By Joseph Smooke
“It is better to die from bullets than from hunger,” said Jucy Salado, spokesperson for a small scale mining community outside Surigao City, Mindanao.
In the jungles and coastal communities of the Caraga Region in northeast Mindanao, indigenous people are risking their lives by organizing against corporations that are often protected by their own armed security forces, and the Philippine military. Farming and fishing have supported native tribes here for many generations, but over the past few decades corporations and the government have taken notice that they are literally living on a gold mine.
Some of the largest gold, nickel, copper and iron deposits in Asia have attracted corporations eager to extract these riches. The Philippine Mining Act of 1995 liberalized the government’s policies in response to recommendations by the World Bank to encourage foreign engineering and capital investment. The Act allows foreign corporations 100 percent ownership of the minerals, while only taxing the mined materials at a rate of two percent.
As a result, Mindanao is now the mining capital of the Philippines, but Caraga is still one of the country’s poorest regions. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer in April of this year, half of the region’s 2.4 million residents live in poverty.
Hearing the struggles of local and indigenous people
My visit to Caraga was as a member of an International Solidarity Mission (ISM) organized this summer by the International Conference for Peace and Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP). Leading our small group of foreigners were members of the local NGO, Caraga Watch, including the Caraga Watch Youth, who translated the Cebuano and Tagaglog interviews.
My flight to Butuan City airport was followed by a four-hour drive to Lianga where we transferred our bags and ourselves on to wooden platforms strapped to the sides of a motorcycle. From there the road to Han-Ayan, a native Manobo village deep in the jungles of Surigao del Sur, has been so badly damaged by heavy trucks that motorcycles are the only vehicles still able to transport people and supplies. After two hours of gripping tightly to the boards to avoid getting bounced off, we arrived at the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), a school in the heart of the community.
For the next three days, we would visit communities, farmers, fisher-folk, small scale miners, and a Mayor as we traveled north to Surigao City. We witnessed firsthand the impacts of foreign-based companies that are destroying the environment and robbing local and native people of their livelihoods.
Threats from the Philippine military
Threats to the community aren’t just to their environment and livelihood. The Philippine military is terrorizing local and native people to make way for mining, logging, and agricultural corporations.
Josaphina Pagalan, a farmer in the Manobo community told the story of the military’s occupation of Han-Ayan and history of forced evacuations since the 1980’s. “The soldiers are the protectors of the foreign companies,” she said. This native Manobo community is in the midst of a forest valuable for making paper and plywood. And, mining companies want to gain access to the vast gold reserves they believe exist here.
Pagalan told us about how her community has been forced off their land at least four times by the Philippine military since she was a girl. She said the military “occupied the houses and the school. They ransacked ALCADEV, the school. These are the reasons we quickly evacuated. Of course, because we evacuated, our means of livelihood was also affected. We had to leave our farm and the corn behind. When we went back there was nothing left.”
We spoke with a young man there, Richie Enot who returned to his local community after travelling to Manila. When he returned, he didn’t know that the military had imposed a curfew disallowing working in the fields before 5am and after 5pm. He was out farming early in the morning to get enough done to have enough to sell. He told us that a soldier shot him in the stomach for violating the curfew. Enot survived, but now suffers from chronic pain and trauma.
“With every military operation, we are afraid,” said a Manobo chieftain, Datu Jalandoni Campos, Chairperson of an an indigenous organization, MAPASU. “We fear about which members will be beaten up next, who will be killed or missing, who we cannot find, and who we do not know whether they are dead or alive,” he said.
Local cooperative miners like the community represented by Salado are also being threatened by the military. “So, why do the soldiers not want us to work here and allow our lives to get better?” she said, “because they want large-scale mining companies to operate here. That’s what the soldiers want, probably because it’s what the government wants them to do.” Salado told us the military blasted their tunnels, burned down their houses, and destroyed their pipes.
Mining is their only source of income and proceeds are shared equally throughout the community which they have organized into a cooperative. These local miners don’t use chemicals, water diversion, open pits, or deforestation, unlike corporate mines, just simple tools like sieves and pans. But these small-scale miners are an impediment to corporate interests, which is why they believe they are being targeted by the Philippine military.
Corporate mining tearing down mountains
Corporate plantations aren’t the only destructive forces in Caraga. Large-scale corporate mining is tearing down mineral-rich mountains and sending them off to be processed elsewhere. “We have seen by our own eyes how our mineral ore, our nickel laterite, the red soil, are being carried and shipped to Japan to Australia to China,” said a participant on the ISM and an advocate for Mindanao, Sister Stella, in an interview.
We witnessed large-scale nickel mines including one that had displaced a native Mamanwa community. Shenzhou Nickel Mine has ripped open an entire coastal mountain and was dragging it onto boats to float the ore to China for processing from their private port, where the toxic run-off is flowing into the sea.
This has caused devastating levels of pollution and toxicity in the rivers, lakes, and ocean. Crops, fish and livestock are dying, mangrove forests cannot survive, and the local people who depend on this water are often forced to poison themselves.
“The mining is uphill, in the highlands, and the agricultural is below. So the siltation during the rainy days will flow down to the river and of course the irrigation dam will be affected,” said Arsenio Avila, a farmer and chairperson of the Farmers Cooperative and Irrigators Association who lives near a Philippine-owned nickel mine in Surigao del Sur, Marcventures.
Many people displaced from their livelihoods now work for mining corporations, but the work is typically seasonal, on contract, with low wages and without health benefits, despite the hazards.
Foreign-owned plantations and pesticide
Elsewhere in Caraga, encroaching on local staple crops like rice and corn are large tracts of single crops like bananas for companies such as American-based Dole and Japan-based Sumifru. These plantations rely on chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers polluting the air, soil and groundwater. Dole alone has over 13,000 hectares of banana plantations in the region, more acreage than the entire land area of Etobicoke.
Sister Stella has seen the damage to the environment and people because of the invasion by cash crops like Dole’s bananas. She passionately said in an interview, “Biodiversity–this is beauty, this is creation! All has the place, all has the life. All has the right to live. But with capitalism, with agribusiness plantations, only one has the right to live, and that is banana.”
Rogilio Montero, an organic rice farmer in Tago and chairperson of a peasant organization, talked to us about his community and farm, which is now surrounded by Dole’s banana trees. “After Dole came in, and surrounded the farms that were still planted with rice,” he said, “we observed an increase of pests in the surrounding areas, and the water became a threat because the drainage goes through the main river.” He continued, “So the peasants are increasingly worried that it can cause harm or sickness.”
Growing cash crops like bananas and oil palm trees means important food crops are being displaced by the foreign operations, and so are the farmers. These farmers also must contend with the Philippines’ hacienda system, which gives all the power to landowners.
Most farmers are tenants who till the land owned by mostly corporations and the entrenched Philippine aristocracy. Tenant farmers must borrow money for the supplies they need and struggle to earn enough to pay back the loan. Tenant farmers can’t survive without subsidies because the prices paid for their goods in local markets aren’t enough to cover their expenses. Multinationals on the other hand, are at a huge advantage. They’re well capitalized and they sell their cash crops in a global market. In contrast, when rice growers sell their harvest locally, the price they get is so low that they have to sell nearly all their rice to make their loan payments. This leaves farmers without enough food to feed their families.
Activists fighting back
While the situation in Caraga is dire, with agribusiness, mining, and logging destroying the environment and communities, local people are finding strength in organizing. In the jungles of Surigao del Sur, the Han-Ayan community’s solidarity against corporate intrusions is based around ALCADEV, which was founded by five native tribes in the Region. The school teaches farming, community development and what’s happening because of the corporations and military to both high-schoolers and adults.
One of the groups that established the school is MAPASU. The full Cebuano name translates into Persevere in the Struggle for the Next Generation. The school and MAPASU foster solidarity, which is why the residents believe the military keeps trying to shut the school down.
“Because MAPASU organization always struggles against mining companies, we are being subjected to recurring military operations,” Pagalan said. “They see MAPASU is strongly united and the people are developing capacity because of the project we have here, which were not given by the government, but by the efforts of the indigenous people setting up their own school,” she continued.
Thus far, Han-ayan has been successful in fending off mining corporations. “At the present time at the MAPASU organization, there are mining companies that try to enter, but because of the strong resistance of the people and strong unity of the people, they have not been able to enter,” Datu Jalandoni said.