ON ASSIGNMENT: I stopped tweeting about mining and talked to the people it affects
THE DOWNBEAT - DLS Pineda (The Philippine Star) - March 25, 2017 - 12:00am

I was at a forum with eight datus and four baes atop a low mountain here in Agusan del Norte last Saturday morning. A corporation had built a dam in their area and there were concerns about the adjustments the indigenous people had to make. Close to a hundred Manobo families were there at the barangay hall, in plain clothes no different from city folk. Some were asking for bangkas to cross the old streams the new dam had dilated. Some were concerned with the falcata they had planted: Will they get bulldozed and who will get the money from the sales? Some wanted to know how much their share would be once the dam was operational.

In the heat of discussions, a young datu remarked, “The dam wasn’t our problem before and it’s still not our problem now. We’re not the ones who will benefit from it. Why should we care if it runs well or not?” He held the microphone by its head and closed his speech with a threat to “seal the dam if the capitalists didn’t listen to their demands.”

Normally, I wouldn’t have any apprehensions and would throw all my support behind our indigenous brothers and sisters, the mountainside Davids facing an urban Goliath. But the dam was built primarily for one purpose — to provide water for Butuan, a city inhabited by roughly 350,000 people. Since December 2015, rather ironically, the city wouldn’t have running water whenever it rained. Ever since the city was established more than half a century ago, it relied on deep wells to supply its water. During rains, water from these wells turned brown, “hugaw” in local Bisaya, because Butuan’s water systems had maxed out its capacities to provide clean water for the fast-growing population. The city now needs to harness the nearby Taguibo watershed.

My Grandfather, The Logger

The scenario I pictured replicates itself in different areas of Caraga, a region now under scrutiny as DENR Secretary Gina Lopez makes an arch-rival out of mining. Resource-based conflicts, be it on the ground or in the halls of Malacañang, are nothing new to us; our region was once abundant with the toughest and most elegant hardwoods in the country. We owe this to Caraga’s unique geography — adjacent to the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by mountains — which attracts rains all year round and allows the growth of dipterocarp forests, forests which the youth today are no longer privy to experience.

Caraga’s halcyon days in tree harvesting are also gone due to a complex set of factors not limited to the loss of forest cover. There is so much more to the issue than hugging trees or chopping them, or legislating sanctions or starting information campaigns. For why is it that even with laws in place and old loggers put to rest, our forests are withering away at a much faster rate?

My grandfather was the last field manager of the Nasipit Lumber Company (NALCO), one of the few logging companies which honored the forest’s renewable quality by studying it and playing by its rules. Ultimately, they recognized that the day the forests died would be the day they’d die too — so they took care of it. NALCO had more than 3,000 employees and had a concession which spanned parts of Agusan, Misamis, and Bukidnon. Its size was often a point for contention as common sense dictated that the larger the company, the greedier they were in cutting trees. But in reality, its size allowed for scientific planning such that forests were harvested in rotation, allowed to regenerate, guarded from human intrusion and kept immune from conversion into farmlands. These were tasks small-scale loggers had no time or resources to accomplish. Most small-scale loggers never thought of rehabilitating or spending money to guard the forests they cut. These were efforts which responsible loggers were more than willing — and were in fact, obligated — to do.

When the log ban won

But at the time when the log bans were being discussed in Congress in late 1980s, the idea that logging can be done scientifically and responsibly was terribly unpopular, butchered by pseudo-environmentalists and “experts” who came in all shapes and face paints. President Cory Aquino’s DENR Secretary, Fulgencio Factoran, rallied for the end of all logging and won. NALCO shut down operations in 1995, a little later than most logging companies which ran on the same principles. More than two decades on, however, our forests are at an even worse state. Now an unregulated black market commodity, our forests are neither dead nor alive. Here in Agusan, 12-wheeler trucks loaded with logs — sandwiched and “hidden” between legally cut plantation trees are slow-growing dipterocarp hardwoods — can still be seen traipsing on weekdays, flying pass military, police, and DENR checkpoints happily under broad daylight.

This is the nightmare I wake up to every day here in Agusan. I live embittered by the truths very few choose to understand. Try as I might to explain the nuances of our forests’ history, our notions of logging and “saving our trees” are deep-seated — there’s just no convincing the majority when the logic isn’t simple enough. This is what I fear the mining industry today is facing: a profound stigma against rational dialogue. On their end, miners fear admitting personal wrongs, destruction, and developing nuance. For those against them, a hypnotic love for things green and a belief that they are surrounded by poisoned wells: all data that go against their data are wrong. Local miners should know well to take from our experience in forestry.

Science vs. The Mob

On social media today, proponents of mining are framing the argument as science vs. the mob — which also isn’t so wise. While hate for mining can instantly boil after seeing a single picture of river siltation, geologists, on the other hand, attempt to explain plate tectonics, watersheds, and various charts in rigorous detail and yet they can hardly capture an audience. It seems that there is no single, all-encompassing “science” behind an act as colossal as mining because at the same time, biologists, zoologists, marine biologists, and even economists present data of crashing biodiversity and environmental plunder. A one-sided science behind mining automatically makes it doubtful.

Mining is a complex problem that cannot be solved by simply saying that the mob is against its science; it will not win against today’s trend which applauds the anti-intellectual, the over-sentimental, and the moralistic. The intricacies of responsible mining require so much more than dichotomous thinking. And with education now an expensive commodity, there is also a class divide between those who can swallow the science and those who can’t. This approach of “the enlightened vs. everyone else” will do more harm than good.

However, the situation here on the ground is not as polarized as it is online. Outside social media, there are not as many academics declaring support for mining and there are no rallyists on the street calling for its end. The NPA has also not done much in recent years to counter mining. These indicate an otherworldliness to the topic of mining, a sort of taboo which is conveniently — for both pro and anti mining — stuck in the realm of talk.

The Bigger Picture

The reality of mining is far from social media. It’s not exactly as it is portrayed in pictures; it’s also not as ingenious and foolproof as it is said in their ads. There are many facets to it, many of which we have yet to understand. On the downside, the Lumads are being killed by army men who work for big mining firms. On the upside, we have Filipino geologists dedicated to rehabilitation and the advancement of mining. On the downside, many miners export raw minerals unaudited. On the upside, we are giving high wage employment for thousands, albeit temporary since mining is a non-renewable resource. On the downside, many political families here in Caraga shamelessly tiptoe around laws to start their own small-scale, irresponsible mines (from a reliable source, a single shipment of ore profits operators US$10,000,000 which often goes unaudited). On the upside, miners build roads and schools. On the downside, companies with a good track record abroad mine here because there are fewer restrictions and they can be less responsible and profit more.

These should not lock us in a stalemate but push us towards greater understanding. Put together, these should eventually bring us to implement sweeping, systematic reforms. There is so much money, so much power, residing in mining that to dilute all arguments to “good” and “bad” categories is impossible ,if not dangerous. Not to mention, the gap between the rich and the poor in Caraga is one of the widest in the country — in a million ways complicating the already complicated situation. We are practically half a century behind Manila.

Back to the issue of the dam in Taguibo, the capitalists had agreed to provide a sizeable grant for the Manobos on the condition that they should first learn how to handle the money and implement a sustainable livelihood program for their community (for which both Manobos and capitalists tapped the school I work in, Father Saturnino Urios University). Not everyone was happy with this, however, and some kept asking for the amount the capitalists promised. Some had raised suspicions over it, saying that it had already been pocketed by their baes and datus. Some believed that the capitalists were never true to their word. Some didn’t see the point in financial literacy at all and wanted the money fast. At that moment, I felt sorry for everyone concerned. On the ground, there appeared to be no convenient answers, no easy ways out.

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