By LULU GIMENEZ
Abra River Basin Update (September 2015)
After the environmental investigatory mission organized by the Save the Abra River Movement (STARM) in 2004, the Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company attempted to mitigate its pollution of the Abra river by treating its tailings with lime, reinforcing the walls of its tailings dam, and refraining from opening the gates of this dam so that only water, rather than tailings, could exit from this.
The mitigation measures could, of course, achieve only so much.
But the decreased pollution allowed the peasants way downstream the Abra River, in the municipality of Quirino, Ilocos Sur, to increase their production of rice. They started to reclaim riceland that had been transformed into siltbeds, in a painstaking effort that was still ongoing 11 years later, in June 2015.
The reclaimed land yielded as much as five tons per hectare in some places – less in others. Previously landless peasants were able to establish their own fields through the reclamation.
Hopes ran high even as new threats to agriculture emerged with the entry of Phelps Dodge/Freeport McMoRan, South Ocean, and small but intensive, mechanized mining operations upstream the Abra River and its tributary, the Balas-iyan, because attempts to address these threats appeared to be meeting with some success. From 2013 to 2015, the New People’s Army (NPA) mounted punitive actions against Lepanto/Gold Fields, Freeport McMoRan, and South Ocean. And these resulted in the pull-out of the latter two large mining companies from the area – though not of the first, more firmly established one.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Quirino were able to pressure their local government into ordering a cessation of small mining operations along the Balas-iyan, in Patiacan – though, of course, not further upstream, in Maliten, Besao.
Hopes were, however, dashed in the aftermath of Typhoon Ineng.
On Friday, August 27, during heavy rains brought on by a southwest monsoon that had been enhanced by Typhoon Ineng, a turbulent Abra River raced through Quirino, Ilocos Sur, carrying stone and sediment from the mountains. Where the terrain flattened, the river flooded the surrounding land, deposited its heavy burden, and bore away lighter material – including soil, unharvested crops, freshly harvested grain, and the sheds under which these had been kept.
The Abra also deposited silt at its junction with the Suagayan River. With its course clogged, the Suagayan spilled its banks and also flooded surrounding land.
When the floods receded, some of the farmers cultivating the area found their fields gone, others buried under boulders and a thick layer of silt, up to 29 inches (74 centimeters) deep. Those who tried digging through this silt found it to be extremely dense, tough on the surface, viscous beneath. It was reddish-brown on top but gray to black at the bottom, where it rested on the soil of the ricefields. To the farmers, it was obviously mine tailings. They knew its look and its feel because they had had to clear away such silt before, after previous incidents when the Abra, descending from Mankayan, Benguet, had also come weighted by tailings from the large mine of Lepanto.
Meanwhile, the Ballas-iyan river, another tributary of the Abra, was swollen by excavated earth and tailings from smaller mines in Maliten, Besao, Mountain Province and Patiacan, Quirino. It, too, flooded ricefields located along its banks.
Seventy households lost nearly 30 hectares of riceland along the Abra and Suagayan. Another twelve households lost more than five hectares of riceland along the Balas-iyan.
Upstream the Abra, in Cervantes, more households also lost ricelands they had reclaimed – 85 in barangay Concepcion and 60 in Aluling.
Steps are being taken to deliver food relief to the 227 households who lost their reclaimed ricelands. But 25 kilos of rice per household will not go a long way. Land rehabilitation is needed and can only be sped up by machines to which the peasants of Quirino and Cervantes have no access. But the effort might only prove useless. Lepanto’s tailings may well breach their dam again and restore to ruin the rehabilitated land.
Land rehabilitation – or reclamation – would only be worthwhile if Lepanto were to stop operations, and dehydrate and stabilize its tailings dam, and if other miners were to be prevented from operating in the Abra river basin.
This remains our campaign, our struggle.
Daga, biag, ken kabiagan – salakniban! # nordis.net