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Minahang Bayan opens in Benguet



LA TRINIDAD, Benguet – Small-scale mining activities may soon resume in the gold-rich town of Itogon in this province after the Provincial Mining and Regulatory Board (PMRB) signed the declaration of a Minahang Bayan (People’s Small-scale Mining Area) in a Tuesday evening (Jan. 15) meeting at the Capitol here.

The PMRB’s maiden resolution this year formally opened 64.6486 hectares, mostly owned by giant mining company Benguet Corporation, in the barangay Loacan for mining contract applications.

Mining contracts approved by the PMRB gives pocket mining associations the right to extract mineral ores for commercial purposes on regulated conditions.

The 5-man PMRB pronounced the declaration immediately last December after receiving an undated memorandum from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources giving clearance to the area.

However, it was only signed on paper Tuesday with provisions to ensure contract applications from associations with existing operations in the area shall be prioritized, said Mines and Geosciences Bureau – Cordillera chief Fay Apil, who chairs the PMRB.

Small-scale mining sector representative Lomino Kaniteng, president of the Benguet Federation of Small Scale Miners, said there are four associations within the declared area aside from the Loacan Itogon Pocket Miners Association (LIPMA), who vied for its conversion into a Minahang Bayan.

Of the total area, 56.2072 hectares are patented mining claims of Benguet Corporation, that consented to the Minahang Bayan conversion.

Governor Crescensio Pacalso, who co-chairs the PMRB, tasked the Technical Working Group (TWG) to finalize the drafted guidelines on processing contract applications, ready for approval next week.

“Miners are eager to get their livelihood back but we need to follow the legal processes to avoid problems in the future,” Pacalso said.

He asked miners to “extend a little more patience” and continue to abide by the Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu’s order to close all small scale mining activities in the Cordillera in September 2018.

Cimatu’s declaration came at the wake of the tragic landslide that buried 64 individuals, mostly pocket miners, in the now infamous sitio 070 in Ucab barangay, Itogon.

The 64.6486-hectare parcel is the second Minahang Bayan application in the region given the green light by the DENR.

Petitioned in 2004, DENR gave clearance to a Minahang Bayan application in barangay Gambang, in Bakun town, also in Benguet, last June 2018.

However, residents in the area are divided regarding small-scale mining with well-organized associations to pursue the Minahang Bayan, said Engr. Joseph Cervantes of the PMRB Technical Working Group.

TWG member Santiago Bugnosen said they will submit next week the application for Minahang Bayan of the Benguet Federation of Small-scale Miners Inc. to the Office of the DENR Secretary for final clearance.

Once cleared, the 8-parceled areas, spanning an aggregate 4,420 hectares in seven barangays in Itogon and one in Tuba, will also be opened for mining contract applications.

El Dorado of the North

Pocket mining is a major industry in the Benguet towns of Itogon and Mankayan.

Prior to the stoppage order, pocket mining in Benguet, mostly for gold, operated illegally but was tolerated for many years by local authorities.

“It’s an open secret if one puts it because it has been our livelihood long before the governing law became a law. Stopping (small-scale mining) also means starving us to death and taking away the education of our children,” said Kaniteng.

There were only 12 mining groups operating under Temporary Small-Scale Mining Certificates (TSSMC) using provisions of Presidential Decree 1899, but they were also covered by the stoppage order.

Kaniteng said the Benguet Federation of Small Scale Miners have over 80 association members with more than 30,000 miners.

The PMRB allowed miners to process gold ore extracted before the stoppage order until December. Kaniteng said several associations are seeking for an extension as they have not yet exhausted their stockpile.

Before the crackdown, some 50 kilograms of gold are sold in Baguio City each week, mostly to black-market dealers. A huge quantity comes from the Itogon tunnels where 53 associations operate.

Gold traders buy a gram of high quality gold for P1,500, while low purity gold can be sold for P900. Annually, these transactions could sum up to at least P2 billion.

While Kaniteng added, miners prefer the black market because transactions are less complicated and they are paid cash, some have started to sell to the government through the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP).

Part of the conditions in a Minahang Bayan is to sell extracted mineral to the BSP. # nordis.net

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