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The high stakes gamble of gold mining

By: Deena Tamaroff

JHR McGill

Profit and human safety are often two mutually exclusive entities in the context of gold mining operations. This unfortunate phenomenon is particularly well illustrated in the coastal town of Paracale in the gold-rich Philippines.

In this town, illegal and unregulated mining operations provide a primary source of livelihood for many residents. Paracale residents prefer to mine without the intervention of a third-party company as this allows them to hold on to their entire profit instead of having to work for an hourly wage.

The catch is that in the absence of a mining company and its government-issued regulations, the unsafe practices of illegal miners go unchecked. In Paracale, where the majority of untapped gold ore sits in underwater reserves, unregulated mining operations are particularly dangerous as they involve the illegal practice of compressor mining.

This method, used by miners who plunge head-first into mud-filled metre-wide shafts for the extraction of sub- aquatic ore, employs a makeshift air compressor and a narrow tube as an underwater breathing apparatus. This low-tech setup is dangerous even in shallow water when used by the fishermen who first developed it; in muddy mine shafts at depths of 30 or 40 feet, its use is a downright death wish.

Malfunctions in these compressors have been known to cause carbon monoxide poisoning. More commonly, in the practice of compressor mining, the shafts themselves can collapse, permitting seawater to rush in and drown the miners. Despite the extreme risk of mining for underwater ore, however, residents of the Paracale region are too enticed by profits to abstain from the practice. With regards to this deadly method, Paracale resident Chita Magbanua told Voice of America that “…people risk it if it is about money.”

Child labour, against in the Philippines, is commonplace. Although the risky dives into compressor mines are reserved for older teenagers and young adults, children inevitably become an extra pair of hands for poor families who rely on mining for their income. Mining work that involves children, while not as dangerous as compressor mining, is still life threatening. Its hazards include exposure to dust and chemicals, constant fear of shaft collapse, and the threat of mercury poisoning.

As long as capital returns for gold are sky high, the lure of the noble metal will continue to put dollar signs in the eyes of the poor and jobless, thus encouraging them to ignore the dark realities of mining. “In mining, it’s possible to have luck on your side and strike gold and earn more than a regular job can provide,”  Paracale resident Jay Constantino told  Inquirer News.

The Filipino government has tried to put an end to dangerous unregulated mining operations by encouraging large, international companies to move into mining towns. Many residents who mine illegally view this as the end of their livelihood as these companies employ fewer workers and pay lower wages.

To further complicate the issue, these international companies often do more harm than good. In the Filipino mining town of Dipidio, for example, the presence of Australian mining company OceanaGold, who bought the rights to unrestricted exploitation of the area in 2008, has incited a great deal of suffering and resentment. In this area, the government deployed riot police and OceanaGold sent 150 armed security guards to restrain enraged indigenous residents whose homes were torn down and land degraded. Residents continue to fight against OceanaGold’s project.

Dipidio resident Lorenzo Pulido, told Filipino news outlet Bulatlat that “No number of promises about development and improvements in our livelihood and income can ever be enough. We don’t want this kind of development that comes at such a huge cost to our lives as indigenous peoples, and at the expense of the environment.”

While the future of gold mining remains unclear, the only certainty is that the controversial practice comes with an astronomical human cost.

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