The struggles of mining communities in Itogon


BAGUIO CITY — Blamed for their own misfortune in the wake of Typhoon Ompong, pocket mining communities in Itogon have been the subject of recent government efforts to either close their mines or bring their operations under control.

Itogon’s mining communities have been struggling to defend their land and livelihood since the beginning of recorded history. In 1623, communities occupying Antamok and its environs assaulted and drove away a Spanish colonial expedition sent to seek out and wrest control of their gold mines. In 1759, the Spanish colonial government attempted to cut off the commerce in gold between Itogon and the lowlands by sending 1,375 troops, armed with rifles and six cannons, to disperse communities and raze villages along the trade route through Tuba and Baguio, and seize the mines of Acupan. On the 16th of March, Igorot warriors from the villages of Tuba, Baguio, and Itogon confronted the colonial troops in a fierce battle that raged five hours. The warriors succeeded in forcing the colonial troops to retreat, but not before 200 Igorots had been killed.

During the first three decades of the last century, the American colonialists were able to appropriate the oldest and richest mining sites in Itogon, opening and operating a dozen large mines without much opposition from the indigenous communities, who were then preoccupied with the development of their agricultural resources and had no inkling of how large mining would impact on these. But with the exception of those who left Antamok for Balingway and Dalupirip, the communities remained intact in the villages they had established even after their agriculture started to suffer the effects of large mining. They engaged the Americans in intense disputes over water – its pollution, its diversion, its drainage into mining tunnels. In 1921, the community of Gumatdang fought to prevent the Benguet Consolidated Mining Company (BCMC, which later became BCI, Benguet Consolidated, Inc., then BC, Benguet Corporation) from installing a hydroelectric dam on the Muyot creek.

As of the 1900s, the communities were predominantly Ibaloy. But it is possible that they were more mixed in earlier times, given the mobility of Benguet’s indigenous peoples. And from the 1910s to the 1940s, they absorbed a large influx of Kankanaey settlers, topped by refugees from the Japanese occupation of Mankayan and Buguias’s Loo valley. Defying prohibitions set by the Mining Acts of 1905 and 1935, both the Kankanaey and the Ibaloy, who now had to supplement their diminished agricultural income, opened pocket mines even within the claims of the large mining companies. Repeatedly failing to evict them, the large companies instead had the pocket miners promise that they would limit the depth of their excavations to 200 feet from the land surface.

In 1985, BCI attempted to drive out the Kankanaey pocket miners of Dalisay in Gumatdang from a set of mining claims that the company had acquired in the 1960s from the estate of James Kelly. An Ibaloy elder came to the pocket miners’ aid, telling BCI that Pacalso, the original owner of the land, had only allowed Kelly to patent the mineral lode on the condition that he would leave Dalisay’s pocket miners free to continue extracting ore from the subsurface.

BCI would not respect or even acknowledge the undocumented agreement entered into by its predecessor in interest. And so, the pocket miners and their families barricaded their mining sites against BCI personnel sent to evict them. They sustained the barricade for a year, until BCI yielded and signed a compromise agreement that would allow the pocket miners access to at least the western half of the Kelly claims.

In 1989, BC embarked on several projects that would have forced 3,182 pocket miners and their families off the land. Having experimented with mechanized mining on a relatively small scale in Antamok and Acupan, BC was now preparing to implement its open-pit Antamok Gold Project in barangays Loacan and Ucab; its Super Tuding Open-Pit Project; and its ramp mining Project XYZ in barangays Virac, Poblacion, and Ampucao.

In 1992, it turned out that BC, in partnership with the Atok-Big Wedge Mining Company, also planned to convert the Benguet-Atok Contract Operation and Kelly Mine (BACO-Kelly) in Gumatdang into a 300-hectare open-pit mining operation. This would have displaced an additional 400 pocket mining and farming families.

Itogon’s mining and farming communities, however, put up a stiff resistance. They barricaded all entry points to villages lying atop company mining locations in barangays Tuding, Loacan, Ucab, and Gumatdang, as well as the sitios of Lolita and Dalicno between barangays Virac and Ampucao. Except in Loacan, where the communities capitulated early in the struggle, the barricades held from 1990 to 1994.

BC tried to break up the Ucab barricade by filing charges of high-grading against 28 of the pocket miners among the barikadistas. But when the police arrested them, some 500 other members of their community followed them to the jailhouse and demanded to be imprisoned along with them. The police let everyone go because of the ruckus the 500 raised and because the jailhouse was not big enough to contain their numbers.

The barricades apparently fended off not only BC personnel and equipment but also investors. BC was forced to limit its mechanized mining to the Antamok open pit and the Sangilo mine, which it had been block-caving on contract with ISMI, the Itogon-Suyoc Mines, Inc. BC abandoned its mines in Tuding, Ucab, Balatoc, and Acupan. BC and Atok-Big Wedge shut down BACO-Kelly.

In 1996, as BC expanded its operations in Antamok towards Loacan proper, the Ibaloy mining community in the area revived the protest that they had given up in 1991 and set up a picket line along a section of the open pit’s rim. BC had its security force break up the picket by violently dragging off the women at the front of the line. Then it filed charges against 48 of the barikadistas for obstruction of mining operations. But the community persisted in its resistance and received the support of other mining communities in Itogon. People came in their numbers. But the pit was too big to surround, and BC’s men and equipment simply bulldozed their way to and through Loacan proper.

From 1997 to 1998, the mining and farming communities of Virac and Gumatdang again faced off with BC, this time in a legal battle over the company’s application to have its lode patents converted into titles to the land surface. Finally confronting the reality that it had played out its mines, BC intended to venture into real estate, ignoring the fact that communities lived atop the mineral lodes it had exploited. BC was having a portion of Virac converted into a subdivision, and it was selling another portion to Texas Instruments for use as a dumping ground for toxic waste. It had drawn up an ambitious plan for turning the land covered by the Kelly claims into a techno-park with factories, a business center, and residential and resort facilities, plus a “heritage village” where the pocket mining families of Dalisay would be relocated and put on display. The communities of Virac and Gumatdang flocked to court to protest BC’s application for patent conversion.

The protest stalled the hearings such that these got nowhere. But BC went ahead with its Virac land sales and got President Fidel Ramos to sign a declaration creating the Kelly Special Economic Zone (KSEZ). Naturally, the community of Gumatdang resisted, and the community’s actions confined BC’s plans for the KSEZ to the drawing board.

At the same time, BC drew up plans for a Bulk Water Supply Project that would divert water from the surviving springs, creeks, and rivers of Itogon to the Antamok open pit, in which the water would be treated and from which it would be piped to the Baguio Water District (BWD). Again, the communities of Itogon rose up in protest. After a seemingly endless stream of face-offs with BC in their own villages, they brought their cause to the attention of Baguio’s Tongtongan ti Umili and its City Council in 2004. Pressure from the people of Baguio forced the BWD to cancel its water supply arrangements with BC.

Meanwhile, in 2002, BC had embarked on its Acupan Contract Mining Project. The mining communities of Virac and Ampucao protested for the same reason they had barred the company from implementing its plan to ramp-mine Acupan in the 1990s. BC’s tunnels in Acupan had already been mined out, and only the mine pillars still held significant amounts of gold ore. Eventually, the mining of the pillars would cause Acupan to cave in and the land above it to collapse. One community barricaded a couple of mine portals to prevent the contract miners from entering. But the Acupan mines comprised a vast warren of tunnels to which there were many entrances, and the community could not man them all. So it petitioned the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) to put a stop to the mining. But the MGB did not heed its petition.

By 2007, BC had pulled out of ISMI’s Sangilo mine. A multinational firm, Anvil, wanted to take over Sangilo and other, undeveloped mining claims held by ISRI, Itogon-Suyoc Resources, Inc. Anvil would have to evaluate these, however, by assaying what remained in Sangilo and conducting exploration drilling in the undeveloped mineral locations.
It planned to bore 20 drill holes around Ampucao, some within the vicinity of the Pitang springs, which supplied potable water to the Dalicno circle of mining communities, to other mining communities in sitios Hartwell and Manganese, and to the farming communities of sitios Cruz and Ampucao Proper.

The affected communities put up a united opposition to Anvil’s exploration drilling, compelling the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to recommend that the company’s application for area clearance be denied. Anvil backed away from its deal with ISRI.

In 2011, the pocket miners of sitio Gold Creek in Ucab received an eviction notice from an Atty. Cezar Peralejo, Jr., who had apparently acquired the lode patents held by the defunct mining company that bore their sitio’s name. Asserting ancestral rights to the area, they petitioned local government to protect them against eviction. Peralejo sent armed men to Gold Creek, to try and force the pocket miners off the land. But the pocket miners would not be moved.
Instead, they barricaded the area against Peralejo and his men. Until the Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources ordered a halt to all small-scale mining operations in Itogon following the Typhoon Ompong catastrophe at Antamok, the pocket miners of Gold Creek persisted in their operations, although Peralejo interrupted these from time to time.

The pocket mining communities occupying the vicinity of the First Gate to BC’s old Antamok mines cannot claim ancestral rights to the area. They are fairly recent settlers here. But they share with everyone in Itogon the right to a livelihood. And their free exercise of this right is now imperiled.

The constitution of a Minahang Bayan in the area will subject them to heavy requirements and tough regulations that they might not be able to comply with. Will the older mining communities of Itogon, similarly threatened with stricter enforcement of Republic Act 7076, the Small-Scale Mining Act of 1991, embrace them in a shared struggle to defend the right to live? #


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.