For the nearly 50,000 residents of Rapu-Rapu, Albay and the adjoining municipality of Prieto Diaz, Sorsogon, fishing has been the primary livelihood for generations.
The fish that they catch from Lagonoy Gulf and Albay Gulf is not just their staple food, it is also a main source of income for the communities, no matter how modest.
Twelve out of thirteen barangays on Rapu-Rapu are fishing communities, while Prieto Diaz’s people survive on marine, aquaculture and industrial production.
Rapu-Rapu and Prieto Diaz are also among the poorest municipalities in the country, and government services are generally hard to come by.
But their simple lives were abruptly disrupted when Australian mining firm Lafayette NL started its Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic Mining Project in mid-2005.
Mining and quarrying had not been alien to Rapu-Rapu as the community had already hosted several mining operations over seven decades starting in the 1930s, though they had never become major industries. But it was the arrival of Lafayette that really brought to the fore the destructive effects of large-scale mining.
It also showed how eager the Arroyo administration is to open the country’s natural resources to big mining transnational corporations.
A ‘new, responsible’ mining industry?
The Arroyo administration has been aggressively promoting mining as an area for foreign investments. The Rapu-Rapu Polymetallic Mining Project
held much promise, for it represented for the government the flagship of a "new, responsible" mining industry.
Lafayette is one of the first foreign mining companies to invest in the Philippines following a Supreme Court decision upholding a provision in the 1995 Mining Act allowing 100 percent foreign ownership of mining projects in the country. The project is expected to yield some 50,000 ounces of gold, 60,000 ounces of silver, 10,000 metric tons of copper concentrate and 14,000 metric tons of zinc concentrates a year.
Lafayette’s mining claim in the municipality of Rapu-Rapu is 42 square kilometers or roughly 80 percent of the island’s total land area. The current
operation is focused on mining the "Ungay Malobago" deposit located in Barangays Malobago, Pagcolbon and Binosawan using the open pit method.
The gold-rich ore is treated in a cyanide-in-leach plant adjacent to the 18-hectare pit while the rest of the ore, which yields copper and zinc, is
treated in a separate floatation plant.
But there were alleged irregularities in the implementation of the mining project.
For example, the Office of the President issued Proclamation 625, which declared the mining area a special economic zone upon petition of Lafayette Philippines, Inc.
Lafayette under this status was entitled to a six- to eight-year income tax holiday and exemption from paying value-added taxes because extracted metals are exported with minimal processing.
However, it was later alleged that Lafayette country manager Roderick Watt, in a letter to President Arroyo, threatened to withhold $55 million in capital investments from Lafayette Ltd. and the LG Group of Korea if they were not granted special economic zone status.
There were also irregularities in acquiring the consent of local communities to the project. According to residents, although community organizers had arranged meetings at the three barangays nearest the mining site, only the benefits of the mine to the community were discussed.
Villagers said they were never informed of the environmental effects of mining an ecologically sensitive island eco-system such as Rapu-Rapu.
Tinopan residents even recall watching a film in which Lafayette organizers discussed "responsible" mining and promised them that the ores would not be processed on the island.
A certain Engineer Palomaria also told the residents that their barangays could even become cities in the near future.
To further bolster the acceptability of the project, residents were also promised free electricity and medical services.
But according to residents of Prieto Diaz, they were never consulted on the project despite being the nearest municipality from Rapu-Rapu and sharing a major fishing ground.
It was in October 2005 when residents learned that there had been not one, but two, cyanide tailings spills from the mining site in Barangay Pagcolbon.
Reports said that the first spill was due to a failed pump at the mine, causing an overflow of cyanide-laden spills into nearby creeks. Three weeks later, a heavy six-hour rain resulted in the tailings pond overflowing into the nearby Ungay and Hollowstone creeks.
Both incidents resulted in fish kills.
Mining advocates such as the Philippine Chamber of Mines and the government Mines and Geosciences Bureau sought to downplay the spills, claiming that the amount of tailings released were relatively small and calling the incident "a drop in the ocean."
But a government-convened Fact-Finding Commission on Rapu-Rapu assailed the gross negligence of Lafayette and even went so far as to call for a suspension of mining activities in the country, a call that President Arroyo rejected.
‘Sino ang nakahuli?’
Sixty percent of the households in both Rapu-Rapu and the neighboring Prieto Diaz depend on fishing as a primary livelihood. Majority of these
families engage in small-scale and subsistence fishing. After the tailings spills, many fishermen told IBON Features that their catch declined.
One resident even narrated that fishermen used to ask "ilan ang nakahuli?" (How many were able to catch fish?), but now they ask "sino ang nakahuli?"
(Who was able to catch fish?)
Fishermen from Barangay Binosawan said that before the mining operation, their boat of three to four crew members used to catch around 70 pieces of
blue marlins a year. Last 2005 and 2006, they averaged 20 pieces.
In neighboring Barangay Brillante, fishermen said a boat used to average four pieces of fish per trip. Now they consider themselves fortunate if they go home with two pieces. There are even times when they can go for a week without catching a single fish.
These fishermen are now reducing the number of days they go out to sea.
From six or seven days a week they now go out to fish for only three or four days. They explained that they would only waste money spent on fuel
just to catch enough fish for a day’s meal. Some fishermen have even opted to work as pedicab drivers, carpenters, and other odd jobs just to make
But even fish vendors found themselves indirectly affected by the tailings spills. A fish dealer from Barangay Tinopan said that her regular buyers
in Legazpi started to become wary of buying fish caught near Rapu-Rapu.
As a result, her buying price fell by as much as 60 percent while her selling price, by half.
Even those engaged in the small-scale agriculture were not exempt from the negative effects of the spills.
Farmers noted a marked decrease in water supply after Lafayette started its operations, resulting in a mini-water war in Barangay Poblacion. It should be noted that Rapu-Rapu is a small island with a limited supply of freshwater, and this was further diverted to Lafayette’s operations.
Water supply for domestic needs has also become scarce. Malobago residents said they have difficulty sourcing water for drinking and washing. They
are also afraid of drinking the water that comes from the taps, fearing cyanide contamination.
A community leader remarked, "Ang cyanide ba at iyong ibang kemikal nadadaan sa kulo?" (Can cyanide or other chemicals be removed by boiling?)
In Barangays Binosawan and Tinopan, coconut farmers said their trees have become stunted even if these were still young. The fruits have also become
smaller and fewer, meaning decreased yields. The farmers said that this was the first time that this happened to their source of livelihood.
The farmers further told IBON that the blasting activities of Lafayette have weakened the rock foundation in the area, making it vulnerable to landslides. When typhoon Reming (international name Durian) struck the Bicol region, landslides occurred in Barangays Malobago and Tinopan, killing eleven people.
Residents stressed that stronger typhoons had visited Rapu-Rapu but no landslides happened until last year.
In stark contrast to the poverty of the affected communities, wherein 60 percent of families are forced to live on less than P100 (US$2) a day, the Lafayette Group expects to earn US$350 million a year over the entire duration of the mine.
But the local government in 2005 received only P2.1 million (US$42,857) in excise tax collections from Lafayette’s gross revenues of P134.4 million. The national government also lost tax revenue from the many incentives the mining firm was granted, earning only US$8.68 million from a possible US$20.48 million.
Further, although Lafayette claimed to hire 900 residents as workers, in reality only some 300 were hired. Residents said that of this number, only five percent were regular workers (meaning that they would be employed for five years, although the projected span of the project is eight years) while the rest were hired on a contractual basis.
There is no labor union and the workers are discouraged from negotiating for better pay and more benefits.
The aftermath of the spills saw an increasing number of locals opposing Lafayette’s operations. Thus, more soldiers and policemen were deployed to
the area, plus 150 militiamen in civilian clothes.
Residents reported that these military forces roam the barangays in an apparent effort to intimidate them.
The basic services promised by the Australian mining firm to the communities also did not materialize. Malobago, Tinopan and Binosawan do not have health facilities and personnel except for one or two barangay health workers. Malobago residents, however, have occasional access to the mining company’s health clinic, but only in case of emergencies.
Stop the plunder
On February 8, 2006 the government Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) permanently lifted the cease-and-desist order it had
earlier issued on Lafayette’s operations on Rapu-Rapu in the wake of the spills. In doing so, it went against the wishes of the residents for a
stop to mining operations on the island.
Although Lafayette’s operations were supposedly turned over to Filipinos, it is clear that the company is exploiting loopholes in the Mining Act and
the Philippines’ corporate laws in order to avoid its accountability to the people of Rapu-Rapu and Prieto Diaz.
By 2013, Lafayette will have packed up and left after extracting all the minerals from Rapu-Rapu. All that will be left for the residents is a giant pit and a damaged eco-system, which can no longer provide for their needs.
Residents and various environmental groups demand that government step in now to prevent irreversible damage to Rapu-Rapu’s fishing waters and the residents’ livelihoods, or should be held to accountable for it.
With reports from Joseph Yu, IBON Features
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