Rapu-Rapu’s fishermen after mining

Miguel Imperial
Rapu-Rapu’s fishermen after mining
Former miners in Rapu-Rapu, Albay, have returned to fishing, but they bring home less catch from waters that have been tainted by the mine's wastewater

MANILA, Philippines – The municipality of Rapu-Rapu in Albay has been visited by outsiders as early as the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines – not for its seas, but for the money beneath its earth.

Extensive mining operations started in April 2005 when the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) permitted Australian company Lafayette Philippines Inc to start mining.

Their years in the island was marred by complaints but activities still brought a good life to residents.

There had been two major mine spills in Rapu-Rapu in the past – on October 11 and 31, 2005. The company was fined and closed in the same year, but operations resumed in February 2007. The mine eventually ceased operations in 2013.

After the mine’s closure, most of the miners went back to the waters to fish – the common livelihood before, during, and after mining. Most of the miners said they experienced a decrease in catch due to the fish kill caused by wastewater spills containing cyanide and other chemicals.

FRESH CATCH. A child unloads a Swordfish from a fishing boat.


Today, the effects of the spills are still felt, and the discharge of wastewater continues. 

In 2006, the spill also affected one-year-old Aifa Mae’s right leg, which shrank. Her mother Maria Elisa Ballarbare saw her daughter’s suffering and once said, “If you (the Lord) are going to take her, take her now.”

“Five percent mercury and 48% nickel toxic” was found in the contaminant that caused Aifa Mae’s condition, according to Maria Elisa. It was her family and later on former environment secretary Gina Lopez who covered the medical expenses.

Aifa Mae is shy to talk about her condition but she remains gregarious. She enjoys playing with the other kids in Barangay Poblacion.

When asked what she wants be when she grows up, Aifa Mae immediately answered she wants to be a chef.

CHEF AIFA MAE. Her right leg and foot shrank because of mine tailings that seeped into her body through an open wound.

Peter Atenciana, 39, from Barangay Malobago also contracted a skin irritation when he was still working in the mine as a rock blaster. He was hospitalized in 2008 for “itchy and tumor-like rashes” brought by his former work. The mining firm covered all expenses.

Most of the former miners and other residents agreed that the years when mining was active were also the years money and life were good. Through the mining firm’s Social Development and Management Program, many students got scholarships and many houses had light.

Meanwhile, the government-permitted discharge of the mine’s wastewater has caused the dehabitation of fish. Fishermen said they stay longer in the water but catch fewer fish.

Atenciana said they used to go home with more than 30 kilos of fish, but now, during trying times, they’re lucky if they could go home with even a single kilo of fish. 

TRYING TIMES. A saltwater tilapia and a skipjack tuna after a night out in the sea.

Alex,* 49, worked in a mining site from 2005 until 2012. Also a resident of Barangay Malobago, he started as a waiter for the mining firm’s caterer and became a detoxification operator. He said it was a “stable job.”

His monthly salary in the mine, which started from P4,700 ($89) to P11,600 ($221), helped pay the tuition fees of his 3 daughters. Alex’s wife braids abaca and sells it for P7 ($0.13) per bundle.

Alex believes that the mining firm should be held responsible for the dehabitation of fish. 

He and other fishermen of Barangay Malobago spend the night in the waters to catch more fish. They set to sea at around 5 pm in the afternoon, cast the fish net, sleep in the boat, reel the net in, and return at 6 am the following day.

‘Destructive to environment’

Born and raised in Barangay Pagcolbon, Kagawad Roger Espinocilla worked in the mines from 2007 to 2013 as a pit technician, one who classifies the extracted materials.

He described it as beneficial to the residents but destructive to the environment. “We are worried for the next generation,” Espinocilla said.

Rodolfo was a former local contractor for a construction company hired by the mining firm, while Mandy and Pederico were hired as construction workers.

They were the ones who built the waterways for the wastewater. In 2005, when government officials or a crew from major local broadcasting network GMA in 2005 visited the site, they and the other construction workers were hidden from view. They said they painted a bad image for the mining firm.

Pederico said he once participated in a signature campaign by local anti-mining group Sagip Isla, Sagip Kapwa (Save the Island, Save Others) to oppose the mining site. He later on applied at the site but got rejected because he signed up in the campaign.

He said someone from the group “sold” their signatures to Lafayette.

REPORTING FOR WORK. Dominic is one of the workers planting trees in the mining site as part of regreening efforts.

Rodolfo and Pederico said they are usually at sea from 7 pm to 3 am.

Before mining, fishermen in their barangay used to catch 30 kilos of fish in one trip. Now, they get 7 to 10 kilos per trip. A kilo of fish sells for P40 ($0.76), according to Rodolfo. The fishermen then divide the earnings among themselves.

Aside from fish, they also catch lobsters which they sell for P350 ($6) per kilo. “We cannot eat the lobster, we need the money for rice,” Pederico said.

While Rodolfo and Pederico have resorted to fishing, Mandy works in the forest, instead. All 3 did not receive benefits or a separation pay after their work for the construction company in the mine ended.

Pederico asked whether this interview would lead to action. “We are just small people,” he said.

LEFT BEHIND. The open pit mine is set to be dumped with land soon.

Primary school teacher and anti-mining advocate Jun Deuna confirmed the issue with the signatories. He said there was a member in the group who was also a staff member at Lafayette, and that member presented to the company the list of signatories. 

His sister’s scholarship, which was provided by the mining firm, was withdrawn because of his anti-mining activities.

In 2015, he also received a warning and a threat from a man in a motorcycle. “If you will not stop, we will kill you.” Deuna said he has always been ready for whatever could happen to him. 

WEEKEND GATHERING. Locals, mostly fishermen, of Barangay Malobago gather in a hut.

Most of the former miners are now back in the same waters that their former job has tainted. They expect a good catch this March to August, a high season for fishing. But for the other months, the fishermen of the island will have to stay longer out in the sea for a good catch.

The mining site may now be prime for rehabilitation, but Rapu-Rapu’s land, water, and residents are all still recovering from the damage caused by mining. – Rappler.com

Miguel Imperial is a freelance journalist based in Baao, Camarines Sur. He is on Instagram and Medium.
*Surname has been withheld upon the interviewee’s request.

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