[Blog] Brown water, black sand: MacArthur, Leyte’s struggle against mining, Yolanda, and climate change. By Denise M. Fontanilla

Brown water, black sand
MacArthur, Leyte’s struggle against mining, Yolanda, and climate change
Text and photos by Denise M. Fontanilla

MacArthur townspeople with other civil society members and partners of Alyansa Tigil Mina hold a rally in front of an illegal black sand mining site in Maya village on August 21.

MacArthur townspeople with other civil society members and partners of Alyansa Tigil Mina
hold a rally in front of an illegal black sand mining site in Maya village on August 21.

I recently spent eight days in eastern Visayas, the region where typhoon Yolanda first passed through on November 8, 2013, almost ten months ago. Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM, or Alliance Against Mining) invited the civil society network I work for to their general assembly last August 18-21 at the Visayas State University, in Baybay City, Leyte Province, and I was happy to represent them and join the representatives of mining-affected communities and other civil society groups from across the country.

On the last day of the assembly, we visited the Pacific-facing town of MacArthur, named after the American general. It is classified as a fifth-class municipality, part of the second poorest group of towns in the country.

MacArthur, Leyte’s central elementary school.

MacArthur, Leyte’s central elementary school.

I got a glimpse of MacArthur’s central elementary school from the road, and saw students holding classes outside or in tents, as some school buildings were still under repair while some were under construction. A community organizer I travelled with couldn’t help but note that, unlike the school, the town’s cockfighting arena had long been fully operational.

Almost 22,000 of its residents were affected by the typhoon, including more than a hundred farmers and fisherfolk who made up the people’s organization UNLAD, short for Unahin Natin Lagi Ang Diyos (“Always put God first”).

The house of UNLAD’s secretary general Bernardita Morcilla looked like most others in the area: the roof was comprised mostly of gleaming new galvanized steel sheets and a couple of tarpaulins. Tita Brenie, a 67-year-old fish pen owner, and her family had to rebuild their dirty kitchen; I could still see a pillar of hollow blocks from the old walls.

ATM reported back in late November that “houses, schools, churches, [and] markets were all damaged.” Their partners, including UNLAD, added that about 80% of the town’s coconut trees were destroyed. But despite being badly hit by Yolanda themselves, UNLAD members connected ATM with devastated barangays and supported the groundwork for the network’s relief operations in seven towns in Leyte, including MacArthur. And aside from foraging for rootcrops, bananas and coconuts spared by Yolanda for their food, UNLAD prioritized cleaning and clearing operations nine days after Yolanda struck.

“ATM thought we were going to ask for food, but we asked for a chainsaw instead,” Tita Brenie told us in Filipino with a smirk.

Mark of PAKISAMA tours ATM members around UNLAD’s organic vegetable farm.

Mark of PAKISAMA tours ATM members around UNLAD’s organic vegetable farm.

Tita Brenie’s house stands at the entrance to UNLAD’s communal farm, which spans more than two hectares. ATM and PAKISAMA (Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka, a national confederation of small farmers and fishers) established a nursery, training center, vegetable farm, piggery, and other facilities to provide food and income for UNLAD members and other residents. UNLAD members have been harvesting 15 kilos of assorted vegetables and beans on a daily basis since last April, according to Jaybee Garganera, the alliance’s national coordinator.

The farm project started during ATM’s early recovery phase and continues well into the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase, which includes cash-for-work programs, livelihood, and some shelter and infrastructure support for three towns.

UNLAD’s history

UNLAD was formed by fisherfolk in Bito Lake who blamed the massive fishkill in March 2012 on Nicua Mining Corporation, which was operating nearby and was releasing mining wastes into the lake. A study by the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources showed that the death of about 22 tons of tilapia was caused by domestic waste, overstocking, and contamination from the site of the Chinese firm. A team from the Leyte-based Visayas State University confirmed that the lake was lower in elevation compared to the mining site; team leader Dr. Humberto Montes, Jr. also cited an earlier study which predicted that the water level of the lake may decrease if large excavations are conducted in nearby areas.

Tita Brenie said the lake turned brown (“like 3-in-1 coffee”) and that she had to stop selling the fish she harvested in her fish pen for a time because the fish tasted like oil and grease.

UNLAD was organized on April 28, 2012. Its members held a barricade two days after until mid-May, when the barangay council governing the lake allowed the mining operations to continue. But the fisherfolk organization reformed in June to include farmers affected by the black sand mining operations in the town’s rice fields.

“Nicua has secured a 25-year permit from MGB in December 2010 to explore and extract magnetite sand concentrate in [a] 524-hectare area, notably rice and coconut fields, in the towns of MacArthur and Javier in Leyte,” reported the Leyte Samar Daily Express.

Magnetite sand is an iron ore highly-sought after for steel production. The black sands of many beaches, particularly in the Northern Luzon regions, have been scooped up in the quest for the valuable mineral, leaving coastal areas and river banks eroded and more vulnerable to sea level rise, floods, and storm surges. The disturbance of the farmlands and marine ecosystems also leads to less food and decreased sources of livelihood.

Tita Brenie shows ATM members RT Mining’s operations in Maya village. One of its facilities is in the far background.

Tita Brenie shows ATM members RT Mining’s operations in Maya village.
One of its facilities is in the far background.

In MacArthur’s case, more than 70 hectares of the town’s farmlands have now been destroyed, Tita Brenie said, and the rest are drying out because the company has diverted the irrigation. Farmer Alfredo Cordero told Interaksyon and Leyte Samar Daily Express about the foot skin disease he contracted from the oil and chemicals from the mining site, which seeped into the water in his nearby ricefield.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ National Secretariat for Social Action (CBCP-NASSA) led a solidarity mission to Lake Bito with ATM also in June 2012. Also through ATM and its partners, a Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO) was filed at the Abuyog Regional Trial Court, and the plight of MacArthur was picked up by radio and various national newspapers.

“Can we eat magnetite sand? Why are we prioritizing mining over rice and fish production?” Fr. Edu Gariguez, executive secretary of CBCP-NASSA, then stated.

In August of the same year, the operation of Nicua Mining Corporation was suspended by the environment department’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau for allowing another Chinese mining company to operate within its designated area. The Abuyog court also issued the TEPO the very next month.

But the local government unit (LGU) of MacArthur continues to marginalize the members of UNLAD, according to Marissa Miguel Cano of the Visayas State University’s quick response team. “The LGU passed an ordinance limiting the size of fish pens in Lake Bito to only half a hectare per occupant and denied their applications to set up and operate fish pens,” she wrote in her history of UNLAD. “Worst of all, the mining company stopped rehabilitating the mined areas.”

“We really can’t expect anything from the government, as even the barangay officials here don’t care about us,” Tita Brenie also said. “The mayor said I was only a nuisance.” She added though that UNLAD is now more acknowledged within the town since they supported relief and recovery efforts.

“Pagkain, hindi buhangin!”

We were touring the vegetable farm and sampling the organic produce for lunch when Tita Brenie and an ATM officer asked if we can extend the solidarity visit to the farm to a mobilization in the black sand mining site of RT Mining Corporation in the ricefields of Brgy. Maya. UNLAD believes that the management of Nicua are also behind RT Mining, which was said to operate outside their approved area.

We readily agreed to hold the rally, and proceeded to think of chants other than the usual “Tao Muna, Hindi Mina! (People First, Not Mining!)”. After several suggestions, someone eventually came up with the runaway winner, “Pagkain, Hindi Buhangin! (Food, Not Sand!)”

We travelled from the farm to Brgy. Maya, where a new waiting shed greeted us from the highway. A sign announced that the roofing materials were donated by two mining companies, which were said to be subcontracted by Nicua. We then made our way to the middle of the ricefields under the glaring sun, at around one o’clock, where we found what looked like a desert of black sand.

UNLAD members led the mobilization, holding up cheesecloth and rice sacks with messages in the local language such as “Farming is better without mining!” and “Uphold the Memorandum Circular No. 44 of Sec. Roxas!” The latter referred to the secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government’s order for all local governments to suspend or cancel all illegal small-scale mining operations, especially black sand mining in coastal areas.

ATM intends to file a case against RT Mining, according to its Visayas campaign officer Teody Navea. “We demand the immediate shutdown of RT Mining Corp. We will support our partner UNLAD-BLFFA in their struggle for their right to food security and sustainable livelihood,” he said in a statement.

In between chants, UNLAD leaders like Tita Brenie and other Alyansa Tigil Mina members led by Sir Jaybee addressed the mining site workers and armed guards over the portable mic, listing the various reasons why their operations must be stopped. We stayed under the sun for about two hours as we had to wait for the local TV crew, so when it was my turn to speak, I couldn’t think of anything to start with other than the devastating heat and briefly connected that to mining, Yolanda, and climate change. After a couple of minutes, I led another round of chants before gratefully handing the mic back and asking around for a sip of water.

Mining, Yolanda, and climate justice

I have attended several conferences about Yolanda, with experts of various fields explaining how disasters are not entirely natural, about how they magnify the existing vulnerabilities of people and surface deep-rooted issues of development. But it was only when I saw the situation in MacArthur when the jargon-filled statements really hit home.

ATM is working on a policy paper on mining and climate justice that lists previous mining- and extreme-weather related disasters, such as the Pantukan mines landslide in Compostela Valley, in the Davao region of Mindanao, during Typhoon Pablo (Bopha) in December 2012. The copper smelting plant in Leyte, which is largely owned by the Swiss company Glencore Xstrata, was also heavily damaged by Yolanda.

Not only are mining and other extractive industries vulnerable to disasters, they also make nearby communities more vulnerable than they already are. Companies for mining and coal contribute greenhouse gases not only through their actual operations but also through deforestation and conversion of agricultural lands. The resulting damage further threatens people’s very survival, their health and food security, among other things.

You would think that the people of MacArthur and other Yolanda- and mining-affected communities have enough to worry about, but going against mining is integral to rebuilding their lives and livelihoods. It is part and parcel of increasing their resilience not only to disasters but also to the impacts of climate change. While scientists have yet to directly link extreme weather events with climate change, we do know that climate change has stacked the odds against vulnerable countries like the Philippines, with global warming fueling typhoons like Yolanda and contributing to sea level rise.

In the international climate negotiations, the Philippines has been calling for developed or industrialized countries, which have contributed the most to the climate crisis, to fulfill their commitments to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions. They also have the responsibility to help developing countries like ours, which contributed the least emissions but already bear most of the consequences, to adapt to climate change impacts by sharing funds and technology.

But as Filipino climate advocates like me follow the United Nations climate conferences and continue to push for a progressive global deal in 2015, we also challenge our own government to truly practice what it preaches. It must better integrate disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in national- and local-level planning. And it must follow the true path to sustainable development by instituting policy reforms not only in energy but also in mining and land use in general. This might seem as a grand wish list, but as Filipinos await the next typhoon with dread, we cannot afford to do anything less.


Denise M. Fontanilla is the advocacy officer of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas, an advocacy network of civil society organizations working on climate change issues in the international and national fronts. Alyansa Tigil Mina is one of its members.

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