Sunday, February 27, 2011

Benguet miners lead drive vs mercury use in small-scale mining

A group of pocket miners in Benguet is leading the campaign against the use of mercury in small-scale mining operations around the country, prodded by an environment advocate group that believed the use of the toxic chemical was popularized by miners in this province in the 1970s.

Lawyer Richard Gutierrez (not Roberto as earlier reported), executive director of Basel Action Network (BAN Toxic), said a trace of how small-scale miners in different parts of the country discovered mercury for gold extraction led back to miners or employees of mining companies that operated in Benguet.

The mining industry in the country started in this province, with the establishment in 1905 of Benguet Corp., Gutierrez said on Thursday. “Mercury was being used [in the 1970s] by miners who were high-grading (a euphemism for smuggling gold out of mines run by various companies in the province),” he said.

The process, called “whole ore amalgamation,” involves pouring liquid mercury onto ore, which breaks apart rock and soil to extract gold. Miners need only a small area, even confined spaces, to extract gold using mercury, Gutierrez said.

Miners from Benguet migrated to other gold-rush areas in the country, bringing with them the mercury process and vast years of experience which made pocket mining efficient in Mindanao, the Visayas and parts of Southern Luzon, Gutierrez said.

Widely used

Mercury was widely used in various mining communities in the 1990s, particularly in Caramines Sur, Romblon and parts of Mindanao, Gutierrez said.

He said the migrants were not necessarily indigenous Filipinos of Benguet, whose ancestors panned gold downstream of upland rivers centuries ago, because the first mining companies in the province employed people from various parts of the country.

But Lomino Kaniteng, president of Benguet Federation of Small-Scale Miners (BFSSM), said a younger generation of miners has become conscious about the ill effects of mercury and returned to traditional mine processes, like panning and sluicing (a process using channels that regulate flow of water) to extract gold.

Kaniteng had submitted to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) a manifesto promising a mercury-free pocket mining trade in Benguet by 2015. The manifesto was read on Jan. 24 during the UNEP Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee session in Chiba, Japan, he said.

Prototype machine

Two weeks ago, Kaniteng said the BFSSM also began testing a prototype machine, invented by Danish geologist Philip Appel, that uses copper sheets and electricity to recover mercury buried in mine tailings (mine waste), to help start a cleansing drive.

BAN Toxic held here on Thursday a nationwide consultation with pocket miners, part of the group’s lobby process to convince the government to introduce a mercury-abolition policy to a national strategic plan for mining under the administration of President Aquino.

Gutierrez said an antimercury campaign led by Benguet miners is appropriate because it also addresses a yearlong case study which BAN Toxic conducted that discovered why discouraging mercury use has been difficult.

The BAN Toxic report, “The Price of Gold,” profiles the various mining associations in the country, concluding with a realization that efficient gold extraction through mercury is driven by miners grappling with poverty or those who are lured by the gratification of easy money, he said.

“BAN Toxic realized that since miners learned the process of mercury from other miners, it would take miners to convince them to drop mercury use,” Gutierrez said.

“We believe Benguet miners would be effective. Among the mining associations we encountered, the Benguet miners proved to be more professional and more cerebral in approaching their task. They scrutinize new technology, for example, and then devise a way to improve it to their needs,” he said


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