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Small-scale miners scrape hard living.

On a sunny November day, Domingo Chavez, with a goggle strapped over his eyes and an oxygen hose plugged in his mouth, plunged into a gold mine dug in a paddy field in Jose Panganiban, in central Philippine Camarines Norte.

After about 40 minutes of working in the 10-meter deep underwater tunnel, he surfaced with two bags of rocks fished out of the muddied hole. "I know it is dangerous. In the past some people were buried alive when the shaft caved in," Chavez said.

Thirty-seven-year old Chavez is an artisanal and small-scale gold miner, one of over 300,000 artisanal gold miners in the country, including over 18,000 women and children, who scraped a hard living by working in ramshackle and dangerous mines.

In the Philippines, artisanal and small-scale gold mining can be found in more than half of the country's provinces, producing 80 percent of the Philippines' gold supply. Furthermore, the industry supports the livelihoods of some 2 million people in the country.

Often mining illegally, miners rely on unsafe, mobile extraction methods, using mercury to create an amalgam and then burning it off to collect the gold it captures. The industry not only damages the environment but also brings serious health risks to miners and mining communities.

Recently, the United Nations Environment Program (UN Environment) organized a media trip to mining communities in Camarines Norte. In a shed beside a mining tunnel, Charito Elcano, a 60-year-old woman told Xinhua that her brother and one nine-year-old boy died of inhaling mercury almost a decade ago. Now she is a strong advocate of mercury-free method.

When describing his feelings under the mining tunnel on the top of a mountain, 20-year-old Carlo Ebona said, "not frightened. I can work under the tunnel for eight hours a day. I can work even without light when there is no electricity," with pride in his voice.

Besides mining on the mountain, there is underwater mining, which involves the extraction of gold-bearing ores beneath muddy rice fields and underneath the sea or river. Using this method, miners use a hose that is attached to a compressor which provides air, enabling them to breathe underwater for a long time.

"We did make a living by the way of mining, but it is difficult and dangerous," Chavaz said, after a process of underwater mining. "I don't expect my children to follow in my steps."

For many, mining is not a choice, but a necessity--one of the few livelihoods available in a context of cross-generational poverty, low levels of education and limited employment opportunities. However, under current Philippine law, all the artisanal and small-scale mining in Camarines Norte and most parts of the country is illegal.

As the national government is inclined to support large-scale mining, artisanal and small-scale miners could not get permit from government agencies, even they tried to apply for permits. The country is still discussing whether to legalize them or just close them all.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has recently rejected the recommendation of the interagency Mining Industry Coordinating Council to lift the ban on open-pit mine in the Philippines, imposed by former environment secretary Regina Lopez in April.

When Regina Lopez was in the government, she ordered to close all the small-scale mining in the country. This led to boycott from some local governments. As a result, small-scale mining operations are still going on in the country.

For now, the fate of artisanal and small-scale gold miners in Camarines Norte is still undecided.

Caption: Small-scale gold miners in Camarines Norte

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Publication:The Filipino Post
Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:Nov 30, 2017
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