If you can’t lick ’em, regulate ’em. This reasoning appears to underpin the government’s policy of allowing small-scale mining even in areas identified to be at high risk for cave-ins and landslides.
The problem is regulatory weakness, whether in enforcing danger zones that are off-limits to any form of mining, or in helping small-scale miners get a reasonable price for whatever minerals they find.
In Itogon, Benguet and other mining areas around the country, middlemen buy the gold found by small-scale miners and sell the precious metal for processing into jewelry and other products. Digging for minerals can be backbreaking work. Labor laws are largely unheard of in areas such as Mt. Diwata in Monkayo, Compostela Valley, where even teenage boys pan for gold. Small-scale miners should at least get reasonable returns for their toil.
Better known as Diwalwal, the Diwata gold rush area has been hit many times by killer mudslides. Yet there has been no letup in gold panning in the area. Regular mudslides have also failed to keep out pocket miners from the mining areas of the Cordilleras. Itogon Mayor Victor Palangdan estimates that more than half of his constituents are small-scale miners and their families.
Environment officials stress that pocket mining was not the culprit in the landslide that buried dozens of small-scale miners and their families who took shelter in a bunkhouse at the height of Typhoon Ompong last weekend in Barangay Ucab in Itogon.
The government nevertheless has suspended all pocket-mining operations nationwide following the killer landslide. How long the suspension can be enforced remains to be seen. Palangdan says those buried in the landslide were mining illegally and had rejected appeals from the local police and barangay personnel to evacuate to safe ground as Ompong approached.
Small-scale mining persists because there are sure buyers for the goods. Aside from regulating pocket-mining activities, authorities should also tighten the rules governing traders. The national government must also come down hard on local executives who tolerate illegal mining activities in their jurisdictions. The state cannot afford to throw its hands up in surrender and allow an anything-goes environment to prevail in the face of determined efforts to dig for gold.