Fishermen in Rapu-Rapu face bleak future due to mining woes

Rhaydz B. Barcia
Fishermen in Rapu-Rapu face bleak future due to mining woes

Rhaydz Barcia

Fishermen of Rapu-Rapu town in Albay have to sail past municipal waters just to catch fish

ALBAY, Philippines – Jose Balingit sat on the breakwater after towing his boat. He could not head out to sea that day, as there were huge wages caused by Amihan.

Balingit, 54, has been a fisherman in Rapu-Rapu island for 3 decades. There was a time when fishermen in Barangay Poblacion did not have to go beyond municipal waters to haul a rich harvest of fish.

Before Lafayette Philippines Incorporated (LPI) operated the Rapu-Rapu polymetallic project, the sea sustained Rapu-Rapu residents.

LPI is the first mining company allowed by the Philippine government to operate in the country following the enactment of the Philippine Mining Act of 1995. The mine spans a contract area of 4,610.8 hectares, and has copper, zinc, gold and silver deposits.  

Lafayette Holdings Limited acquired the Rapu-Rapu mining site in 1998 and began operations in 2005. On two occasions in October 2005, torrential rains caused separate toxic spills in the LPI mill site and mine tailings dam. The spills were laden with cyanide, causing massive fish kills that extended to coastal communities in Albay and Sorsogon. The mine was suspended for 6 months.

After a government investigation, the suspension was temporarily lifted in 2006, and then permanently lifted in 2007. LPI decided to sell its shares to the LG Group of Korea and Kores in 2008. The mine was decommissioned in 2013.    

Environment advocates have cited the Rapu-Rapu experience as the best example of their case against mining. In the case of the Albay town, which was promised wealth and development for hosting the mining operation, the mining project turned  Rapu-Rapu into a wasteland.

Today, Rapu-Rapu fishermen have to sail past municipal waters just to catch fish, specifically tuna and salmon.

“Mining caused our bleak future as it affected badly our seas. More often than not, we’re going home empty handed, totally zero….Before, we can easily catch bountiful fish with high grade quality,” Balingit said.

Balingit is among the original batch of oppositors to LPI. He said that they even mobilized massive protests in the hope that the government would listen to their plea against environmental destruction.

“Many of our fellowmen and officials sold their souls and pride for allowing the LPI to destroy our environment. We’re strongly opposing the mining operation in Rapu-Rapu since the beginning of the exploration because it will bring us harm than good,” he said.

No one listened then, the fisherman recalled, leaving Rapu-Rapu with the threat of toxic run-off water from the mine everytime there’s heavy rainfall. 

Ex-miners’ stories

Jessie Espinocilla, 33, was a high school student when LPI hired him as a process operator. He received almost P20,000 a month, including overtime pay. He worked in the mine for 7 years.

Espinocilla said the mining project used to be considered a blessing because mine workers earned more than the fishermen. They also did not have to risk their lives to fish even when gigantic waves tossed their boats.

Barangay Pagcolbon, where Jessie lives, is a coastal village in Rapu-Rapu with 60 households. The residents’ major sources of living is fishing and farming.

It’s not uncommon to hear village residents talk about the good old days, or the time  the mine was still operating. They were provided with free power supply. Locals were employed and moved to a relocation site. There was a school. Children got scholarships. 

Espinocilla said in his case, he had enough savings to build a house, but the benefits for many were short-lived. “I was able to build a home. Those were glorious days for all of us here but when the toxic spill took place it destroyed the corals, caused fish kills, including seashells,” he said.

Espinocilla said he was luckier than others because he was able to save enough to buy a motorized boat, giving him an alternative livelihood as a fisherman. Others spent all their money, thinking the mining operations would last forever.

Domingo Nivero, 62, also lives in Pagcolbon. Like Espinocilla, the father of 5 used to work in mining.

He started with Canadian firm Toronto Ventures, Incorporated (TVI). TVI later stopped its mining exploration due to funding problems and was sold to LPI,  where Nivero worked as production lead operator and received a P9,000-monthly salary.

When the LPI management took over, Nivero recalled that the Australian executives wanted to fast-track operations to mine gold and other mineral resources despite the opposition of  the Filipino mining engineers.  The engineers had warned that the tailings dam for the toxic chemicals embankment was not yet ready for full-scale operations, he said.

A few months after the operation, two toxic spills occurred following torrential rains. These led to fish kills, and destroyed healthy coral reefs. 

“If the Australian bosses listened to the Filipino mining engineers, the toxic spillage would be prevented or would not  have occurred then, as the Filipino mining engineers didn’t want to operate the mine until a superior structure of tailings dam was done to ensure environmental safety,” Nivero said.  

‘Benefits’

Nivero is considered one of the luckiest residents of Barangay Pagcolbon, and perhaps the town. His daughter, Dailyn, was a scholar of his former employer. She took up a mining engineering course at the Bicol University of Legazpi and placed 8th in the 2013 mining engineering board exam, Nivero said.

Engineer Dailyn Nivero, 26, is working in one of the biggest cement plant factories in the country. Two of her 5 siblings became professionals before of their father’s mining work.

Village chief Wilson Echalas said that during the course of the mining operation, the host community produced 3 mining engineers and several teachers.

DEVELOPMENT. A multipurpose-area built by the mining company in Barangay Pagcolbon, Rapu-Rapu town. Photo by Rhaydz Barcia/Rappler

He said that for infrastructure projects, the village got at least 3 typhoon-proof relocation buildings, guest house building, barangay multi-purpose hall, basketball court, school building, and a paved road heading to a neighboring barangay.

Echalas said he favored mining as it provided employment and development to his community.   

The village has been reforested with agoho trees but look farther and one would see the barren mountain on top of Barangay Pagcolbon, ready to bury the village with a landslide during bad weather.

Reality

It’s inevitable to recall good times when the mining operations did not yet show its dark side, but many other villagers can only express apprehension over what the future holds for them.

Balingit shared the frustration of Rapu-Rapu fishermen over the difficulties they now face because of the mine spills that happened 13 years ago.

“Today, we’re staying 15 hours and longer at sea just to catch fish, compared before, when after 3 to 5 hours fishing, we can go home with big catch,” he said.

Balingit said many mine workers had to leave the town to find employment elsewhere, separating families.

Martin Bola, another fisherman, said that it will take decades for the destroyed corals to show signs of life.

“For more than 10 years occurrence of toxic spillage, the corals hit by chemicals from Lafayette mining operation are still lifeless. It will take 10 to 20 years per one coral alone to regenerate it again,” said the 28-year-old.

Bola is an education graduate but he failed the teachers’ licensure examinations so he’s working on a fishing boat. 

He said that the government seems clueless on the long-term impact of the mining operations in their town, which was supposed to bring prosperity to the third-class municipality.

“The short stint of development in Albay contributed by Lafayette, particularly in Rapu-Rapu, will not suffice for the unprecedented impact on the environment as it will take several decades to restore the devastated coral reefs due to the toxic spillage in 2005,” Bola said.

Balingit, for his part, hopes that the rehabilitation of the Rapu-Rapu mining site will restore the natural topography and the forest cover of the mined-out area. But Balingit’s dream seems to be a distant reality, as the rehabilitation process has been put on hold for two years now due to continued revisions of the plan.  

Darwin Buen, president of a fishermen’s organization in Pagcolbon, urged the mine’s management to expedite the rehabilitation to prevent another catastrophic incident.

“We are urging the management of LG Kores to expedite the rehabilitation of the mined out area because there were cracks [there] that might collapse and hit our village anytime if there’s bad weather,” Buen said. – Rappler.com 

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