• Indigenous peoples in Philippines

    Indigenous peoples in Philippines

    The number of the Philippines’ indigenous peoples remains unknown, but it estimated to be between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the 102.9 million national population.
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Philippines: gold mining and Indigenous Peoples in the Cordillera


The ancestral practices of Indigenous Peoples use extraction methods that respect nature and strengthen the community by distributing the benefits. Although they were able to resist the Spanish colonizers, during the 20th century they were overwhelmed by US companies that introduced toxic substances and large-scale mining. These contrast with the government’s mining policy that allowed the proliferation of large mining companies that degraded the environment and affected the living and working conditions of Indigenous Peoples.

Itogon is a mountainous gold producing municipality in the province of Benguet, northern Philippines. The indigenous Ibaloy and Kankanaey Igorots of Itogon have engaged in mining and trading of gold since the 10th century. Historical accounts say that the Igorots developed effective mining and processing methods to produce gold, which they traded for salt, livestock, Chinese pottery, cloth, blankets and cattle from the lowland areas.” Records of Spanish colonizers who arrived in the archipelago during 16 th century reported the existence of gold jewelry like necklaces, earrings, rings and other adornments, which were normally worn by the local people.

Until today, gold mining is a major industry and source of livelihood for the people of Itogon. Aside from traditional small-scale mining, which is acknowledged as a major subsistence livelihood and an important aspect of the people’s culture and tradition, the municipality has hosted up to 8 large-scale mining companies, making the Philippines one of the top gold-producing countries in the world.

The entry and operation of large-scale mining did not stop the continuous traditional gold mining activities in the area. While the co-existence of large and small-scale gold mining was possible through the years, it was not always peaceful. Gold had become a major source of conflict between large mining companies on one hand, and the Indigenous landowners and traditional small-scale miners on the other.

Traditional small-scale mining and Indigenous values on gold

The song Gatan (above) was composed during the 1990s by Indigenous activists, in the heat of the Itogon people's resistance against Benguet Corporation's destructive open pit mining. It captures Indigenous Peoples' traditional worldview on gold. In the song, Balitok (literal meaning gold) represents the spirit guardian of the gold. He teaches Gatan, the traditional miner, to fight greed and to respect nature so that he may continue to benefit from it. Through the centuries, the Indigenous Peoples developed their own customary practices of small-scale mining and gold processing, which are rudimentary but regulated and sustainable. There are customary rules to protect the land and to share blessings. Rituals are performed and rules and regulations are strictly followed to ensure the safety of the miners. Work and wealth are equitably shared by the community. Men, women and children partake in the work of mining and processing the ore and all share in the profits generated.

Traditionally, mining is limited to selected areas where gold deposits are concentrated. It is banned in critical watersheds, forests, near water sources and sacred sites. Gold ore is extracted from small tunnels (usok) using simple tools. Mining activities are usually managed by families or small groups of miners (kompanya). They do not operate the whole year round, usually taking a break during the rainy season when entering the small tunnels to extract the ore is dangerous.

Traditional mining is basically chemical-free and with minimal impacts on the environment. The traditional way of processing the ore to extract the gold is not mechanized and usually done in the backyard or adjacent to the location of pocket mines. Separation of gold particles is done by manually crushing the ore with sledgehammers, then grinding in ball mills, and sluicing the crushed ore with water. No toxic chemicals are used in processing the gold. Mercury is not used in small-scale mining operations in Benguet. Recently, modern small-scale miners started using cyanide in heap leaching pads to separate the gold, while others have adopted the Carbon-in-pulp (CIP) process, a modern technology introduced by the large mines.

When it comes to dividing the wealth among community members, the Indigenous Peoples developed practices of equitable access and benefit-sharing of mineral resources. One such practice is the distribution of linangLinang are discarded mine tailings after the first process of sluicing the milled ore, from which significant amounts of gold can still be recovered. The linang is distributed to the elderly, children, and women of the community, who then reprocess the linang to extract the remaining gold content in the mine tailings. Linang distribution is actually a mechanism for resource-maximization and benefit-sharing by allowing others who are not part of the mining team to benefit from the mine tailings.

Another sharing tradition that is still practiced in Benguet is the sagaok. This is usually done when miners make a hit and find high-grade ore in their tunnel. The tunnel owner will then allow other members of the community to enter a productive mine for a limited amount of time to extract some ore. Elders, women and children, especially those who are in dire economic straits, are given priority. Yet another mechanism of benefit-sharing is giving ore to elderly people who come to the mine asking for it, or the marketing of some of the gold through elderly members of the community for them to share in the profit, even though they may not be able to offer the best price.

Entry of foreign gold mining

From the 16 th to the 19 th century, the Spanish colonizers in the Philippines sent gold-hunting and military expeditions to try to take over the gold mines. The 300 years or so of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines were marked by repeated incursions into the Cordillera mountains to subjugate the Igorots and gain control of their gold mines. The Igorots in Benguet were the first line of defense against the attacks of the intruders, repulsing several Spanish attempts to take possession of their gold mines. The superior firepower of the Spaniards eventually broke down this valiant Igorot resistance, that by 1840 the Spanish colonial government was able to establish its politico- military rule in the Cordillera. Still, the gold mines of Itogon remained under the control of the Igorots until the take-over by the American colonizers in the 1900s.

As described by Olivia M. Habana in Gold Mining in Benguet: 1900 to 1941, “Despite previous Spanish attempts to conquer the gold mines, they remained intact protected by the inhospitable terrain and the vigorous defense of the Igorots.” But when the Americans arrived in the 1900s, they used devious means to gain a foothold in the gold mining industry. Instead of doing the back- breaking work of mineral prospecting themselves, the American prospectors befriended the Igorots. They bought and seized their gold objects and ornaments. They acted as mercenaries; in exchange for gold, they used their rifles to protect the local Igorot elite (baknang) from their enemies. They held ceremonies and feasts, absorbing the local culture and living in close contact with the Igorots, even marrying women from the Igorot natives. They then entered into agreements with the baknang mine owners, which enabled them to stake claims over the gold mines.

The American colonizers then legitimized their possession of the mines by passing Mining Laws that defined the process of filing legal claims over mineral lands. The mining claims allowed companies to take over the ancestral lands, communal forests and mining sites of the Ibaloy and Kankanaey people in Itogon. In this way, American prospectors were able to establish legal control of the Philippine gold mining industry in years to come. “What the claimants and the civil government conveniently overlooked was the fact that these mines, pastures and streams were already owned and operated by the Igorots.”

Since then, the gold mining industry in Itogon grew tremendously, dominated by 3 large corporations - Benguet Consolidated (now Benguet Corporation), Atok-Big Wedge and Itogon- Suyoc Mines Inc. These companies developed, operated and expanded their large mines for almost a century, earning billions of dollars in profits. They drove in huge tunnels that spread in various directions underground, before shifting to open pit mining. They expanded their company compounds, built access roads, mine portals, ore conveying trams, ore mills, electrical power stations, tailings dams, offices, staff cottages, and workers’ bunkhouses. Meanwhile, the Indigenous People of Itogon were relegated to the outskirts of the large mines where they continued their traditional small-scale mining practices, augmented by farming and small businesses to support their self-sufficient lifestyle and subsistence economy.

Impacts of large-scale gold mining in Itogon

More than a century of large mining in Itogon subjected the physical environment to tremendous pressure. Logging to supply the lumber needs of mines led to the degradation of vast pine forests and watersheds. Massive land movement and tunneling destroyed the mountains, both on the surface and underground, leading to unstable land conditions, landslides, soil erosion, and ground subsidence. Frequent landslides isolated mining-affected communities, especially during the typhoon season. Open pit mining by Benguet Corporation that started in the 1990s in Loakan, Itogon flattened whole mountains, and displaced communities of traditional small-scale miners and farmers, leaving a gaping pit in its midst.

Natural water springs and ricefields dried up due to sinking of the water table caused by drilling of tunnels underground. The mining companies then monopolized and privatized the natural water sources of the community. They diverted rivers to build tailings dams and to supply their water needs. Water pollution, siltation and degradation of rivers resulted from the dumping of mine tailings into the rivers and leaching of heavy metals from dumped muck waste. Worst, irresponsible and unsustainable mining operations led to disasters. Several tailings dams that were built to contain the mine tailings collapsed, polluting the rivers with tons of toxic mine waste. Mining-related disasters led to loss of lives, homes, property, schools and other infrastructure.

Violation of human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights ensued. Indigenous Peoples were displaced from their ancestral lands, which they used for residential and livelihood purposes. They lost access to the natural resources needed for their traditional livelihoods including small-scale mining, agriculture, hunting and gathering of forest products, and river fishing, leading to unemployment, food insecurity and outmigration in search for other sources of income. Traditional miners were accused of illegally encroaching on the mining company’s property and prohibited from mining in certain areas. They faced harassment by company security guards and the military, causing fear, division and disunity within the community, and disrupting their peaceful village life. Meanwhile, the thousands of mine workers employed in the large mines endured hazardous and difficult working conditions, health problems, unfair labor practices, union busting, delayed and partial payment of wages, work rotation, labor contractualization, non- payment of benefits and retrenchment.

IWGIA DebatesIndigenas Filipinas Agosto2023 2

Traditional miner melting gold with a blow. Photo: Ompong Tan/Partners for Indigenous Knowledge Philippines (PIKP)

National mining policy

The continuing conflicts between traditional small-scale miners and large mining companies arose from the existing national policy on mining. The Philippine Mining Act of 1995 provides for the liberalization of the mining industry by opening up mineral resources and vast areas of land for extraction and exploitation by large foreign mining corporations. It gives generous incentives to foreign investors and allows mining giants to plunder the mineral wealth of the nation at the expense of the affected communities.

Another law, the People’s Small-Scale Mining Act of 1991, regulates small-scale mining operations in the country. The law requires miners to register as a Minahang Bayan (Mining Cooperative), and to secure a permit or contract from the government in order to operate. Miners are required to comply with safety, health and environmental conditions, submit production reports, and pay taxes, royalties and government share. Since traditional small-scale mining was practiced in Benguet long before this law came into existence, it is organized through customary ways, and not according to Minahang Bayan regulations. It is thus considered illegal, and is not supported or recognized by the government. Rather, unregistered small scale mining is penalized and heavily taxed.

Recent policies have further cracked down on traditional gold miners. In 2018, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) ordered a suspension and moratorium on all small- scale mining operations in Itogon, after a massive landslide triggered by Typhoon Ompong killed more than 100 small-scale miners and their families in Ucab, Itogon. Those who defied the suspension order were arrested and charged.

Then in April 2021, the president signed Executive Order 130, lifting a nine-year moratorium on granting new mining permits in the Philippines. This marked a total shift from the anti-mining policy of the previous DENR Secretary Gina Lopez, who, in 2017, had earlier declared a ban on open-pit mining and closed-down 26 large mining operations for their environmental violations. EO130 facilitated the reactivation of at least 291 existing large mining applications, escalating threats to the environment and its defenders, and further threatening the remaining mining sites of traditional small-scale miners.

Present situation and problems

Today, the practice of traditional gold mining in Benguet has declined. Accessible gold ore deposits have been exhausted after centuries of sustained extraction. As a result, many households that used to depend on traditional mining as their main source of income have shifted to other livelihoods like rock quarrying, collection of sand and gravel, agriculture, wage labor, broom- making, contractual odd jobs, peddling, or finding work overseas. Many traditional miners who used to struggle against large mining companies in Itogon have been pushed to work as contract miners in Benguet Corporation’s old mining locations, under highly exploitative conditions. Others find themselves dependent on financier-suppliers and ore mill owners, who demand large shares of the gold revenue.

Traditional miners continue to face threats posed by large mining interests over the mineral deposits found in their ancestral domains. They are being pressured by the government to legalize their operations by complying with the rigorous requirements for registration as a Minahang Bayan, and to abide by the strict rules, regulations and taxes required by the law.

It is also unfortunate that bad mining practices are spreading among traditional miners themselves. Community regulation of small-scale mining activity is weakening, as seen in the increasing use of cyanide in leaching pads, without due consideration of the high environmental and health costs.

Learning from the good practices of Benguet traditional miners

Leoncio Na-oy, an Igorot small-scale miner, has found his advocacy to ban the use of toxic chemicals, particularly mercury, in the small-scale gold mining industry worldwide. Learning from the good practices of the traditional miners of Benguet, he has taught small-scale and artisanal gold miners in Africa about Cordillera Indigenous gold-processing techniques. “I teach others to use whatever they can find, like a tin can or a broken shovel and a jute sack. With just these and water, one can extract gold. The motion of swirling the pan is a skill learned for this method. This practice was passed on through generations and shared among miners in Baguio and Benguet. As the miners here are a closely knit community and share stories and experiences, the policy of not using mercury in mining was quickly implemented.”

Apit Tako, a peasant federation in the Cordillera region, has identified other good practices among traditional miners in Benguet that are worth learning from. Most important is community regulation, and enforcing strict distancing of tunnels to prevent cave-ins that may result from undermining. Selective ore extraction is also practiced by following ore veins and stringers very closely. This means that only narrow tunnels are dug, for which only a minimum amount of earth is excavated, and minimum timber shoring is required. Using muck waste to back-fill mine tunnels that have been exhausted keeps the land stable and minimizes waste disposal. Allowing members of the community to reprocess the muck waste to recover some gold content also helps those who are not working in the mine to earn some profits from gold mining. They also bar the entry into tunnels of miners who harbor ill feelings toward each other in order to maintain harmonious relationships among the miners.

As shared in the book Indigenous Wisdom at Work: “Through the ages, the Indigenous Peoples who mined for gold collectively developed the knowledge and skill on how to extract the precious metal from the ore. The technology they developed was in keeping with the ancestral wisdom and guidance to respect the land and nature. Thus, the Indigenous gold mining process is simple, practical, low-impact, and friendly to the environment. It uses gravity and water and does not require the use of toxic chemicals such as mercury.” This is in sharp contrast to the destructive practices of large mining corporations that have degraded the land and environment in Itogon since they came more than a century ago.

It would be good to be mindful of what Balitok, the spirit guardian of gold, teaches us all: Stop the greed. Share the wealth. Protect the land. Respect nature.

Jill K. Cariño is an Ibaloi Igorot from the Cordillera, Philippines, is a life-long activist for the protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples. She has been actively engaged at the local, national, regional and international level.

Tags: Indigenous Debates



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