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Philippines landslides after Typhoon Mangkhut could end the hunt for gold

By Bill Birtles in Baguio, Philippines, Sunday September 23, 2018 - 15:00 EST
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The region of Itogon on the island of Luzon in the Philippines is prone to landslides. - ABC

A series of landslides that have killed at least 70 people in the northern Philippines has triggered a debate that could bring an end to small-scale gold mining in the region.

For almost a week, recovery teams and volunteers have been painstakingly trawling a landslide site at a mine in Ucab, near Baguio city, that was hit hard by super Typhoon Mangkhut (called Ompong in the Philippines).

More than 20 bodies have been recovered from the unregulated mine site with about 50 still unaccounted for, while other landslides in the mountainous region have killed dozens more people.

In the wake of the disaster, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a shutdown for the small-scale mines that dot the gold-rich Cordillera mountain range in Luzon, reviving a debate that occasionally flares up when fatal landslides occur.

"We are taking measures to prepare for some livelihood projects for people here to start their life anew," said Pedro Mayam-o, Governor of Ifugao province where many of the miners came from.

"Aside from the minerals under the ground, we can also plant agricultural crops."

Gold has been mined in the Cordillera mountain range for more than 400 years. It has long been the country's premier mining region.

But landslides and sinkholes regularly occur in mining areas in times of heavy rain, with many questioning whether mining activity is to blame for weakening the ground below.

While large companies dominate the industry, small-scale mines like the one at the village of Ucab where the worst landslide occurred, still employ thousands of people.

Such mines have also come under criticism from international rights groups because of the use of child labour.

"Many of them don't have jobs so they work here in the mines to support their families," said Maria Reyes, who was waiting at Ucab for news about several relatives missing in the landslide.

"Many of them are out of school and are unprofessional — [if] they stop mining, many of them will be jobless."

While northern Luzon is also an agricultural area, the dramatic mountains in the areas worst affected by the typhoon are steep and poorly suited to anything but the smallest agricultural plots.

Driving through the mountains, it is common to see the aftermath of landslides and decimated houses.

Without jobs and the ability to farm on a large scale, gold remains the main way communities survive.

"We're not worried because at our mine the safety officer is always checking the site," said 40-year-old Rodell Colinato, a miner at a site run by the Benguet Mining Corporation in the village of Virac, just a few kilometres from the biggest landslide.

"Our mine site is much safer than the one at Ucab."

For now, a government order to suspend all small-scale mining operations remains in place.

Local officials can't say whether it will be permanent, but have vowed to comply.

But with so much wealth under the soil and not many other opportunities in the economically deprived region, the hunt for gold will likely go on.


© ABC 2018

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