Is Gold Worth the High Costs?
By Robin Broad and John Cavanagh
“An engine of growth & prosperity,” announces the OceanaGold sign that greets us in Didipio, Nueva Vizcaya. We’ve come a long and windy twelve-hour drive up the Maharlika highway, through seven provinces from Metro Manila into the clouds of the Sierra Madre. We stand at the base of what remains of a hill that the Australian mining executives call Dinkidi, Australian slang for “the real thing.” Just years ago, this was a green hill dotted with trees and farmers’ modest homes.
Today, with the homes demolished and successive layers of land blasted away by high powered explosives, it is a giant pile of rocks, with the valuable gold and copper – “the real thing” — being extracted for the profits of a firm headquartered far away in Australia.
We sit with Didipio community members of the Didipio Earth-Savers Multipurpose Association Inc. (DESAMA), with a bird’s eye view of the plundered site that’s just outside the window.
To the public and executives of OceanaGold, we invite you into the room.
Listen to the weary and distraught mother as she tells us that her family lives so close to the enormous conveyor belt that carries rock to be crushed that she and her four school-age children cannot study or sleep. They hear the loud droning noise 24 hours a day. When the mining company blasts rock, it feels like an earthquake. But it is her house and her land, and what is she to do?
Listen to the cracking voice of Lorenzo Polido, a farmer who moved from Ifugao to this fertile land decades ago, as he recounts the demolitions of homes several years ago. He tells us of a neighbor who suffered a heart attack watching his home demolished to make way for the mine. During the demolitions, many in the community set up barricades to try to stop OceanaGold. Allies from the national Alyansa Tigil Mina (the Network Against Mining), the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, and other groups lent support.
Carmen Ananayo, her voice breaking and eyes tearing, talks about the 2012 murder of her daughter, herself the mother of two very young children, along with another DESAMA member. No one suggests that the mining company shot the two, but OceanaGold’s presence has brought conflict and death to this previously peaceful municipality
As to the economic benefits from the gold mine, Carmen tells us that many of the mine’s workers – often hired as irregulars to avoid minimum wage and benefits — earn a meager P248 for a long 12-hour shift, less than P21 an hour (US$.50 an hour). It would take these workers many lifetimes to approach the US$ 1.3 million compensation package of OceanaGold CEO Michael Wilkes in 2012.
Moreover, any economic benefits from this mine’s projected 16-year-life will be more than outweighed by the environmental devastation. We hear of “dirty water” downstream from the mine and of dead fish washing up on the shore. What is the cause? What is in the four massive vats that can be seen amidst the mine’s machinery beside the piles of rocks? Is OceanaGold, like other global mining firms, using cyanide to separate the gold and copper from the surrounding rock? Are there sulfides in the rock now exposed by the mining — sulfides that are transformed into sulfuric acid every time it rains, creating “acid rock drainage” of toxins — as there are at roughly half the mine sites around the world? And why don’t the affected people in this area have access to this information?
Another farmer, hesitant to speak up until now, pipes in: “It pains us to see this destruction. We have nowhere to go. What pains us even more is that our children are witnessing this destruction.”
It may be hard for mining proponents to believe, but these farmers tell us that their dream is simply to end the mining, to have their community and clean rivers back, to be able to farm in peace and to build a better tomorrow for their children. They are proud to be the producers in Luzon’s “fruit and vegetable bowl” of Nueva Vizcaya, and they want to keep it that way.
For the mining executives, the bottom-line seems to be the yearly 100,000 ounces of gold that OceanaGold projects to extract from this once-verdant mountainside, most of which will be shipped overseas. Left behind will be but pennies on each dollar extracted, a trivial sum that does not nearly compensate for the social, environmental, or economic chaos.
Back in Manila, Philippine Human Rights Commissioner Loretta Ann Rosales tells us of the motion that the Commission filed against OceanaGold in 2011.
Citing the forcible and illegal demolitions, the harassment of residents by the police, and the indigenous community’s right to culture, the Commission recommended the revocation of the mining license of OceanaGold. Rosales is discussing with her counterparts from other countries a stronger framework to protect the rights of people and their environment from the plunder of mining firms.
OceanaGold is but one of dozens of mining companies now in the Philippines that have celebrated the skyrocketing gold, copper and other mineral prices since 2000. Collectively, these companies are blasting up and down the Philippine archipelago, and opening mines all over the world. In the Philippines as in other countries, a broad set of groups – beginning with the affected communities like those at Didipio — has come together to protect land, water, and life in the face of this mining onslaught and they have proposed an alternative mining bill that would protect these basic rights. These groups, like the people of Didipio, deserve a broad hearing.
Robin Broad is a Professor at American University and John Cavanagh is director of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. They are co-authors of Development Redefined: How the Market Met its Match.