The dirty business of gold

View Story

The Dirty Business of Gold

  • Esquire
  • Effekt
  • Lide a Zeme
  • 2017-2019
  • Luzon, Philippines

Abner, my fixer, woke me up with a push as I was sleeping in the passenger seat. A provisional check point in the middle of nowhere with four soldiers, two of which were pointing their M16 at the car, making signs for us to stop. I quickly searched for my press card, Abner rolled down the window and the hot humid night wind entered the air-conditioned car. A soldier came towards the car with a determined gate and a flashlight. He seemed truly surprised to see a dazedwesterner in these parts of the Philippines. A while ago the relationship between the Government and the NPA-New People’s Army deteriorated to a record low since President Duterte declared that NPA and its political organization CPP-Communist Party of the Philippines is a terrorist organization. Skirmishes between the regular army and the NPA guerrilla have become more common, which is the reason for the provisional checkpoint, where we were stopped. We still had about an hour’s journey before we reached our destination Carimas notre -Sant Elena with its lakes, and miners who risk their lives on a daily basis, searching for the shiny metal we all know so well, gold.

"– Hanap buhay lang! Just making a living."

Miner diving for gold

The city of Jose Panganiban, Carimas Notre, has non-existent tourism, which is why the few hotels available include one renting out their rooms per hour and another situated next to a gas station. The latter had no rooms available so we had to use the one with the red wallpapers and an air conditioner that sounded like a combination of an old propeller plane and a multitude of scrambling pots.

The following day we went down to the fishing villages, asking around for information about the gold digging activities in the area. Most of the people we asked seem reluctant to tell us anything and after a while we learnt that an international media team was there a month earlier and after that the police made a raid with mass arrests.

For more than a year, the Philippine government has taken steps to put an end to the mining operations, which, according to the former environmental minister Gina Lopez, pose a threat to the environment. After driving around, searching for some information for a few hours, the whole situation was starting to feel hopeless.

We stopped at a small store to buy water, where I met Ferdinando, a young father who was buying supplies for his wife and newly born child. We started chatting and it turned out that Ferdinando and his family were mining gold in the area. With a little bit of persuasion, Ferdinando agreed to take us to the river and show us where gold could be found.

Ferdinando rowed the canoe alongside the shore of mangrove trees. A fisherman with his boat full of crab cages passed us with his daily catch. Since it was already the afternoon most miners had stopped diving for gold. After about half an hour we saw a number of bamboo huts on wooden piles on the lake. The only thing that indicated that they were not fishermen was the neon-colored plastic hose floating on the water surface and the diesel generator that clattered in the otherwise calm idyll.

The unique practice of mining gold using a hose and an air compressor, the so-called compressor mining, originates from the Philippines as far back as the mid-1990s. It started with fishermen who saw an opportunity to dive deeper and farther to catch fish. Since an accident in 2012 where three gold workers died after their air compressor broke down, it was prohibited to search for gold using air compressors. A law that has had a very small effect, because I found that this technology was used in every bamboo hut or raft. Since the divers extract ground, the holes become wider and lose their natural strength. The narrow tunnels are often located at a depth of 10-12 meters, and when a tunnel collapses, the diver risks being buried alive. But it’s not just a tunnel collapse that makes this type of gold digging risky, the divers also risk that the air compressor stops working and if they don’t find their way out soon enough, it can also have a fatal outcome. Compressor mining also causes direct health risks to the divers. Often, diesel gases, carbon monoxide, are mixed with other impurities in the plastic hose to supply air for the simple reason that the diesel generator is located next to the air compressor. The quality of water is poor and has high levels of both bacteria and parasites. The divers are also under severe physical strains due to the long periods of time they spend underwater, as a result of which gas bubbles can form in the blood and these gas bubbles can block blood supply to small parts of the brain, or parts of the lungs. Considering all these risks to the individual worker, you understand why most faces in the holes around Santa Elena are quite young.

Ferdinando headed towards the workers on the raft, and a dozen gold miners waved at us to enter the bamboo shelter. In the hut there was a small bench, a manual winch device for getting the gravel and hopefully the gold dust. Gabin – an older man who worked with the hose for the divers, told me that a diver was coming up. The bubbles grew larger and finally a human body emerged from the bursting water. The diver seemed disoriented when he took off his diving mask, his eyes were red and his entire whole body was shaking from the cold. Gabin told us that the divers often spent 3-4 hours under the water before getting out for a short break, and then went down again. When I asked the diver why he exposed himself to such a risk, he answered me with a smile and shrugged his shoulders:

– Hanap buhay lang! Just making a living.

Most workers in the so-called underground mining business responded me the same way: they work to get food for the day, food for their children. The Philippines is one of the countries that adopted the UNs Agenda 2030. The agenda will, inter alia, eradicate poverty, enable sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, combat and adapt to climate change. Out here in a small bamboo hut, with a diesel generator spitting out contaminants and workers risking their lives just to earn money for some bread for the day, Agenda 2030 feels more like a utopia than a reality.

In the morning we went further into the jungle where a hundred workers had set up a camp, with dozens of holes and divers working in shifts.

The lake revealed its beaches during the low tide and I could not help but thinking about the beauty of the nature surrounding me. Despite the early hour, we seemed to be the last ones coming to the bamboo huts and rafts. There were new faces on the morning shift, but they all had the smile. We spent a good hour along the river until we saw some worn out canoes tied to the roots of a mangrove tree. A woman with her two daughters was sitting in the water and panning gold. They had been sitting there since dawn without any success in finding gold dust. Further into the jungle through the thick black clay we saw a camp with a dusty diesel generator and hundreds of muddy workers, adults as children focused on one thing, finding gold.

According to official statistics, large-scale mines together with smaller mines produce around 18 tons of gold annually at a market value of more than 5.5 billion. However, these figures are not

reliable because up to 90% of the gold found in the Philippines is smuggled out by non- government-controlled buyers. The Philippines have the largest copper gold deposits in the world and is the fifth country richest in gold, nickel, copper and chromite. Despite these huge numbers and gold resources, among the workers in the camp, adults as well as children everyone struggles just to collect a quarter of a gram of gold dust, earning them about 4,5 $ enough to provide for their families’ daily needs.

Some workers came to the camp upset and agitated, binging information that a diver had died in one of the holes in the lake. The diver was only thirty years old and his heart stopped. The work in the camp stopped. Darkness falls quickly on the lakes around St Elena, the green trees and mangroves turn into black shadows, and along the lake one can see small streams of light coming from flashlights in the dense forest. I asked Ferdinando for how long they usually stopped working in case of a death. Ferdinando answered that they would be back tomorrow, they could not afford to stop digging…

Olof Jarlbro Photo and Text.

  • Share:


Phone: +46 76 257 18 10