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After two decades of mining, Canatuan mined area coming back to life

The Sulphide Dam at the Canatuan mine.

After more than 25 years of mining, the diverse flora and fauna in Sitio Canatuan is finally starting to return.

Once the site of one of the country’s large-scale open-pit mines, the area is now teeming with rich vegetation—tall trees and shrubs—surrounding a large body of water is back, and so are the wildlife—the wild birds and ducks have come in flocks and the native monkeys have returned to forage.

A monkey sits at a branch of a tree in the forested area of TVIRD’s Sulphide Dam.

Environmentalists consider mining a menace because of their destructive nature.

The so-called legacy mines in the Philippines—abandoned open-pit mines left behind by mining companies after mining operations—are a testament to the ugly scar irresponsible mining leave behind.

Gold, silver producer

Situated in Sitio Canatuan in the municipality of Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte, the Canatuan mine of TVI Resource Development (TVIRD) Philippines Inc., which produced gold and silver in the early years, and later on, operated a copper and zinc processing facility—is claiming to have successfully rehabilitated the mining area, proving that responsible mining is possible.

TVIRD was the first company to operate under the Philippine Mining Act of 1995. The law aims to revitalize the country’s mining industry and introduced progressive rehabilitation working toward full restoration of mined-out areas upon the end of the life of the mine.

Canatuan mine’s operation was credited for the once-sleepy agricultural town’s phenomenal growth and development as it achieved the status of a first-class municipality, the company said in a news release.

Wild ducks are commonly found at TVIRD’s Sulphide Dam. Local officials are eyeing to transform the area into a tourist destination once the MPSA is turned-over to the government.

Progressive rehabilitation

Six years ago, after the mining contract expired, TVIRD started working on its final mine rehabilitation.  The company claimed it has practiced the so-called progressive rehabilitation—immediately working to rehabilitate disturbed areas after mining activities.

To date, achieving 94-percent completion as confirmed by the Multipartite Monitoring Team (MMT) that oversees its accomplishment, TVIRD has fulfilled its obligation, the company said.

The firm said its final rehabilitation is, likewise, considered a true test of the mining law, boosting mining industry’s claim that responsible mining is possible, as it has become a reality in the case of the Canatuan mine.

Devastated by small-scale mining

A wide-scale environmental cleanup and rehabilitation in Sitio Canatuan before starting the mining operation was conducted by TVIRD. It found out that the area was already “in bad shape,” owing to decades of illegal small-scale mining, the company said.

Mount Canatuan in Siocon municipality was a picture of heavy devastation in the late 1980s as illegal miners from Zamboanga Sibugay and other provinces in Mindanao dug holes to extract gold in the area. In the process, cutting down trees without replanting.

Small-scale backyard processing facilities also polluted the creeks and rivers with hazardous chemicals.

The mountain was riddled with hundreds of unengineered tunnels and shallow ponds that served as makeshift tailings pond for close to 50 mill plants.

The tailings were laced with deadly cyanide, mercury and nitric acid

In 2002, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau reported its findings to the Zamboanga del Norte local government unit, which prompted the provincial government to order the dismantling of illegal mining operations in the village.

Reforestation

Throughout its operating years, TVIRD’s Environment Department started rehabilitating the denuded parts of Mount Canatuan as well as mined-out areas turned over by its Mines Department, the news release said.

By the end of its mining operations in February 2014, TVIRD has planted more than 348,000 trees as part of its progressive rehabilitation.

With an additional 63,000 trees during final rehabilitation, the company has planted a total of 411,000 trees within its Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) area, which is part of the Subanon tribe’s ancestral domain.

Fast-growing and endemic trees, as well as rubber trees intended for the Subanons’ livelihood, were planted. Among these are close to 30,000 rubber trees, which are a good source of future income for the tribe.

Of the 508-hectare area, 167 hectares comprise the total rehabilitation area.

Bird census

Last year, the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (Cenro) of Siocon conducted its Annual Asian Waterbird Census and traveled to TVIRD’s Tailings Storage Facility (Sulphide Dam) to count the number of wild ducks  found in the area.

In a news release by TVIRD, Ecosystem Management Specialist Muhammad Faz’l Ur-Rahman Werble reported some 950 wild ducks at that time.

In 2018, during the previous year’s count, it registered only 500.

“It means there’s life at the waste disposal facility of the company,” said Cenro Team Leader Efren T. Cardenas in the same news release.

Besides wild ducks, they also found hawks, eagles, squirrels, bats and a variety of snakes, including the Philippine cobra.

Shared responsibility

Interviewed via e-mail, TVIRD Chief Environmental Officer Krystell Banaag and Community Relations Manager Lullie Micabalo said environmental protection and conservation and livelihood activities initiated by TVIRD were intertwined.

They were implemented in partnership with the government and the community as the rehabilitation of the mine was considered their shared responsibility.

TVIRD established the rehabilitation design, operational protocols and monitoring program to ensure that the mine closure goals will be achieved.

Its environment department commenced progressive rehabilitation activities during the operations stage.

A multidisciplinary Mine Closure Team remains on site to implement the approved Final Mine Rehabilitation and Decommissioning Plan.

On the other hand, the involvement of the community started in the planning stage of the Post Mining Land Use Concept—which they agreed to be of mixed land use—which consists primarily of a retained forest, diversified reforestation and agroforestry areas.

“Their participation continued through the rehabilitation stage, particularly in the monitoring of rehabilitation progress through their membership in the [MMT]. Community benefit will be in the form of sustainable livelihood from an agri-business program that will be introduced by the company.  Part of this program is providing the infrastructure needed and capacity building through training and network establishment,” Banaag said.

On the other hand, the government, through the Contingent Liability and Rehabilitation Fund Committee, Mine Rehabilitation Fund Committee and MMT, acts as the licensing agency and regulators.

Good biological indicator

Banaag said the return of the wildlife in a mine’s disturbed area is an indication that the rehabilitation efforts and protection of the remaining forest areas within the mining tenement are effective and successfully carried out.

She said most of the species found in the mined-out area are birds, which are fruit and insect eaters, playing a significant role in seed dispersal and insect control.

The smaller mammals, such as fruit bats, are a big help as they also participate in seed propagation and insect control

“There were also invertebrate-eating birds, omnivorous mammals and snakes, suggesting that prey animals, such as lizards, small mammals, frogs and fish and others are thriving in the area,” Banaag explained.

“The presence of the Philippine duck is noteworthy since they are not visible in the area before and during mine operations. They were seen in the Sulfide Dam beginning in 2016—two years into TVIRD’s final mine rehabilitation stage,” Micabalo said for her part.

Teeming with wildlife

Banaag said the rehabilitated areas is now “a forest teeming with wildlife.”

The latest Fauna Inventory conducted by SGS Philippines in 2018 recorded a total of 75 species of terrestrial vertebrates, the majority are birds (51), followed by amphibians and reptiles (16) and mammals (8), she said.

Banaag added that it is expected that more individuals from the existing species will be back in the area once rehabilitation is completed.

“To date, the rehabilitation work is 94 percent complete but some of the plantation areas are relatively young, needing another three to five years to fully mature. Matured plantation will likely provide better vegetation cover for habitat and better food source,” she said.

According to Micabalo, a long time ago, before small-scale mining caused its destruction, Mount Canatuan used to be a hunting ground where deer roam freely.

She said that with the availability of a more sustainable livelihood and income source for the local community, it is not impossible that deers will return to Canatuan forests.

“It is also said that the Philippine eagle  can thrive in the thick forests of Canatuan,” she noted.

Livelihood program

Interviewed by the BusinessMirror through e-mail that was translated by Micabalo, the members of the Subanon indigenous people (IP) in Sitio Canatuan and other areas in Siocon said they have benefited from mining and expect to benefit from the mine’s rehabilitation.

Marelyn Taconing, who has been with TVIRD since 2003, and her husband, Dadao Taconing, own the land where the company’s Exploration Camp is located.

They are among the Subanon beneficiaries of the company’s livelihood programs. They are likewise land claimants under the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title.

Taconing currently works in TVIRD’s Administration Department and in charge of its Exploration Camp.

Back to farming

Taconing said Subanons are currently engaging in farming upland rice, corn, root crops, coconut trees, bananas and rubber trees.

TVIRD provided the Subanons with free rubber tree seedlings, technologies and coconut seedlings.

He said around 1,400 families who are all Subanon benefit from TVIRD’s livelihood programs. Of the number, around 1,600 were employees during the company’s recent operations.

Currently, a family earn an average of P5,000 from farming in either rubber, upland rice, bananas or copra from coconut lands.

Since Subanon IPs are farmers, Taconing is confident that the livelihood program introduced by TVIRD will be sustained.

Image credits: TVIRD



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