MACARTHUR, Leyte — Before the sun rises, Ron Baranda, a 38-year old farmer, would leave his house armed with a water sprinkler, a pail filled with humus and a few tools to tend to his two-hectare farm that he inherited from his parents. His farm — which he calls his Bahay Kubo — consists of one hectare of riceland, a few plots planted with eggplant, string beans, squash, okra and bitter gourd, and a hut that he built as his resting place when the sun is at its scorching high.
“I have a lot to thank the international organizations who helped us recover from the devastation of typhoon ‘Yolanda.’ They provided us with tools, seeds, implements and money and they trained us on new technologies that increased farm output without harming the environment,” he said.
Among the groups that helped him, he recalls, were the Catholic Relief Services, Christian Aid, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Red Cross.
“I also received seeds from the Department of Agriculture and that’s how I started growing vegetables,” he added.
Baranda said that while typhoon “Yolanda” brought devastation to their coastal village, the overwhelming support from other people not only helped them recover but also opened a number of livelihood opportunities for them that they have long been longing for.
But he said the gains they received from the “Yolanda” rehabilitation may not last after a mining operation recently started three villages away from his community which he fears will only take a few years before its operations spread to his village.
They provided us with tools, seeds, implements and money and they trained us on new technologies that increased farm output without harming the environment.
This town, along with four other municipalities covered by the mining permit, are facing the Eastern seaboard of the province, which were among the worst hit towns during typhoon “Yolanda.” Due to the magnitude of devastation in these areas, many aid organizations focused their rehabilitation work pouring in millions of pesos to restore the livelihood of the affected residents.
Blacksand mining starts
In Barangay Maya of this town, the Strong Built Mining Development Corp. (SBMDC), a Cebu-based company is pilot mining on a seven-hectare former riceland. The initial operation entails the extraction of blacksand from an average depth of 15.3 meters that will have a recovery rate of eight percent that will produce magnetite concentrate of 55 percent iron content.
SBMPC holds a 25-year Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) signed on 28 July 2007. The mining permit allows the company to extract magnetite, a mineral used in the production of steel, on 7,411.55 hectares of land spanning the towns of Dulag, Mayorga, MacArthur, Abuyog and Javier.
The firm’s operation, however, did not go full blast due to the slide in metal prices in 2010 and later because of typhoon “Yolanda.”
In February 2017, then Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Gina Lopez ordered the cancellation of its mining permit due to alleged violation of certain provisions of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. The company filed a motion for reconsideration but Lopez, instead, imposed a suspension of permit with penalties.
I also received seeds from the Department of Agriculture and that’s how I started growing vegetables.
In November 2019, DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu lifted the suspension order after the company implemented “full corrective measures.”
Lucrative quarrying business
Regional Director Leo Van Juguan of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau in Eastern Visayas said based on the agreement between the company and Barangay Maya, the mining operations cannot go beyond the seven-hectare area unless it has conducted a progressive rehabilitation of the area.
The progressive rehabilitation, he said, includes pumping back rejected material from the mineral separators as its backfill and incorporating the stripped topsoil for revegetation. He said it is a commitment to ensure that land will be productive for local farmers.
Juguan said the proposed mining area covers 200 hectares of land in the first three years of operation in three barangays. The area is projected to produce one million metric tons of magnetite concentrate every year.
But town residents are wary of the impact of the mining operations. Farmer and development worker Roger Abeto said he is concerned of the erosion and other environmental problems that may arise once excavation on their farm lands start.
Erosion fears raised
“When they do the backfilling during rehabilitation, definitely it will not put back everything that they took away so there will be a difference in elevation which can cause massive soil erosion,” he said.
“There is no alternative when the destruction is already done. Even if you are paid for the restoration, once the environment is disturbed its effect will already be lifetime which the future generations will inherit,” Abeto said.
Another farmer, 36-years old Noel Colares, said that as much as he wants to get a job in the mining company, he is afraid of what the mining operations will bring to his children and future generations.
Colares points to a community that was subject of a blacksand extraction by another company some 10 years ago but was abandoned without rehabilitation. “If you see it now, it is totally barren like a desert,” he said.
The local church has also voiced its concern of the mining activity.
The firm’s operation, however, did not go full blast due to the slide in metal prices in 2010 and later because of typhoon ‘Yolanda.’
On 19 November, Fr. Amadeo Alvero, parish priest of St. Isidore Parish, appealed to public officials to help stop the blacksand mining.
“In view of what happened to the tremendous and great flooding in Cagayan, Manila, Marikina and many other places, I am pleading with my bended knees to stop the Blank Sand Mining here in MacArthur, Leyte,” Fr. Alvero posted on social media.
“This appeal I made on behalf of those who love and want to protect our environment.
If we protect the environment from destruction, the environment will protect us from destructions. If we protect Mother Earth, she will protect us in return,” he added.