[Editor's Note: This article was originally published as part of "The Big Dig: Mining Rush Rakes up Tons of Conflict," a Newsbreak special magazine issue on the mining industry, published in 2008]
When Atlas Consolidated Mining Corp. began bringing in the giant bulldozers and dump trucks in 2007 in preparation for reopening its copper mine in Toledo City in the island province of Cebu, Father Mike Hisoler was ready for them.
But the parish priest of the nearby Lu-topan barangay was there not to block the entry of the heavy equipment. He meant to sprinkle them with holy water. Indeed, unlike many men of the cloth, Father Hisoler does not look at the reopening of the mine as a curse but as a blessing. The Atlas mine in Toledo used to be Asia’s biggest copper mine until flooding, massive losses, and a labor strike forced it to shut down in 1994.
“When I was assigned in Lutopan in 1997, the first thing I did there was to go around the barangay to say mass in their chapels,” he recalls. “And always the people would request me to pray for the reopening of Atlas.” He stayed in Lu-topan until March this year.
It’s a sentiment shared by top local of-ficials. “Definitely it would bring back the vibrant economic activity in the city," says Dydee Zambo, the mayor of Toledo, the sleepy town that became a vibrant urban center three decades after Atlas began mining in the area in the 1930s. “More of our people will now have work, about 3,000 [jobs]. And it will have a chain effect on our trade and commerce.”
Community support for the mine played a key role in attracting investments and loans for rehabilitating and re-viving the Atlas mine. When fund manag-ers from Crescent Asia Special Opportuni-ties Portfolio, a private equity fund, did a due diligence last year, they went around Toledo to interview people. To their sur-prise, everyone they met endorsed the mining project. It was a far cry from their
experience in Mindanao and Northern Luzon where opposition to mining was evi-dent in the communities they visited. Not long after, the fund put in US$34 million in Atlas. That was followed by a $100-million loan from Deutsche Bank.
“There are no anti-mining sentiments here and I think it’s because most of the people who worked in Atlas did not originally come from Toledo. They were from Masbate, Negros, Ilocos, Cordillera, etc. Atlas did not come to grab their land, they came here to work for Atlas,” Father Hi-soler explains.
Even environmental groups in Cebu City that are opposing oil drilling at the Tanon Strait in the adjacent town of Pinamungajan are not opposed to the re-opening of the Atlas mines, he says.
Portent of revival
The reopening of Atlas’s mining op-erations in Toledo is not only eagerly an-ticipated by local residents but is closely watched by mining industry leaders and government officials. It’s the second major mine to start operating after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the 1995 mining act in 2004. The first was Lafay-ette’s ill-fated mine in Rapu-Rapu Island in Albay. The Atlas mine has the potential to produce 42,000 metric tons of copper ore a year, less than half its peak annual output of 110,000 tons in the 1990s, but double the country’s current copper output.
Atlas’s return is seen as a portent for the local mining industry’s revival, and raises expectations that a number of big copper, gold, and nickel mines that closed down in the 1980s because of financial losses and disasters stand a chance of rehabilitation, too.
Within the Atlas mining area, workers are busy trying to beat a deadline to re-habilitate the mines and start operations by the third quarter of this year. Heavy equipment had been brought in last year―giant bulldozers dump trucks and other earth movers―to commence the re-habilitation program.
Tons of copper ore from the open pit mine had been stockpiled although the rehabilitation of the underground mines may still take two more years to complete. The stockpiled ores will be processed into copper concentrates when work on the concentrator is done in June. Australian contractors are busy installing computers and other high-tech gadgets to fully automate the concentration process.
Outside of the mining area, carpenters and laborers are working double time re-furbishing the staff houses, the company clubhouse, and the recreation facilities. New water pipes are being installed all around the area. The company hospital is being repaired.
But amid the frenzy of preparing for the reopening of the mine, former Atlas employees cannot help but remember the tough times they went through after the company shut down 14 years ago. The closure was devastating not only financially but also psychologically because the workers were dependent on Atlas for almost all of their needs.
Joventino Page, a 53-year-old ex-en-gineer in Atlas’s Carmen underground mine, still vividly recalls the perks that he and his wife Marysol, a nurse, used to en-joy from the company: a three-bedroom bungalow; free rides on the company bus, called paray, to and from the mining site at all hours of the day and night; free electricity, water and gas, as well as appliances and household furniture.
When the company announced it was closing down in August 1994, the Pages were in shock. “It was as if my world had fallen apart,” Marysol recounts in Cebua-no. “I cried the whole night. I could also see sadness on my neighbors’ faces. For several days most of the women in the compound were teary-eyed. No one liked to talk. No one liked to smile. You can no longer hear the paraymaking the rounds. The whole Maria Lourdes was eerily silent. Every-thing seemed gloomy, so uncertain.”
Even those who were not employed by Atlas were hurt. “It was a very difficult time for me,” says Nang Aling who owned a general merchandise store just outside the company’s main gate in Barangay Lutopan, officially called Barangay DAS for Don Andres Soriano, the founder of Atlas. “I used to have daily gross sales of 3,000 pesos when Atlas was still operating. When it closed down I could barely manage to make 500 pesos a day.”
Life without the Mine
Slowly, the former Atlas employees and residents of Toledo rebuilt their lives and their community after the closure of the mine. The laid-off workers built their own houses in Lutopan and nearby barangays. They found jobs in other companies but thousands left to work abroad.
Statistics are hard to come by but a few years after the mining firm closed down, foreign exchange remittances at the Toledo branch of the Philippine National Bank (PNB) has consistently been on top among all PNB branches in the Visayas,
said Mayor Zambo.
Contrary to expectations, Toledo did not turn into a ghost town, thanks in part to Cebu’s booming economy which was being fueled by tourism, shipping, and industry.
“The approval of the Local Govern-ment Code in 1991 helped because of the IRA (internal revenue allotment). It helped us to move on,” said the mayor. The population of barangay Lutopan only very slightly decreased, she said. There was no exodus of people. “And after a few years since the mines closed you can see people building new, more
beautiful houses,” Zambo says.
The mining firm also gave up other non-essential properties to the government to settle its tax and other obligations. One property in Barangay Ilihan is now being developed by the city as its new govern-ment center. A 40-hectare lot in Barangay Sangi, which was surrendered to the Social Security System to settle the company’s deficiencies, is also being developed by the city government into a special eco-nomic zone for light industries.
Atlas donated the 4.5-hectare site and all buildings and facilities of the Andres Soriano Memorial School to the teachers and non-academic personnel who decided to manage the school themselves. They incorporated the Andres Soriano Memorial College Inc. in 1995 and con-vinced the De La Salle Brothers to continue running it. It is now an integral part of the La Salle educational system.
Like many of the companies ran by the country’s traditional landowning elite, At-las during its heyday was benevolent and generous to the point of being paternalistic.
“Everyone depended much on the company then, not just its employees but also the local government,” says Rodrigo Cal, Atlas’s resident manager. “During past [local government] administrations, when there was a road or a bridge to be constructed, they asked Atlas to under-take the project. When a road needed re-pair, they asked Atlas to repair it.”
He adds: ”Even with the absence of a law then mandating mining firms to allocate the equivalent of one percent of its operating cost to community development, Atlas was already doing so. In fact, we had an entire department established for the purpose of implementing our Social Develop-ment and Management Program.”
Some of Atlas’s social programs went to establishing and developing cooperatives, supporting community livelihood projects like swine and cattle dispersal, building classrooms for barangay schools, and subsidizing the La Salle-supervised Andres Soriano Memorial School.
“Atlas sourced a number of its mate-rial requirements from the cooperatives. They produced our safety boots, our working gloves, the rubber bushings for the vehicles and machineries, even some of our furniture,” says Cal.
He adds: “Atlas has actually created a community that has its own economy during its 30 years of operation. It has created a wide base of skilled workers.” This somehow cushioned the economic and social impact of its closure. “What Atlas did for the community before it closed down has reaped the company much goodwill,” he says.
Fourteen years since shutting down, Atlas is reopening amid totally changed circumstances. It now employs just about 4,700 workers during this phase of reha-bilitation compared to a peak of 14,000 people in the 1980s. The workforce will be trimmed down to only about 3,900 when it begins operation in the second half of this year. It will no longer be as big, and as dominant, as before.
The local government will not be very dependent on the company as before. It is also empowered to strictly enforce compliance of environmental and social laws and regulations. Atlas will resume operations in a community that has now experienced life without the giant com-pany in their midst.
Atlas itself has changed. The com-pany founded in 1935 by Don Andres Soriano, one of the country’s wealthiest industrialists, is no longer owned by his heirs but by Alfredo Ramos, whose family owns the country’s leading bookstore, National Book Store. Since 2001, Ramos, who has numerous mining and oil exploration companies, has been buying Atlas debt and converting them to equity, allowing him to acquire majority control of the company from the Sorianos.
Though Atlas’s owners have changed, the company’s links to the community remain strong and deep.
Cal is a son of a former senior manager of Atlas, the company’s construction general foreman. A number of his staff now in the human resource department, ad-ministration, and operations are also sons or daughters of former Atlas employees. They grew up together in the Atlas community. And they know almost anybody and everybody in Toledo because they are their contemporaries.
The mayor herself is the daughter of a businessman who had had important transactions with Atlas. The mayor’s husband is the son of the former resident manager of Atlas Fertilizer Corp. They went to the same school where their chil-dren are studying now.Perhaps a measure of how circumstanc-es have changed is that not all former At-las employees, who have the first crack at jobs, want to rejoin their old company.
“I’ll just stick to my present work. My job now is more secure than if I work with Atlas again. It’s easy for private companies to close down,” said Bethel Manatad, formerly a nurse at the company’s hospital. She now works as a nurse at the Toledo City Health Department.
But Bobot Alcomendras, who worked with Atlas as a maintenance mechanic, has been rehired since last year. When the company closed down in 1994 he was not jobless for long. He applied and was hired by Toledo Power. But when he heard last year that Atlas was hiring workers, he applied because “the pay is better.”
The pages have moved on. Joventino worked in the Middle East shortly af-ter Atlas closed down. “Our children will now be graduating from college,” Marysol says. The couple built a house in Barangay Talavera. They have no plans of again living in Maria Lourdes Com-pound. “We are happy with our present jobs and where we are now. We are just waiting to reach retirement age.”
It’s just as it should be. After all, min-ing should be one of many options, not the only one.
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