines of the town of MacArthur. Good thing that neighboring towns have refused to let the mines operate in their jurisdictions, after having seen its adverse effects. I have written not only because of the impact that this had had on me, but also so that others may also know, and in knowing, be mobilized. My thoughts turn especially to the youth. My prayer is that they learn eventually to understand that though they need to enjoy the time that they have in their hands, they also need to prepare themselves and be aware of these things. There is a danger that our society faces when our Filipino youth are only given to enjoy life, than learning to live it so that others too may live. I am hoping that this gesture of sharing what I have seen may also open the eyes of others—especially the youth—to the truth that people are suffering because of injustice and corruption, and that we can do something to help, even just in our own little way. And helping starts with the prayer the Lord that he may touch the hearts of all, so that, in being touched, they may be transformed and become agents of a new creation.