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Zambo Sur mountain turning into graveyard, toxic land

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ZAMBOANGA DEL SUR – Philippine authorities have expressed alarm over the unabated illegal gold mining activities in the mountain of Balabag in the town of Bayog in the Western Mindanao province of Zamboanga del Sur.

Authorities said the rampant use of cyanide and mercury are threatening the environment and the safety and health of villagers around the mountain. There have been many cases of deaths related to illegal mining over the years - from landslides to blasting of tunnels – by small scale miners.

The illegal activities continue to pose grave dangers and the pollution from hazardous chemicals such as cyanide, mercury and nitric acid are now threatening not only the water and food sources in Balabag, but the safety of humans and animals as well.

The toxic chemicals are being used by small-scale miners to extract gold from rocks and earth dug from tunnels that now dotted the mountain like bee hives.
Tons and tons of cyanide, mercury and nitric acid are dumped in Balabag over the past decades by illegal miners whose operations are being run by local financiers.

*‘War Zone’
Blasting in Balabag is also rampant, especially during night time where illegal miners dig tunnels to gather rocks and boulders where gold is found. The loud blasts from homemade explosives reverberate in the still of the cold and foggy night as if Balabag is a war zone.

The blasting of the mountain is so rampant that even authorities cannot do anything to stop it. The lack of security forces to guard the environment remains a sad reality in Balabag. The smuggling of cyanide and ammonium nitrate and blasting caps - use as detonators for homemade explosives - continue unabated.

The Miswi Intermediate School in Balabag has already been evacuated because of tunnels dug by illegal miners beneath. The cracks on the floor of the school are threatening the safety and lives of dozens of students.
And there have been numerous illegal miners and workers buried alive and all these have become bitter memories of families who lost their loved ones in search for gold.

*‘Child Laborers’
The huge number of child workers has become increasingly alarming in Balabag. Teenagers bear the heavy scar of illegal mining activities in the mountain.
And everyday, they carry heavy boulders and rocks and crushed it with hammer and steel and collected by ball mill workers in Balabag – and all these dangerous jobs in exchange for small amount of money to feed their hungry family.
Their limbs and lives are their only guarantee to earn a living from the virtual gold rush area controlled by a few financiers and an army of workers blinded by greed for money.

*‘Balabag Force’
The lack of security forces to help guard the mountain of Balabag and protect the environment and people in Bayog has become part of life of villagers living in the area who witnessed the destruction of their land.
Natalio Bello, a member of the Special Civilian Active Auxiliaries of the Philippine Army, says he is a living witness to the unabated destruction of Balabag because of illegal mining activities.

“I have seen here the problems brought about by illegal miners. The rampant blasting to make tunnels and their continued use of mercury, cyanide and nitric acid is a bigger problem. The unabated dumping of mine tailings by small scale miners is also another problem and these tailings contain hazardous chemicals that contaminate our water sources, our lakes and go down to the mountain and eventually to the sea,” he says.

“We are afraid that these illegal activities are contaminating the environment. The illegal miners extract minerals in the wrong way and there have been numerous deaths related to these activities - those who perished and buried alive in tunnels and landslides in Balabag - and most of these cases are not even reported to the authorities. We just hope that these problems are resolved soon,” says Bello, who is under the command of 18th Infantry Battalion.

Bello is only one of few villagers trained by the government as militia and deployed in Balabag to help protect the environment and the human population in communities around the mountain.

*‘Gold Rush’
The whole Balabag area has been likened to gold rush sites in the province of Compostela Valley in Davao region where thousands of illegal miners are operating despite a government ban.

In Balabag, hundreds of families have put up their shanties in mountain slopes, and are illegally mining for gold.
Financiers of illegal mining do not have government permits, not even from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and other concerned agencies. They do not pay taxes for all the gold they have collected and sold to the black markets.

There are also reports that some journalists are under the payroll of financiers of illegal mining in Balabag to protect and defend them from bad publicity and some even claimed to be members of the media watchdog called National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
*‘Mines and Geosciences Bureau’
The Mines and Geosciences Bureau in Western Mindanao has acknowledged the huge problems posed by illegal mining activities in Balabag and has called on the Philippine National Police to investigate the rampant blasting and smuggling of improvised explosives or materials use in the manufacture of homemade bombs.

“There is a community of small scale miners there. These are informal small scale miners similar to the problems in Pantukan and Diwalwal (gold rush) in Compostela Valley. We have a gold-rush area in Balabag and since I assumed office I realized that there is really a problem brought about by illegal mining there,” says Albert Johann Jacildo, the MGB regional director.

He says the geographical hazard map of Balabag shows that the mountain area is vulnerable to landslides and posed dangers to illegal miners.
Jacildo says he also received a report about the evacuation of a school in Balabag due to the cracks on the floor caused by tunnels dug by illegal miners.

“We have received a report about this. We have photographs that showed the cracks on the earth inside the school which may pose real danger to the students. Our office immediately wrote to the regional police director Chief Superintendent Napoleon Estilles and we are asking their help because this (problem) involved explosives,” he says.

*‘Stop Illegal Mining Activities’
Various organizations and groups, lawmakers and mining corporations have asked the government to put a stop to illegal mining activities in the country because of its ill-effects to the environment and dangers posed by their continued operation to human life.

Hundreds had died from landslides and collapsed of tunnels in areas where there are rampant illegal mining activities, especially in Mindanao.
President Benigno Aquino says he would act on the problems of illegal mining and create the National Anti-Illegal Mining Task Force to carry out his order to put a stop to it.

by: Al Jacinto




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