Fool’s gold

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In 1519 the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez arrived at Tenochtitlan, the capital of the empire of the mighty Aztecs. The emperor, Montezuma II, thought the white men were gods. He was wrong.

Cortez and his soldiers eventually held Montezuma hostage and demanded a huge ransom of gold, although many of the treasures were lost when the Spanish forces had to fight their way to escape the fury of the Aztec warriors.

Greed for gold resulted in the tragic massacre of the Aztecs and the downfall of their empire.

A parallel can be drawn between that ancient history and the recent tragedy in Itogon, Benguet where half a kilometer of hillside collapsed after typhoon “Ompong” dumped over a month’s worth of rain in a matter of hours.

The cascading mud, rocks and boulders buried a bunkhouse cum chapel where small-scale miners and their families sought refuge. At least 19 bodies have been dug up from the muddy grave and many more are feared buried.

It was a tragedy waiting to happen; the storm just triggered it.

The real culprit behind the deaths was greed for gold which allowed unrestricted proliferation of small-scale mining operations.

With numerous tunnels dug, the topsoil stripped, the vegetation cleared and nothing done to mitigate the desecration of the environment, the entire mountainside became unstable.

Small-scale mining operations mushroomed because everyone is getting their cut. Big mining firms allegedly looked the other way and even encouraged their operations. By purchasing the gold output of small-scale miners, big firms not only masked their real earnings but also evaded a payment of billions in taxes to the government.

A study of the Oxford business group noted that when the government began strict imposition of 7 percent tax on gold mining in the third quarter of 2011, small-scale mining operators “quickly went underground and began operating in the black market, with smugglers shipping product overseas.”

Likewise, a 2015 study of the National Tax Research Center said that instead of selling their gold to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), as required by law, small-scale miners and traders opted “to sell their gold to the black market.”

BSP’s percentage share in terms of gold purchases to total gold production dropped by 38 percent in 2011, 94 percent in 2012, 46 percent in 2013, before it slightly recovered by 7.5 percent in 2014. These figures are tell-tale signs of shenanigans.

Of course, it follows that local officials must also have their cut. The provincial governor and the mayors are members of the board that grants small-scale mining contracts and licenses for mineral processing. Incidentally, it was reported that the wife of the mayor in Itogon is trading in gold herself.

And despite their anti-mining rhetoric, the communist armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA) is also one of the beneficiaries not only of small-scale mining but also big mining operations.

A study of the University of Maryland estimated that mining industry in northeastern Mindanao pays between $340,000 and $45,000 per year to the NPA to ensure the rebel group won’t disrupt the mining operations.

It was also reported that NPA raided small-scale mining site in the North, supposedly because it failed to heed the demands of the rebel group for the payment of the so-called “revolutionary taxes.”

Everybody is happy, until tragedy pays a visit. To paraphrase a saying, big money has many fathers, tragedy is an orphan. The local officials in Itogon insisted the victims were told to evacuate but they refused. A big mining firm said many of the victims were illegally operating in the company’s claims, tagging them as responsible for the degradation of the environment.

That is the height of hypocrisy! All the buck-passing and finger-pointing do not in any way wash the bloods in the hands of those who cashed in, one way or the other, on mining operations.

President Duterte himself now wants to stop the wanton destruction of mining operations, saying mining has created a monster in the country due to its ill effects on the environment.

“I pity my country. And if I do not decide really to stop it, although we get P70 billion in taxes from mining, but if you compare it with the long-term destruction, our children will suffer,” he said.

The “People’s Small-Scale Mining Act of 1991” has the noble intention of allowing ordinary people to benefit from extraction of the country’s rich mineral resources. But while it provided safeguards to the environment, these are honored more in the breach rather than in the observance.

It could even be argued that compliance with environmental laws by big mining firms is easier to monitor and regulate compared to a plethora of small-scale mining operations.

At any rate, as the President suggested, Congress must take a new look at the country’s mining laws to bring more sense into the rules and regulations on mining and prevent the unnecessary loss of lives like what happened in the Itogon landslide.

Otherwise, the curse that befell on many who succumbed to the greed for gold will haunt us again. All we would have is a fool’s gold.

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