MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Philippines mining - the case against Didipio

Published by MAC on 2016-08-16
Source: Nostromo Research

The Didipio mine, in the northern Philippines province of Nueva Vizcaya, is one of those which national campaigners have urged the new Environment Secretary to close down for several reasons (see: OceanaGold not welcome in Philippines).

In a recent on-the-spot  investigation, UK-based Nostromo Research heard strong evidence from local people supporting the case for closure, while witnessing the damages currently being caused by OceanaGold in the area.

The mountain that became a hole

Nostromo Research

15 August 2016

From middle distance, an introductory view of the OceanaGold mine site took me back some twenty years - to the Waihi gold mine on the southern island of Aotearoa/New Zealand. I flew over this operation in a helicopter, chartered by a local NGO to show me a “mine in the very middle of our town”. Not until my brief field trip to Didipio (29-30-31 July 2016) did I see another of that kind. Indeed, it was in many respects worse (1).

Not only had the company razed the entire Dinkidi mountain; it had also plunged 400 plus metres below ground level and seemed to be advancing underground excavation. The daily dumping of thousands of tonnes of overburden, the milling operations, and tied tailings “disposal”, had displaced a significant number of previously important local activities and businesses, some indigenous, now struggling to survive. Primary tropical forest is also being cut down in an expansion of the tailings area.

This was not so much a mine in the midst of a significant human settlement – though it certainly is that. It's a community invaded by a deeply extractive enterprise, and progressively forced to comply with a totally alien socio-economic trope. It's one places a premium on aggressive competition over mutual cooperation; exerting sheer physical force – inevitable in wresting very small particles of gold and larger quantities of copper from massive overlying boulders.

Prospects of failure

There’s no doubt some mining companies are quite adept at taking profit from such gross disturbance at the cost of destroying other natural resources, even though this is the antithesis of generating sustainable incomes. Nonetheless such an exercise will ultimately fail if the market turns - as it surely will when the current bullish swing in gold prices “goes south”. Or, when there’s an unforeseen – at least, unpredicted – physical event, and the company is unable to bear the huge cost of remediating the damage. (In the case of last year's Samarco disaster, the government has imposed several billion dollars on the companies Vale and BHP Billiton as a penalty and in compensation to those who suffered bereavement, or whose land and waters were smothered by wastes all along the Amazon river) (2).

A visual inspection of the OceanaGold tailings containment area offered no indication that serious breaches in the dam wall are likely, or at what point they might occur and who and how many people would be impacted. But the argument, used by successive mine managements around the world to excuse their inability to predict such a calamity, runs along the lines: “We had no reason to believe it would happen”.

Or worse, they ignore advance warnings of probable containment failure provided by witnesses or scientific institutions (as apparently happened in the Samarco case). The technical devices to detect abnormal movements within tailings dams, cannot coper with adverse external events - such as seismic tremors or the typhoons to which Luzon is notoriously prone. (Indeed, one such struck soon the morning following our arrival in Didipio).

On close examination of the Didipio mining lease area, I realised that the OceanaGold enterprise mirrors – strikingly in some respects – another one I closely followed in Indonesian Borneo (East Kalimantan) from its opening in 1992 to closure thirteen years later and the setting up of a post-closure management committee (3). I have written extensively about this Kelian project (KEM) and, along with many others in Indonesia and elsewhere, have strong criticised the management practices of Rio Tinto for not meeting its own purported environmental high standards, and its complicity in human rights violations against members of local indigenous communities, especially women. It's not my purpose to rehearse these allegations in detail here. Instead I will mention some aspects of the Kelian gold mine’s commissions and omissions which I saw reflected at the OceanaGold mine site.

Rio Tinto in Indonesia – apt comparison

In fact, there's one design component of the Indonesian mine that Rio Tinto did implement (arguably not to any great success). This was imposition of a “buffer” zone between the mine and neighbouring settlements and transport routes, intended to soften the impact of mechanical noise, blasting shocks, ambient dust emissions, and other disruptive or aesthetically unacceptable interventions in a rural tropical forest environment. OceanaGold has not constructed even the semblance of such a protective forest zone, thus breaking one of the fundamental rules of good mining practice.

The Kelian mine was situated right next to an eponymous river, traditionally used by groups of Dayak men and women for alluvial gold extraction. Some of these were subject to arrest and harassment; following Rio Tinto’s closure of the mine, one man was allegedly shot by guards supposedly protecting the rehabilitation site, specifically the tailings pond containing trace elements of gold. (As of March 2016, his case has still not been resolved by Rio Tinto to the community’s satisfaction) (4).

Such gold panning at Didipio, I was told by one man who practiced it from 1974 until that mine opened, was carried out in rivers traversing the OceanaGold “property”. But now, it seems, not only would an attempt to resume this activity be forcibly countered by the company; it seems impracticable in streams and creeks that have been smothered or forcibly diverted by thousands of tonnes of dumped rock.

There’d one telling failure in the Kelian case. Bear in mind that this project earned World Bank support from the outset, and has been praised (in a recent Rio Tinto publication) (5) for showing how indigenous peoples’ rights and opinions can be respected - specifically that to FPIC. The community which was made to surrender its territory around the gold deposit, was removed by Rio Tinto to some 600 hectares of land. This tract proved to be of an inferior quality to what they had been forced to surrender. But in reality they found it was less fertile and less productive of their traditional crops. Rio Tinto continues failing to ensure that the government return just over 25 hectares of land to the community (6).

Ironically, when visiting this community in 2011, along with a prominent environmental campaigner (Chalid Mohammed of WALHI, Friends of the Earth Indonesia) a member of this community said that, while Rio Tinto had agreed to let it resume pre-mining economic activities within the mine lease area, and has established a seed nursery and other schemes to support this, few persons wanted to do so.

Mine “closure”

Meanwhile, Rio Tinto has packed up and left East Kalimantan, after a long and detailed technical process of trying to address “legacy” measures, specifically those related to neutralising the tailings in the constructed Namuk dam; as well as what should happen to the massive, one-kilometre-deep open pit, which has been left to fill with water of highly dubious quality.

According to press releases by OceanaGold, its own tailings lake is pH (acid) neutral, and water is returned from there to the mill that's been built on the hillside around a kilometre away, allowing no cyanide or other chemicals to enter the environment. Nonetheless, the company has not provided a bottom lining for the dam, whether of clay, hdpe (high density polyethylene) or similar material.


Several other complaints were made to me by community members in Didipio. I’m not competent to judge their veracity or suggest the method(s) by which they might be resolved – although I certainly do not believe that OceanaGold should be the sole or primary agent responsible for doing so.

Nonetheless, it struck me that the company was, at the very least, responsible for creating the very conditions whereby such have complaints have arisen, and now seem to be proliferating. I recorded submissions that, not only is OceanaGold guilty of illegally acquiring peoples' land and properties illegally, but that the amounts of compensation offered were unnegotiable.

One of the most consistent complaints related to usurpation and corruption of water sources throughout the area. The company's failure to provide clean potable alternatives, has compelled Didipio residents to purchase water from expensive commercial suppliers. This is a breach of the company’s MOU signed with the government. (See also: Philippines: Is the mining industry feeling lucky with Duterte Harry?). Indeed, few of the other commitments made by OceanaGold to promote “good neighbourliness” have been fulfilled, including provision of a hospital, cemetery, gymnasium and local schools.

Martin Belagio, for example, used to live in a home, less than half a kilometre from the side of the open-pit where he had cultivated upland rice. Although he can theoretically visit this property, it has effectively become part of the mine and, he told me, “there’s no underground water remaining there, even were irrigation of it feasible”.


(1) See: Brazil: BHP unlikely to reopen Samarco this year amid criminal probe

(2) See: Rio Tinto: Kelian closure successfully completed

(3) See: Goodnight children – sleep well: the 2016 Rio Tinto AGM

(4) Ibid

(5) See: Rio Tinto: “Why agreements matter”, London, March 2016

(6) This mine used to be owned by Newmont, which sold it to OceanaGold. The latter states that it is not currently operating the open-pit.

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