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CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – Despite a 10-year-old Writ of Kalikasan issued by a court to safeguard the Iponan River from illegal mining activities, the fragile ecosystem has tragically transformed into an environmental wasteland, indicating the failure of implementation efforts.
Felizardo Gacad Jr., the director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in Northern Mindanao, said illegal mining operations by a Chinese-led group destroyed at least 10 hectares of a river delta.
“We are evaluating the damage to the river system. We believe it is much bigger than we had thought,” Gacad told a news conference on Tuesday, May 16.
A joint operation by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) personnel, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents, and Army elite Special Forces led to the arrest of five Chinese men and 13 Filipino mining workers in Barangay Pigsag-an, Cagayan de Oro on Saturday, May 13.
The raiders found mercury among the tents used by the miners raising the specter of deadly contamination in the Iponan River. Mercury is fatal to humans.
Gacad said the wasteland, covering an estimated area of 10.3 hectares, is situated on the borders of Cauyonan and Nangcaon in Opol town, Misamis Oriental.
“We based our estimates of the disturbed area on Google Earth satellite imagery,” Gacad said.
Engineer Armen Cuenca, chief of the Cagayan de Oro Local Environment and Natural Resources Office (CLENRO), said they had monitored at least 10 gold mining excavators along the Iponan River but were unable to arrest any suspect because they were in Opol town.
The area is along the boundaries of Cagayan de Oro and Opol town in Misamis Oriental.
Cuenca said the CLENRO furnished the DENR-MGB regional office with an April 2023 report about the illegal gold mining operations along the Iponan River.
“We think there are at least 10 illegal mining operations along the river, but we cannot arrest them because it is in the Opol area,” Cuenca said.
The CLENRO is one of 10 government agencies ordered by the Court of Appeals (CA) in 2013 to protect the Iponan River, which was environmentally threatened by illegal mining operations.
The appellate court issued the Writ of Kalikasan and a Writ of Continuing Mandamus in 2013 based on the petition of the group SULOG, a coalition of environmental advocates in the city, to protect the fragile river system.
The Writ of Kalikasan serves as a legal mechanism to protect the environment and hold accountable those responsible for violations or negligence while addressing environmental concerns, and offering relief and protection for natural resources.
Anyone can file the petition for a writ, and when granted by a court, it compels immediate action from government agencies to prevent or address environmental damage.
In the aftermath of the 2011 Tropical Storm Sendong (Washi) devastation in the city, the court ordered the DENR, NBI, Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine National Police, Bureau of Immigration; and the local governments of Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, and Opol to coordinate their efforts to protect the Iponan River.
A task force called “Kinaiyahan” was also formed in 2013 to coordinate the efforts of these agencies, which were also mandated to submit monthly reports of the situation along the river.
Former CLENRO head Edwin Dael, who headed Task Force “Kinaiyahan” until 2017, said he was unaware if the agencies continued to submit their reports after his stint as task force coordinator. – Rappler.com