‘I am especially fond of gardening, taking care of plants at home,” said Melita Cuaton, a 44-year-old mother of six from Sitio Campandan, Barangay Talavera, Tagana-an, Surigao del Norte.
At home, she would water the plants every day, to make sure they survive. At work, she basically does the same thing—only a little bit challenging.
An environmental aide, Cuaton would make her rounds to pick up dried leaves or branches, pick up litters, water trees when the soil is too dry and when the leaves are starting to wilt to make sure the trees will not die.
For that, she earns a basic pay of P260 and an allowance of P380 a day.
“It’s all good. I am able to make both ends meet,” Cuaton, a single mother, told the BusinessMirror in an interview on September 15 during a mine tour organized by Hinatuan Mining Corp. (HMC) for agriculture and mining beat reporters based in Manila.
Speaking in her native tongue, Cuaton, who started working at HMC as a laundry woman in 2005, said she is happy with her current work because it is what she really loves to do and she is able to send her children to school.
Cuaton is not alone. At HMC, women mine workers are the certified “green thumb,” who produce the planting materials, transplant and nurture the trees they planted as part of the company’s rehabilitation effort.
Besides implementing progressive rehabilitation of mined-out areas, the company launched last year a program to nurse back to health the marine environment.
“Perhaps, because women are inherently caring, they are good at their job here [reforestation],” said Marichu Calungsod, 24, who supervises the care-and-maintenance personnel in the reforestation area. A forester, Calungsod said most women love to plant and they are good at it.
As part of its reforestation, HMC initially planted native trees—particularly aguho—followed by other species.
She said because of the success of the reforestation, some portions of the rehabilitated mines now have tall trees and lush vegetation. “There are now birds, lizards and snakes in the areas,” Calungsod said.
Accused of causing massive environmental destruction on Hinatuan Island, HMC is stepping up its efforts to prove that ecosystems damaged by open-pit mines can be rehabilitated and become productive again after mining.
President Duterte and former Environment Secretary Regina Paz L. Lopez have cited the massive environmental destruction caused by mining in Surigao and Dinagat Islands as reason for “tightening the screw” on mining.
Lopez, who launched a campaign against irresponsible mining, documented the destruction, taking photos and videos when she and a production crew flew over the area.
Lopez also ordered to stop the removal of stockpile by HMC on the nearby Manicani Island owing to reports and prodding of environmental and antimining advocates.
Before stepping down as Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) chief after her rejection by the powerful bicameral Commission on Appointments, Lopez had issued closure and suspension orders affecting over two dozen active mining operations, canceled 79 mineral production sharing agreements (MPSAs) of inactive mines and financial and/or technical assistance agreements (FTAA), and imposed a ban on open-pit mining for future projects that targets the extraction of gold, copper, silver and mercury—with nickel not included on the list.
A wholly owned subsidiary of publicly listed Nickel Asia Corp. (NAC), HMC operates the Tagana-an Nickel Project on Hinatuan Island within the jurisdiction of Barangay Talavera in the town of Tagana-an, Surigao del Norte province, a mineral-reservation area.
With its MPSA covering a total of 773.77 hectares, the company’s annual ore extraction is estimated at 6 million wet metric tons with an annual production rate of 4 million metric tons, supplying clients in Japan, Australia and China.
The HMC has one of the largest active nickel mine areas in the world. Its active mine areas in Barangay Talavera is estimated at 219 hectares, more than half of the total 423 hectares are developed or disturbed areas.
The company maintains engineered settling ponds to prevent siltation in coastal areas.
HMC makes use of surface or open-pit mining—one which environmentalists deplore as the most destructive mining, method. It requires the shaving of forest vegetation, removing the topsoil to extract the target minerals.
Open-pit mining is the fastest and safest way to extract nickel because they are found near the surface.
In the Philippines the only way to mine nickel is through the open-pit method, explained Gerard H. Brimo, president and CEO of NAC. Besides, he said mined-out areas can be rehabilitated and can be converted into other uses, such as ecotourism or for agricultural production.
The company has three host communities—Barangay Talavera, and sitios Campandan and Bagong Silang, said Peterson B. Gerida, community organizer for livelihood development of HMC.
“We target the poorest of the poor and women,” he said. The company hires workers from communities who are willing and able to work as ore breaker, safety aide and environmental aide.
The company organizes the people in the community to form associations to partner with it.
HMC’s community partners include the Talavera Multipurpose Cooperative, which manages its own sewing business and operates its passenger boat; Association of Bakers and Beauticians of Talavera; and Talavera Women’s Association with over 120 members who will soon have their own water refilling station.
“Providing jobs and livelihood makes the communities more vibrant. They become more productive members of society,” Gerida said.
HMC Resident Mine Manager Francisco Arañes Jr. said HMC implements progressive rehabilitation.
“We continuously rehabilitate mined-out areas,” he said.
Records show that the company has reforested 79 hectares, or 14 percent of the total “disturbed areas,” while another 59 hectares are scheduled for massive tree planting.
Since 2008, the company has planted a total of 881,344 assorted native trees.
HMC maintains its own tree-nursery and implements a community output-based seedling program to involve people in its host communities.
‘Greening the ocean’
Besides reforestation, HMC is also into coastal and marine rehabilitation.
Brenitt B. Simo, Coastal Resource Management technician, said HMC launched in 2015 its first-ever Artificial Coral Reef and Coral Transportation Project in partnership with the host communities
Through community-based programs, HMC aims to improve the health of the marine ecosystem and increase the marine biodiversity, specifically through the installation of concrete modules and coral transplantation.
As of May 2016, one year after their installation, two artificial coral reef complexes have recruited 17 species of coral-reef fishes, like damselfish, butterflyfishes, wrasses, parrotfishes, lizardfishes, threadfin breams, rabbitfishes, cardinalfishes and lionfishes.
A project report also added that six associated benthic macro algae were also observed in the complex where 150 concrete corals reef were installed.
The artificial reefs or the concrete modules have depression holes on top where coral fragment taken from a healthy donor coral were introduced.
A total of 100 fragments of a species of coral was introduced with 50 fragments per complex.
As of February this year, the artificial reef housed an endangered species, a juvenile giant clam, which indicates the success of the rehabilitation effort, the report said.
“We want to prove that even when there’s mining, we can take care of the coastal and marine environment,” said Michael C. Arlan HMC environmental specialist, and project assistant.
HMC’s host communities are basically farming and fishing communities, with people whose way of life has slowly changed because of mining.
With various environmental programs, hopefully, there will be life after mining.
Violation of ECC
The Alyansya Tigil Mina (Alliance to Stop Mining), however, said the DENR Mining Audit in 2016 indicated that the Hinatuan Mining violated its own environmental compliance certificate conditions 1a and 9.
“This was the main reason their operations were suspended in February,” said Jaybee Garganera, national coordinator of Alyansa, told the BusinessMirror in e-mail and cell-phone interviews.
He said, “The visual evidences also captured by the aerial surveys and video documentation of the media in the area support the observations that Hinatuan Mines failed to comply in regulating their pollution discharge.”
He said that while the company’s effort in providing employment to local community is a “good step,” it is “inadequate and fails to address the broader environmental and social issues surrounding their mine operations.”
“We wonder how many farmers and fishers lost their livelihoods due to displacement and coastal pollution,” Garganera said.
“The jobs being offered by Hinatuan Mines are good opportunities for the poor in the mine sites. But that only tells half of the story of the miserable legacies they brought to Surigao del Norte,” he said.