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In Philippines, Seeking Environmental Justice 20 Years After Mining Disaster

Elisa Hernandez used to earn a living washing her community’s laundry
Elisa Hernandez used to earn a living washing her community’s laundry
Jason Strother

MARINDUQUEElisa Hernandez dips her yellow blouse into the Boac River's rushing water and then slaps it up against the shoreline's gray stones.

The 73-year-old used to earn a living washing her whole community's laundry this way. "We felt at home in this river ... It was so clean, we played in it and we used to catch a lot of fish here too," she says.

But that all changed in March 1996, when a drainage pipe inside a copper mine burst about 20 kilometers upstream.

Millions of tons of toxic mine waste, including lead and arsenic, flooded into the river. At the time, it was the worst mining disaster in the history of Philippines. Many of the residents of the island province of Marinduque are farmers and fishermen. For Hernandez and thousands of others, the spill killed their main source of income, and they have never fully recovered.

"After the incident, I started to break out with skin diseases from the toxins in the water. I'm cured now but people no longer wanted me to wash their clothes in the river," Hernandez says.

Hernandez was party to a decade-long lawsuit against Barrick Gold Corp, the Canadian firm that bought Placer Dome, the company that ran the Marcopper mine. The plaintiffs alleged the company polluted Marinduque's land, waterways and poisoned its residents.

A judge in the United States dismissed the case last year on jurisdiction grounds. Despite the court verdict, the province isn't giving up its fight, says Adeline Angeles, a local legislator and member of the Marinduque Council for Environmental Concerns, an organization that was part of the lawsuit.

Angeles says when mining began on her island in the 60s, people believed that it would make the province rich. "After decades of mining, Marinduque is one of the poorest provinces in the entire archipelago," Angeles says. "Our waters are silted, the rivers cannot be used for irrigation and our farmers are poorer."

The Canadian mining company Barrick Gold says $50 million in compensation has already been paid for the disaster. The Marinduque government says much of that was never received. Today, the Marcopper site sits abandoned.

It took some convincing and a generous fare to persuade a truck driver to take me into the site. Heading up the rocky road, I sit in the back as we drive past armed guards. There's an overgrown golf course here and even an airplane landing strip.

In the distance is a barren hilltop, which was Marcopper's first open-pit mine.

We arrive at the second pit, which is filled up with metallic blue water and surrounded by a gravelly moonscape. In the Philippines, Marinduque has become the symbol of anti-mining activism. It's a reminder of what can go wrong when foreign firms from wealthy nations operate virtually unchecked in the developing world.

Anti-mining advocates protest against what they say is the continued plundering of resources in the Philippines. They say foreign mining companies give little back to the communities they devastate. "Since the birth of the Philippines, foreign countries, foreign nationals or foreign corporations go here because of rich minerals," says Camilo Manio of the anti-mining coalition Ayansa Tigil Mina group, saying that it started with Spain, then the U.S. and Japan. Now Chinese, Australian and Canadian firms all run mines here.

Citing government figures, Camilo says it's a myth that mining makes the Philippines wealthier. "Only 2% from mining industries was given to local governments," Camilo says, adding that mining contributes less than 1% to the country's GDP.

The group is calling for a ban on foreign mining companies in the Philippines.

Roland De Jesus, a director of the Mines and Geoscience Bureau in Manila, says mining in the Philippines is safer now. As for Marinduque, he says, it's not Manila's responsibility to clean up the mess that a private company left behind. But he offers another solution. "One of the alternatives is to resume mining," he says. According to De Jesus, "based on the actual production rate of the company when they suddenly stopped, they still have about 17 years of mine life." He says that's only an alternative if a company has the financial and technical capabilities to rehabilitate the damage caused by the previous operator.

De Jesus adds that a disaster like the one in Marinduque won't happen again because new laws demand accountability for environmental damage. "I am confident we have a good mining law, one of the best in the world. Before there was a lack of transparency," says De Jesus.

Angeles, the environmental advocate in Marinduque, says reopening that mine is an unacceptable option. "We cannot take another risk." The island is now moving forward with launching a new lawsuit against the mining firm in Canada. But any compensation might not come soon enough.

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