BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – It was Benguet Corporation's fault that dozens of miners and their families were allowed to live near the company's Antamok mining area – an area vulnerable to landslides – Itogon town Mayor Victorio Palangdan said on Wednesday, September 19.
"May security guard po ang Benguet Corporation surrounding this area. They [would] not [allow] any person if they do not have any permission.... Na-gwardyahan po 'yun. Bakit ni[l]a in-allow na gamitin ang old bulding na 'yan?" Palangdan said in a press conference at the command center in Barangay Tuding, Itogon.
(Benguet Corporation has security guards surrounding this area. They would not allow any person if they do not have any permission.... It was guarded. Why did they allow miners to use the old building?)
In a later interview, he said local government could not intervene because the activities were done in an area under Benguet Corporation.
What old building? The mayor was referring to what Itogon diggers called their bunkhouse, a concrete building in Barangay Ucab abandoned by Benguet Corporation which stood near the Antamok mining area.
There, Benguet Corporation used to set up base to pursue large-scale mining operations. (READ: Cimatu orders stop to Cordillera small-scale mining after Ompong landslides)
Since the building was deserted, the diggers used the building as their quarters until the landslide that left at least 21 dead and 56 missing as of September 19.
Guards and gatepasses: The mayor refuted the claim of Benguet Corporation that it did not encourage small-scale mining.
In a statement on Tuesday, the company said: "The affected small-scale miners whose shanties were swept by the landslide are illegally operating in the company's Antamok claims. Their illegal mining and gold processing activities in Antamok are without the permission of [Benguet Corporation]."
Palangdan, however, said Benguet Corporation even issued "gate passes" for miners it allowed to operate. He has yet to provide evidence for his claim.
Benguet Corporation's history? At the end of the briefing, Palangdan urged reporters covering the disaster to follow up on Benguet Corporation's history with the indigenous people of Loakan in Itogon.
He claimed that the IPs of Loakan had filed a case against Benguet Corporation before the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples. The case remains pending, he said.
Palangdan, a former prosecutor, also called on the help of the lawyers' group Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) in battling the mining firm.
"Our municipality is already destroyed and cannot protect our environment because of this big mining company. I am challenging you (media) to follow it up. I am also requesting the FLAG lawyers to help the people of Loakan because this is now a social problem," Palangdan said.
Read more stories from Rappler's coverage of the Itogon landslide: