Mr. President, in August of 2007, I delivered my maiden privilege speech and talked about Mercury Rising. I was referring then to the rising global temperature which is causing climate change. Today, I will again discuss Mercury Rising but in its more literal context, that is the rising mercury contamination in our environment and our people.
My speech today coincides with the ongoing Global Forum on Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining or ASGM which is being hosted by the Philippines through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme. The forum started yesterday and will be until tomorrow, December 9. The forum is a multi-sectoral event with participants coming from all over the world. This is a prelude to the UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiations Council second meeting on January 2011.
Part of my speech is the presentation of Atty. Richard Gutierrez, Executive Director of Ban Toxics during a Forum in the Senate on ASGM sponsored by the Committee on Environement and Natural Resources and the Committee on Health chaired by Sen. Pia Cayetano last 6 December 2010.
There is great universal demand for gold throughout history. It has evolved into a depository of wealth, as a form of currency or medium of exchange and as adornments that signify beauty, status and power. Now, we are all surrounded by gold as its qualities lend itself well for industrial uses. It is so highly in demand although extracting it from the earth is proving to be very costly; not just in terms of the expenditures related to the acts of mining and processing, but in terms of the havoc on the environment as we destroy ecological niches such as forests in order to mine for gold.
There is no end to the demand for gold especially in communications. Citing celphones alone, a ton of celphones contains 280 grams of gold - a very viable enterprise for so called urban miners, comparing this to processing one ton of ore to get 60 grams of gold or more.
The current production of gold in the Philippines just for the first semester of this year is P49.8 Billion of which small-scale gold mining accounts for P19.3 Billion. At the average world price of gold today at $1,416.per ounce, it would seem that there is much money from gold to go around. Sadly, we are not seeing that among the Filipino ASM miners, including generations of children who have not risen beyond doing the dangerous job fit for grown-up men and machines.
In the gold rush areas like Diwalwal, and the traditional mines of Cordillera, the extraction of gold seems to be their lot, but the glitter belongs to some other people. Many poor attracted to the quick cash from gold sales remain poor, and, suffer from the ill-effects of using Mercury and other chemicals, such as cyanide.
What is artisanal and small-scale gold mining? (Slide 2)
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) refers to mining activities that use rudimentary techniques in extracting minerals, most commonly gold, by miners working in small sized operations.
Based on studies, there are gold deposits in around 40 provinces in the country. (Slide 3)
The table shows that since 1998, gold production by small-scale mining has overtaken the gold production of large-scale mining and has been steadily increasing while that of the large-scale mining has been on the decline. (Slide 4)
Why is artisanal and small-scale gold mining important? (Slide 5) Artisanal and small-scale gold mining plays an important economic role in the Philippines. It provides significant source of livelihood to about 300,000 miners and their families while directly and indirectly supports the livelihood of about two million people. For the last five years, the sector has been producing an average of 30 tonnes or about 80% of the country’s annual gold supply, and which placed the Philippines in the list of top twenty gold producing countries in the world.
What is the current state of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in the Philippines? (Slides 6-11) Artisanal and small-scale gold mining occurs in 30 provinces of the country with varying intensity and scale of operation. Extraction of gold-laden deposits takes several forms: surface, underground and underwater. Gold processing techniques also range from the customary gold panning method and use of sluice box to the more sophisticated method like mercury amalgamation and cyanidation.
How mercury is lost in the process? (Slide 12) Mercury or quicksilver or “asoge” in Tagalog is being used during the rodmilling or ballmilling to form the amalgam of gold and mercury. During this process some of the mercury used is disposed off with the tailings which will then end-up in our water bodies. The amalgam formed after the ballmilling,heat is then applied to it to separate gold and mercury. What is left is the sponge gold while the mercury has evaporated into the air, some of it possibly inhaled by the miner.
Cyanidation. (Slide 13)
Others use the tailings for re-extraction of gold by adding cyanide which is another dangerous and harmful process.
Why is mercury use in ASGM a serious concern? (Slides 14-15)
Mercury poses great danger to the life of miners, their families and communities living in the affected regions. Several studies conducted in mining areas and adjacent regions have also revealed that drinking waters and rivers have exceeded recommended water quality criteria, marine species such as fish and mollusks have mercury levels beyond the allowable limit while miners and children examined exhibited symptoms of mercury contamination. In 2006, the united Nations reported that miners in the Philippines are found to have mercury levels up to 50 times above the World Health Organization limits.
What are the issues confronting ASGM in the Philippines? (Slides 16-19)
Aside from the need for most miners to legalize their operations, some environmental, social, health, legal and institutional concerns were noted in most mining sites. The cutting of timbers to support mine tunnels for instance, has aggravated the denudation of our forests and the distortion of scenic landscapes. The indiscriminate discharge of waste rocks in water bodies has also resulted in soil erosion and siltation which in turn cause instant flooding, with consequent damage to crops, properties and even lives. The excessive use and emmission of toxic substances like mercury and cyanide during gold processing has also resulted in the consequent contamination of several water bodies, thus undermining their beneficial use. Overflowing and often leaking mine tailings contaminated with mercury and cyanide are discharged directly in rivers and creeks and in due time end in seas and oceans.
Social and health concerns include unregulated migration in mining sites especially in “gold rush areas”, land tenure and resource use conflicts, limited access to health and basic services, exposure of miners to occupational health and safety hazards, exploitation of workers expecially minors and absence of social security benefits are some of the social issues identified.
Legal and institutional concerns on the other hand are weak and non-operational mining regulatory boards, costly and difficult permitting and licensing process, ineffectual enforcement of small-scale mining and other related laws, insignificant role of LGUs, and uncontrolled ASGM activities in protected and watershed reservation areas.
To amplify these concerns, let me cite some few historical cases. I cite as a palpable testament to the harmful effects of mercury exposure the “Minamata Mercury Disaster of 1956” in Minamata, Japan which left hundreds of people dead and tens of thousands contaminated with mercury.
The Philippines was one of the important sources of Mercury worldwide as we are in the Circum-Pacific belt along with the large Mercury deposits in Peru and California. From 1953 to 1976, the Mercury mine in Palawan was a major source and produced 2,900 tons. At the time it stopped operations, more than 2 million tons of mine-waste calcines were produced. Part of these mercury-contaminated waste ended up in Honda Bay as building material for a wharf. Mercury concentration went as high as 43 mg/kg-660 mg/kg total Hg. Similarly the pit lake and Tagburos Creek had concentrations of 4 mg/kg-400 mg/kg. The papers of Ms. Maramba and Feng detail their findings. World Health Organization drinking water standards were exceeded. This contamination then migrated to the sea by natural processes and became part of the food chain of fish, and molluscs, and finally people. This continues to this day.
Similarly, a news report last October cited rising Mercury levels in Pula Bato River from the contaminated sluice water of mines in Danlag, Pula Bato, Tablu and Palo 19 in South Cotabato. This data gathered by the DENR is backed up by data from the Sagittarius Mines, Inc. operating in gold-rich Tampakan in South Cotabato.
Add to this, the accidental spillage of a beaker of mercury during a science experiment at the St. Andrew’s School in Paranaque City, Philippines sometime in 2006 which left a 14-year-old student suffering from nerve damage with symptoms similar to that of Parkinson’s disease. The effects are as appalling as they are real.
Thus, the negative effects of Mercury on the various media – air, land, water and on biota – plants, animals including fish and human goes on a vicious cycle as the pervasive and persistent characteristics of Mercury takes over from its initial release to the environment by men. I also came upon the UNEP study which clearly states the various bonds that Mercury exhibits. Let me quote:
· “Mercury bond to organic matter. Mercury has a high affinity to organic matter and is often found sorbed to substances like humic acid (Guedron et al. 2009).
· Mercury bond to inorganic matter. In many places, mercury is especially enriched in the fine grained fraction, consisting of sand, silt and clay (Ashley et al. 2002). It should be noted that this fraction might also be transported as dust. Moreover, mercury bound to clay-size particles is bioavailable and may serve as a precursor for microbial methylation (Guedron et al. 2009). ”
ASGM miners and their communities maybe subject to immediate direct exposure, while long-term release into rivers and seas, soil, and air, spells extended contamination of plants, animals and men. Surely, contamination is not limited to their tribes.
There is no denying that exposure to mercury is highly toxic to humans, most especially to pregnant women, children, and the developing fetus. It has adverse effects on the nervous system and causes irreparable neurological disorders.
I positively note the international and national action on Mercury which needs reinforcement through a ban on production, export, import and strict management of use, storage and/or disposal. A global treaty is now in the works, as I have been informed, and this has my support especially with the Philippine position that is strong on the “polluter pays principle”.
As the most affected in the use and/or abuse of Mercury, the ASGM miners may have to seek new technology or re-assess the Indigenous Peoples traditional mining practices. Several papers have been written on the subject. One of those is a paper by Ms. Caballero of the Ateneo De Manila University which differentiated the traditional ASGM from the gold-rush miners. Higher gold prices and the rush to get as much gold ahead of the others have forced many small-scale gold miners to use Mercury. An interesting thing that Ms. Caballero mentioned was that the Kankanaey mix the juice extracted from tobacco, calamansi, sunflower or sayote leaves to prevent fine gold from rising to the top of the panning concentrate. Likewise, the family-based and gender-differentiated roles in gold extraction puts a premium on the value of women’s labor saying women are more reliable in physical separation of the gold.
But, over the course of time, the difference between the gold-rush miners and the traditional artisanal small-scale miners are vanishing. More and more are gravitating towards the use of Mercury and Cyanide.
Let us not forget that, a common problem faced by traditional and gold-rush ASGM is the government’s failure to identify areas assigned for small-scale mining despite the enactment of the People’s Small-Scale Mining Law. On the other hand, areas for large-scale miners have been identified and covered by various instruments such as Financial or Technical Assistance Agreement, Mineral Production Sharing Agreement, Joint Venture Agreement and Co-Production Agreement. Traditional ASGM miners have complained of the cumbersome permitting process. This aggravates the situation wherein large mining firms displace them from their traditional mining sites.
Distinguished colleagues, I stand before you now not as a Senator of the Republic, but primarily as a citizen and foremost a concerned father to two loving and wonderful children. I daresay I speak in behalf of all the parents across the globe when I say that we want nothing more than a safe and healthy environment for our children to live in and subsequently grow up to in the near future. I sincerely believe that this may very well be the greatest legacy that we shall leave behind for our children and their children’s children for generations to come
Most important of all, if protection of the environment occupies our priorities, then our people will be assured of ecosystem services that are contributed by un-contaminated air, soil and water. When our food source and people’s health are affected, it is best that we choose caution and go slow on mining. We could not sacrifice our environment and the health of our people for all the glitters of a gold bar.
Thank you very much.
Office of Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri
Refer to Jenny Bugarin, 0920.9506140