by / Mongabay

SITIO DALICNO, Philippines — Domeng Laita, 64, stands on a mountain ledge outside his home, looking down with worry on his face. Below him stands the embankment of the San Roque dam, stretching more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) along the Agno River. In 2012, a spill from a gold mine upstream sent millions of tons of waste into the river system. With a looming increase in mining activity, Laita says he dreads a repeat of the incident.

Laita looks back at his home, casting another shrug then grinding his teeth. More mining means the old tunnels under his house will likely deepen. He tries not to think about the ground swallowing up his entire family.

“There will be digging underneath. My house could fall into the softened ground. When the mining starts again, there’s no telling how bad it will hurt the land,” he says, walking along the mountain ridge.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a mining disaster hit the town. Laita lives in Sitio Dalicno, part of Ampucao village inside the municipality of Itogon in Benguet province, in the northern Philippines. Dubbed a “gold haven” for its massive deposits of the precious metal, the region has drawn miners to the mountains for centuries.

The town is part of the northern Cordillera range in the Philippines, known for its resource-rich mountains and the Igorot, the region’s majority Indigenous population.

The municipality of Itogon in Benguet province, in the northern Philippines has been dubbed a “gold haven” for its massive deposits of the precious metal. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Laita, like most Dalicno residents, has been a small-scale miner all his life, using hand tools to dig small tunnels along the slopes of the mountain and extract ore. These methods have supported his family’s modest life along the village slopes. And like many of his neighbors, Laita says he feels powerless to stop the government from brokering new industrial mining permits on Indigenous soil.

In 2023, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) concluded talks with Itogon locals to obtain their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), a requirement for state agencies to allow mining operations on ancestral lands.

These talks first began in 2012 when Itogon-Suyoc Resources Inc. (ISRI), one of the Philippines’ oldest mining firms, initiated its application for production sharing agreement, or APSA 103, to mine 581 hectares (1,426 acres) of Itogon land covering nearly the whole of Dalicno.

If finalized, the agreement would allow ISRI access to 22 million tons of gold-bearing ore for the next 25 years.

Talks proceeded haltingly, gaining momentum in 2018 with a series of community consultations.

Itogon communities initially rejected APSA 103 in 2022. ISRI responded with a motion for reconsideration early in 2023, entailing another round of consultations.

In September 2023, the company finalized an agreement with Indigenous representatives and the NCIP. However, many in Dalicno, where most of ISRI’s operations will take place, question the FPIC process, alleging it was railroaded in ISRI’s favor — a claim both ISRI and the local NCIP branch reject.

To approve APSA 103, the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources requires a final signoff from the NCIP called a certification precondition. While this is pending, Dalicno residents are pressing the government to scrap the project altogether.

On the doors of many of Dalicno’s cliffside homes hang signs saying “No to APSA! Save our water sources, built-up areas, people, future!” On the highway to Dalicno hang hand-painted banners that read “Save Dalicno! No to APSA!”

Signs opposing ISRI’s mining plans, such as this one outside a small-scale mining facility, dot the town of Dalicno in the northern Philippines. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

“Itogon has seen so many lapses with mining, we don’t trust the companies,” says Allan Sabaiano, head of the Dalicno Indigenous Peoples Organization (DIPO), formed in January this year with the goal of overturning the initial agreement. ”They’ve compromised our water sources, and ISRI is coming back to take the rest. They did it by ignoring the voice of Dalicno’s people.”

Fearing the loss of drinkable water from a nearby spring, restricted access to the designated mining areas, and the continued plunder of their ancestral resources, DIPO has been lobbying to cancel APSA 103.

“So many ‘good-intentioned’ companies have mined here,” Dalicno elder Cristeta Caytap tells Mongabay. “But where are the schools and the hospitals? Yes they’ve given some financial assistance on occasion, but we remain underdeveloped while they line their pockets with gold. And now here they come again.”

Eric Andal, ISRI’s resident manager, says the no-mining zones, including residential areas, will be off-limits to the company’s operations. While conceding that large-scale mining has caused some environmental damage, Andal tells Mongabay that “we mitigate our impacts.”

If anything, he adds, it’s the community-driven “small-scale mining which has more of a degrading impact, because it is unregulated with so many working that way,” He says, “They themselves mine underneath their houses. If something collapses, it’s their doing.”

‘Nobody informed me about it’

In September 2023, weeks after the agreement was signed, DIPO filed a petition at the NCIP’s regional office to nullify it, citing irregularities in the consultation process.

According to DIPO, most residents were kept in the dark about the motion. Elder Juanito Erciba, who represented Dalicno at most FPIC talks up until 2022, says he was one of them. “When we said ‘No to APSA’ in 2022, I thought that was the end of it. I never knew about any motion for reconsideration. I just found out there was a signed agreement that nobody informed me about,” Erciba says.

He adds that Jimmy Lumbag, the man who suddenly replaced him, was never affirmed through a community decision, thereby making his participation in the FPIC illegitimate.

“It hurts, upsets my stomach. Is it because I’m just a poor man that I was overlooked? But the community appointed me,” Erciba says.

Small scale mines like this one support the modest lives of many villagers in Itogon. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

In January 2024, the NCIP dismissed the DIPO petition, deeming it without merit.

According to NCIP community development officer Abeline Cirilo, consensus was achieved with the cooperation of the municipal Indigenous group Itogon Indigenous People’s Organization (IIPO).  IIPO, which unlike DIPO is recognized by the NCIP, represented the entire municipality when it came to allowing ISRI entry. The matter was then put to a vote by secret ballot, Cirilo says.

“The outcome registered a yes to the operations while declaring the Dalicno homes and water source a ‘no-mining zone,’” he says.

Rosita Bargaso, the IIPO chair, hails from Itogon’s Gumatdang village, not among the localities that would be directly affected by APSA 103. She refutes DIPO’s claims, telling Mongabay that Dalicno elders were informed but uninterested in the latter part of the consensus building. She adds that they suddenly protested after the agreement was already signed.

Bargaso says Dalicno elders like Erciba oppose APSA 103 because of their “self-interest.” She says the proposed operations would help all of Itogon: “ISRI will permit them to gold mine on its site, [and offer] a chance to work for the company and access to company-owned water sources. The problem is they want all of it for themselves.”

In September 2023, IIPO released a resolution to support APSA 103 and “deny the allegations of alleged irregularities in the conduct of the FPIC.”

Andal seconds this assertion, dismissing DIPO as a “small group making a lot of noise to appear like there are many.” He adds that the support it has generated is because it has reached out to “leftist groups.”

“It was a desperate move on their part,” Andal says. “They can’t convince others anymore so they called on outsiders to help.”

Dalicno elder Cristeta Caytap says she fears industrial-scale mining will contaminate the local water supply. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Cirilo also says community voices weren’t ignored. When asked about DIPO’s allegations, including the unceremonious replacement of Erciba, he says that “if that did happen, hopefully it won’t affect the consent given through the voting. We can correct the names on the [agreement], but it cannot undo the outcome.”

DIPO head Sabaiano and many other residents say Dalicno was left out of the vote, rejecting the idea that the outcome represented a “consensus.” He also says IIPO failed Dalicno by “bypassing and excluding its people.”

“Neither the document nor the company has told us what kind of method ISRI will use. They could be ready to crack open the mountain,” he says.

Caytap also voiced her distrust over the “no-mining zone” disclaimer, saying underground digging is usually goes unchecked, causing irreparable and untold damage despite the surface looking untouched. “Mining affects everything,” she says, adding she expecting the tailings to eventually contaminate their spring water.

DIPO has since appealed to the NCIP’s central office, which is currently reviewing the matter.

Meanwhile, the regional office of the environment department’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau confirmed to Mongabay that approval for APSA 103 is on hold pending issuance of a certification precondition from the NCIP. The document is issued when a review by the central office has judged the process of acquiring community consent has complied with the proper guidelines.

So far, the NCIP’s central office has rejected the report its local branch submitted on the FPIC process for the mine because it lacks photographs, minutes, or attendance sheets proving that community assemblies, a key component of FPIC consultations, actually took place.

“We lacked the necessary documentation,” Cirilo says. “We did conduct two assemblies, but there were no pictures, an incomplete report, and we have yet to submit it.”

If that means a delay to issuing the certification precondition, Cirilo says the environment department could grant a one-year special gold mining permit, which only needs approval from municipal officials, forgoing Indigenous consent.

Allan Sabaiano, head of the Dalicno Indigenous Peoples Organization (DIPO), in striped shirt, with a map of mining in Itogon municipality. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

After the old gold rush

Large-scale mining here began during the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, with the first colonial mine opening in 1903. Since then, firms like ISRI have followed, amassing free patents and leases that continue today.

Lulu Gimenez, a seasoned Itogon community organizer and historian, has worked with groups like the Mining Communities Development Center and the Cordillera People’s Alliance. She says complaints against mines have piled up over the past century. “Communities complained of erosion, ground subsidence, and worsening conditions of water supply, but mining companies appeased them with monetary compensation for poisoned cattle.”

In the 1990s, the tensions erupted, with Itogon locals mounting barricades against the intrusion of heavy mining machinery.

Activists scored a big win against Australian mining firm Anvil in 2007. Anvil had struck a $2.12 million deal with ISRI for its mining rights, and planned to bore 20 holes, each 100 meters (330 feet) deep, for extraction. Locals protested, arguing that Anvil would puncture and drain a water table beneath a vein of ore, and successfully stopped the project.

Itogon residents cite the same fears about ISRI’s latest prospects.

More recent disasters attributed by Itogon locals to mining-related activity have also refreshed long-standing concerns about mining safety. In 2015, a sinkhole swallowed up seven houses in the Itogon village of Virac, forcing the evacuation of 170 families. Then, in 2018, a landslide in Ucab village claimed the lives of 82 miners living in bunkhouses on land controlled by mining firms.

In 2015, APEX Mining Company, owned by the Philippines’ second-richest individual, Enrique Razon, acquired ISRI. In February this year, a landslide in an APEX mining concession the southern province of Davao de Oro province killed nearly 100 people and displaced thousands.

Corporations have extracted too many minerals and profit from Itogon,” Gimenez says. “The destruction has been going on for over a century. It’s time they leave Itogon alone, let the land heal and let the people redevelop the resources.”

According to data from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, Benguet province, where Itogon is located, is one of the most intensively mined areas in the Cordillera region. Fourteen of 30 APSAs in the region are in Benguet, as are seven out of the 11 approved mineral-sharing agreements.

Inside one of the many small-scale mining facilities that pepper the hills of Itogon province. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Unwanted offer

As far as the mining bureau is concerned, ISRI has an impeccable record. In its 2022 Compliance Scorecard, used to measure how companies abide by safety, health, environmental and social development guidelines, ISRI notched a 94.35% rating.

“We see no problem, insofar as their compliance as a company,” says Alfredo Genetiano, chief engineer at the bureau. “The company conforms to our standards and hence we’ve given them a passing rate.”

The bureau lauded ISRI for its faithfulness to the Big Brother-Small Brother (BBSB) government initiative, where mining companies are obligated to allocate 1.5% of their expenses to community development and employ locals as contract miners. APEX told Mongabay that its BBSB commitment is aimed at reducing illegal, unsafe and unregulated small-scale mining.

ISRI also gave an additional 10 million pesos ($173,000) in goodwill funds to the communities upon the signing of the FPIC agreement last September.

However, Caytap remains skeptical, saying the cons severely outweigh the pros. “It limits the number of people who can mine,” she says. “Here, we go by traditional rules. Young ones, the elderly, anyone can work. And anyone with a bit more is obliged to share what they collect with the others, especially when times are tough. That’s how we’ve survived.”

Under the BBSB system, contract miners are hired in groups for short periods of time, and paid according to how much ore they extract, meaning earnings are highly variable.

ISRI’s Andal, who is also vice president for geology and exploration at APEX Mining, says their BBSB employment arrangements worked well for them in Davao, in the southern Philippines, and they’ve already replicated it with some 400 Itogon contract miners. Should APSA 103 be approved, he says, they could take on around 400 more locals.

While private operators shoulder all of their own costs, under BBSB, Andal says, contract miners only need to pay for their own food. “We provide the tools and buy the ore they extract,” he says.

While Dalicno elders describe small-scale mining as a community act, ISRI’s manager points to unregulated small-scale mining as a significant source of environmental degradation. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

Working eight-hour shifts, a group of around 20 contract gold miners can make up to 600,000 pesos ($10,400) a month if they’re productive, Andal says. Split evenly, that works out to 1,363 pesos ($23.60) per person per day. Andal says even less productive miners could make about 454 pesos ($7.90) a day, or slightly more than the daily minimum wage for the Cordillera region, which is 430 pesos ($7.45).

Local observers, however, question the touted benefits of BBSB and put the numbers much lower.

Jestone Dela Cruz has worked as a security guard at the Benguet Corporation, the oldest mining company in the Philippines, for nearly a decade, where he says he sees miners come and go, remaining poor. “A group of eight will probably get paid around 20,000 pesos [$347], that’s less than 3,000 pesos [$52] a month,” Dela Cruz says.

Sabaiano, who’s worked on ISRI sites in the past, also says the BBSB offer affords a typically low rate, with some gold miners taking home 7,000 pesos ($121) for two months’ worth of ore.
“How’s one supposed to survive like that? Plus other expenses like food and transportation are shouldered by the workers,” he says.

He also questions if the employment opportunities are even a good thing to begin with. ISRI will gain control over hundreds of hectares of mining land while employing fewer than 1,000 Itogon locals. Dalicno alone has a voting population of more than 2,000.

Caytap says she blames the mining firms for holding back the region’s economic development. “Our land is literally filled with gold. The country has first-class municipalities, we might have exceeded that without the mining firms. But somehow, we are left collecting money to fix our roads,” she says.

Community activists in Dalicno hold a banner protesting ISRI’s mining expansion plans. Image by Michael Beltran for Mongabay.

She adds, however, that she takes heart in the traditions and community spirit that sustain Dalicno and keep the memory of its history and struggle alive.

Local customs foster the collective. Everyday mining is a community act for young and old. During weddings or funerals, extraction is strictly prohibited out of respect for the family. When times are tough, each makes an offering to the deities and fairies to appease them.

For the first time in a long time, APSA 103 threatens to divide the commonly united Dalicno. But Caytap says she hasn’t lost faith, that in times of loss, their traditions beckon stronger. “We band together,” she says.

Photo by Hitoshi Namura on Unsplash