by Nicole-Anne C. Lagrimas

Jose is a miner. His people’s land is rich with gold ore, but has long been exposed to large-scale mining operations that use his and his people’s – the Mansaka tribe – strength to cut the mountains open.

Jose is a miner, and he is a husband and a father. For the first time, he is a traveler, too.

Having made the journey to Manila from his home in Compostela Valley (ComVal) province at least 2, 000 other delegates from various parts of the country, they have been spun a new name: lakbayani, after the wordplay on the Filipino words for journey and heroes.

He is a participant in this year’s Lakbayan, a gathering of national minorities to bring to the country’s capital their people’s struggle and demands, and though they have experienced  violence, little rest, and meager food in the city, he said he would return next year, if necessary, to continue the fight for his people’s rights.

Resting in a makeshift cot of wooden panels in the main camp site set up for Lakbayan delegates hailing from as far north as the Cordilleras and as far south as the Davao region, Jose Balucos, 42, is away from the day’s protest action in Mendiola. It was past 5 p.m., the sun only starting to sink after glaring at everything from the rallyists in Mendiola to the sleepy camp in the Campus Maintenance Office grounds in the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman.

Jose, for his part, opted to stay behind to look after a colleague who was down with the flu.

Yet he was not always on the sidelines, for when PO3 Franklin Kho rammed a police van through a crowd of protesters in front of the US Embassy on Oct. 19th, Jose was right there, wearing a non-descript striped shirt in a sea of red.

Here, he starts to tell his story.

“‘Yung mga naka-pulang damit, ‘yun ang kanilang pinapalo,” he said.

Consistent with other accounts, he said their program was about to end when Senior Superintendent Marcelino Pedrozo ordered his officers to disperse the crowd.

Jose said he himself saw the dispersal, which left at least 50 injured and 21 arrested, unfold: “Lumabas yung mga naka-full armed, full mask, saka dinisperse kami. Yung bumbero, palapit nang palapit sa amin.”

As the protesters would not go back to UP without their colleagues, he continued, they waited for two hours outside the police station as their leaders negotiated with the police.

“Ayaw makinig [ng mga pulis]. Palaging nakangiti. ‘Yan po ang nakita namin,” said Jose.

While the protesters waited outside the gate of the police station, he said, police officers brought out a large speaker and started playing Christmas songs to drown out their leaders’ demands to release the arrested protesters.

It was not until 6 p.m. that the group finally went back to UP, where rest awaited them.

Jose, asked why he joined Lakbayan, launched into a tale of a people wronged: the Mansaka tribe of the valley province, small-scale miners in a gold-rich land, booted out of their ancestral domain by a large-scale mining company whose operation killed their river and their livelihood.

Quickly identifying Apex Mining Co. Inc. as the culprit and the Mining Act of 1995 as the state move that allowed it, Jose said, “Marami pong nasagaan ang ginawang batas na yan: lahat ng tribo, katutubo sa Mindanao, dahil sa pagpasok ng malaking mina, pagmimining ng aming mga ginto at iba’t ibang minerals.”

“Maraming lider na pinatay dahil ayaw nilang papasukin [ang mga mining companies] dahil winasak ‘yung mga bundok namin; yung mga ilog namin, wala na,” he added.

Registered in the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (PSEC) in 1970, Apex Mining Co. Inc. operates in the municipalities of Maco and Mabini in the ComVal province.

According to its annual report to the PSEC, Apex produced 438,424 tonnes of gold ore in 2015. The same report stated that 244,600 ounces of gold could be recovered from the long-mined area.

Forty percent of the company’s shares are held by Prime Metroline Holdings Inc., and among its top 20 shareholders is Dr. Walter William Brown, who owns 1.34 percent of the company and serves as its president and CEO.

Jose points his fingers at the contested Mining Act of 1995, which explicitly allows foreign-owned corporations to be granted a mineral processing permit.

It has survived questions of constitutionality but has recently been called “unfair” by Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez.

In fact, the Supreme Court decided en banc in January 2004 that some of the act’s provisions, including Section 56, which allows for the granting of mineral processing permits to foreign corporations, in response to questioning by the La Bugal B’laan Tribal Association in June 1995. The decision was reversed in December 2004.

Jose still depends on his people’s river, which, though now dead, still provides them with enough gold that four hours of labor, done at night to avoid prying eyes, would sell for up to P800, an amount enough to survive on for a day, he said.

They work in the night to avoid the eyes of the guards of the mining company which operates right in the middle of their ancestral land, fearing the stipulated fine and jail time if caught.

“Pag makikita kami, hulihin kami, ikulong saka mayroon pang penalty na P12,000 plus six months na kulong,” he said. “Hindi mo nakikita sa ating gobyerno kung paano kami inaapi sa aming mismong lugar.”

The mining company, which according to Jose has been nothing but detrimental to his people and his land, provides them with contract miners’ jobs that last only for a year. Once their contract ends, they would be hardpressed to apply a second time.

“Kung mag-apply ka sa opisina, tanggapin ka nila sa application lang. Pero yung mismong ikaw ang um-apply. Masyadong [patatagalin]. Hanggang di na, wala na,” he said.

“‘Yan ang dahilan kung bakit kami narito. Upang marinig sa ating gobyerno kung paano kami sinagasaan, yung iba namin pinatay na…ng malalaking mina sa amin,” he added.

In the camp, Jose said he eats mostly bread and canned goods, donations gathered for the delegates.

He and his companions from other areas of Mindanao share a blue tarpaulin roof and their assembled wooden cots, bearing the heat and the rain away from their families until the last week of October.

Outside the tents, a woman named Dadad Sumudlayon cooks rice in three large pots. Never having been to a rally as part of Lakbayan, she said, her duty is to prepare food for her exhausted colleagues.

Outside the camp, where visitors mill about before and after immersing with the delegates, are sacks of rice and various other supplies.

The living conditions are far from comfortable, but Jose said, “Pagdating namin dito, wala kaming inasahan. Ang amin, diyan lang kami sa daan…lahat kami, sanay na.”

If the Mining Act of 1995 is not repealed this year, he said, he would return to Manila armed with the same cause, and he would join again in the years after that, “hanggang sa mabasura yung batas na ‘yan,” until his people’s land can be theirs again.

Year after year, he would fight.

But tonight, Jose the miner, the husband, the father, the lakbayani, would rest.  (Photo by Gabriel Sante.)


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