Firms mining watershed,
forest areas of Zambales

Last of two parts

STA. CRUZ, ZAMBALES – For nearly two years now, Leonardo Lustria Jr., manager of the Sta. Cruz water district, has been at his wit’s end trying to find ways to protect the town’s watershed, which feeds Sta. Cruz’s two irrigation systems and provides local folk with potable water.

“They’re mining the watershed!” he laments.

“We have a waterfall up there,” says Lustria. “We have more Mindoro pines there than in Mindoro, and pitcher plants that that are among the biggest in the country.”

Some 20 kms from the town proper, the Sta. Cruz watershed was also reforested more than a decade ago through an P18.1-million loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) project, which called for the planting of mahogany, acacia, agoho, eucalyptus, and other types of trees, was carried out from 1994 to 1999.

In total, the national government borrowed P27.5 million from the ADB to reforest five areas in Zambales. The biggest reforestation site – 1,000 hectares or 67 percent of the total – was at the Sta. Cruz watershed. Today all five reforested areas are being mined. Randolph Mirador, who headed the people’s organization that planted trees in Sta. Cruz under the ADB program, can only say with a sigh, “Talagang nakasasama ng loob (It’s really heartbreaking).”

In her 2008 State of the Nation Address, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo dedicated a few lines to mining, asking business and civil society to “continue to work for a socially equitable, economically viable balance of interests.”

“Mining companies,” she said, “should ensure that host communities benefit substantively from their investments, and with no environmental damage from operations.”

Arroyo also outlined her plan to set aside P2 billion for reforestation in 2009, saying the forests mitigate the effects of the increasing frequency and intensity of typhoons brought on by climate change.

Mining + flooding

Here in Zambales, officials and ordinary folk alike are still debating the financial benefits of mining. But there seems to be little question among most of them that the surge in this province’s version of “small-scale mining” in the last two years has brought with it fast-rising floods during heavy rains, and even a decline in the output of several farms.

This has threatened Sta. Cruz’s reputation as the province’s rice granary. In Barangay Guisguis, a group of women surveying a nearby river and a swathe of ricefields after an afternoon downpour take in a eerie scene that only fortifies the fear they now feel whenever the rains come: blood-colored water rushing down from upstream, breaching riverbanks in some places, the murky water inundating ricefields.

“When there was no mining, the river was deep enough to take in the rainwater,” comments one of the women. “Now the river overflows and the water goes directly to our ricefields.”

Just recently, Sta. Cruz was among those hardest hit by Typhoon Kiko, which saw a state of calamity being declared in the whole of Zambales. Early last year, Guisguis was also among the areas on which Typhoon Cosme had the worst impact. Residents had to wade through waist-high floodwaters in darkness at the height of the typhoon, with several families seeking refuge at a local daycare center.

Guisguis residents concede that they have had floods before. But they say that these days, the waters rise too quickly. Says one resident: “The soil was parched and Cosme brought just a little rain, which can only mean that the mountain is now absorbing less.”

In fact, aside from scraping the forest cover and operating in the watershed, some miners here have also bulldozed their way through plots covered by the DENR’s Community-Based Forest Management (CBFM).

Kamote mining

Under this program, people living in the community are given a portion of the forest to plant trees, from which they are supposed to earn some livelihood. According to Sta. Cruz Mayor Luisito Marty, portions of the CBFM area covering some 5,000 hectares in barangays Guisguis and Ginabon have been overrun by those who present themselves as small-scale miners.

“There’s kamote mining there,” he says. “We’ve lost control because Governor (Amor) Deloso keeps on issuing permits.”

Community activist Mirador, who ventured into the CBFM scheme as well, also says at least three mining firms are now intruding into the area that he and other people used to tend.

Of all barangays down the main mining site in Sta. Cruz, Guisguis has the most to lose. It has some 400 hectares of productive ricelands, and is a huge player in palay trading in Olongapo City and Pangasinan, with which it shares a border. It is estimated that Guisguis alone produces an average of 32,000 sacks of palay each harvest time. Planting can be as frequent as thrice a year in most areas.

Ang barangay namin, umunlad dahil sa agrikultura (Our community improved because of agriculture),” says Guisguis Barangay Captain Juvenar Mose. “Wala kaming ibang inasahan kundi pagtatanim. Walang yumaman dito dahil sa mina (We relied on nothing else but farming. No one here got rich because of mining).”

Lomboy Barangay Captain Randy Merced probably shares the same sentiments. When PCIJ catches up with him, the rambunctious 41-year-old is busy worrying over the possibility that should all those holding mining permits – individual and corporate alike – operate simultaneously, his barangay’s ricefields would not fare well, since their dam lies close to a major creek upland.

Big firm the culprit

As it is, he is still upset over the siltation of his barangay’s irrigation system. The culprit, he says, is one of the big mining firms.

On paper, there is no mining operation in Lomboy. But like all other communities on the slopes of Sta. Cruz’s nickel- and chromite-laden mountain range, it is a receptacle of all that may flow from mining areas. Lomboy has 110 hectares of irrigated farmland. Twenty hectares, however, rely on rainwater.

Merced says that for days, he and a dozen volunteers had manually dug up a small reservoir to serve as catch basin for the water requirement of the unirrigated 20 hectares. They later found their efforts erased.

Kinalkal ng isang kompanya ang kabundukan at doon sa hinukay namin itinambak ang bato at lupa. Gagawa yata sila ng daan (One company leveled a portion of the hill for a road and dumped boulders and dirt on our reservoir),” says Merced.

It’s bad enough that whenever it rains, nickel-laden soil from the mountains flow into Sta. Cruz’s rivers and creeks and into irrigation canals, he says. The result: “Namula ang palay namin, ayaw magbunga (Our plants turned red and refused to produce grains).”

Even officials of the local chapter of the uppity Rotary Club say they would rather that the capitol focus on preserving the natural beauty of the town, instead of issuing one mining permit after another. After all, Sta. Cruz has four islands off its coast, including the so-called ‘Miss Universe Island’ that had been a shoot destination for contestants of an international beauty pageant in the 1970s. Sta. Cruz also has a 300-hectare marine sanctuary where giant clams are being raised.

The view, however, is often marred by the site of tons of nickel stockpiled at pier, as well as the coast’s blood-red water, courtesy of the mined mountain range.

No safety engineering

The staining of bodies of water is the first sign that mining upstream is being carried out without the required safety engineering, explains Mining Tenements Management Division chief Leo Jasareno of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).

Indeed, he says, monitoring reports from Zambales show no environmental protection measures like catchment basin, siltation ponds, and cover cropping. Without these, says Jasareno, silt will settle in irrigation canals, making these more shallow.

The MGB official indicates that these can be traced largely to the questionable one-month mining permits the capitol has been issuing since 2007. For one, he says, a big firm that pours considerable capital into its business is more likely to protect the environment to ensure continued tenure in area. For another, allowing quickie mining operations only means the government may not be able to hold anyone accountable should there be any damage to the environment.

“The technology is there,” says Jasareno, “but since it’s expensive, if you are a fly-by-night miner, you will not spend for it. Bodies of water will turn orange, and this is the first sign of environmental impacts of mining.”

He also says that any DENR-funded watershed project, including the one here in Sta. Cruz, is off limits to mining, and that any activity in such areas should first have clearance from the national agency. if at all. “If there’s no DENR clearance,” he says, “it means somebody violated the law and it should be looked into.”

Asked about the reforested area in the Sta. Cruz watershed, Governor Deloso would only say that inspecting it is the job of the DENR. “I don’t want them to say that I’m meddling too much,” he clarifies. “What I know is that not a lot of trees grew there.”

Deloso has said that he has set aside P5 million from the province’s mining revenues for reforestation.

Can’t beat mining?

“I will not go for any bargaining laban sa environment,” the governor declares. “Bayan ko iyan, probinsiya ko iyan, definitely ayokong masira. Gusto ko ba iyong dumausdos at mawalan kami ng palayan (It’s my country, my province, I definitely don’t want it destroyed. Why would I want landslides and the destruction of our rice fields?)

But he also says, “To go against mining, is actually counter-productive. Para tayong si Adan at si Eba (We’re like Adam and Eve). We have to face the challenge, but make it intelligent.”

For his part, Sangguniang Panlalawigan member Samuel Ablola, who heads the provincial board’s environment committee, says he is unaware of the watershed project in Sta. Cruz, noting that he was elected only in 2001. Like the governor, he says whatever happens to it is the DENR’s lookout, since it is a national government project.

But it seems mining in a watershed is not an issue to Ablola, especially when it’s on a mountain rich with mineral ores. He argues, “Hindi tutubuan ng puno ang bundok. Tanggalin mo muna ang minerals at kapag puro lupa at putik na iyan, mabubuhay ang mga kahoy (Trees won’t grow on the mountain. Strip it of its minerals first and once it’s all soil and mud, then the trees will flourish).”

That may not be a view shared by many local officials here in Sta. Cruz, especially when they have to deal with angry constituents wading in floodwaters or wailing about failed crops. It has not helped that mining permit-holders have not done much to endear themselves to residents here.

For instance, the day after Typhoon Cosme slammed through Zambales, the first order of priority of mining firms was to make sure the road to the pier, which crosses the main road and the poblacion, was immediately cleared of debris, even as residents dealt with the damage the typhoon caused.

Trucks-choked roads

During typhoon-free days, trucks filled with nickel block local roads. “Once there is a medical emergency, we may not be able to reach the hospital in time because the roads are choked with those trucks,” says one resident. He also points to the possible health hazards posed by nickel-laden dust, noting that many of his townmates are already complaining of respiratory problems.

But standing up to mining firms could also be hazardous to one’s health. Lomboy Barangay Captain Randy Merced, found this out after making known his opposition to mining public one too many times. He lets on that he was once “kidnapped” for his opposition to mining, but he refuses to elaborate. Some residents in his barangay whisper that Merced was mauled before he was released.

A high-ranking provincial official explains, “Si Kap Merced kasi hinaharang ang trak ng dalawang kompanya na ang nasa likod ay isang malaking pamilya sa probinsiya (Kap Merced had taken to blocking trucks of two companies that had a prominent family in the province as their common owner).”

To be fair, not everyone in Sta. Cruz is against mining. Guisguis Barangay Captain Mose admits that some of his constituents welcome it, especially those who have no land to till. After all, mining does provide employment to unskilled workers.

Mose himself has a confusing stand on mining. While he bats for a moratorium on permits to allow a study on the impact of mining, his office had asked mining firms for various forms of aid to his barangay, like providing scholarships to students.

One elderly resident here has been more steadfast in her belief that Sta. Cruz is better off without mining, so much so that she voted for Deloso in the 2007 polls because, she recalls, he had promised to put a stop to mining in this town.

The resident, who requests anonymity, says Deloso did as he promised – at least for a month after the elections. When it became apparent that the new governor was reneging on his campaign pledge, the resident sought him out to remind him about it.

Nagalit (He got mad),” says the woman, recalling the governor’s reaction. Sabi niya ako na lang daw kaya ang mag-gobernador (He said maybe I should be the governor).” - PCIJ, August 2009