More volunteers needed for investigative mission

Cordillerans ask Science students, scientists for help to probe Lepanto

By Paul Christian Yang-ed

Cordillerans from Northern Benguet who were part of the Lakbayan Caravan held a dialogue with concerned science professionals, environmentalists, and science students regarding their plans to conduct a probe on the effects of the operations of the Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company (LCMC) on their people at a Roundtable Discussion at the CS Auditorium, October 19 evening.

Xavier Akien of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA) complained that Lepanto allegedly dismisses their plight as the company considers indigenous people to be merely “non-experts”. He also said that the Kankanaey, indigenous people living in Northern Benguet, are among those affected by Lepanto’s operation. Akien himself is one of those Kankanaey. He also added that the Tinguians and Ilocanos dwelling downstream the Abra River are affected as well. Among the persistent complaints they have been having for years include the pollution of their rivers, deterioration of their children’s health, and the drying up of their aquifers which Akien believes is connected to the underground activities of the company. He says that they are now currently concerned about the structural integrity of one of Lepanto’s tailings dams which he said is already close to overflowing. He also said that although the engineers who built the tailings dam are willing to talk about the problems they saw, they are unwilling to be publicly identified.

Abigail Anongos, also of the CPA, relayed reports from retrenched and former Lepanto workers which indicate that the mountains are “hollow”. She described this as “a disaster waiting to happen”. She cited the a cave-in incident in 1999 that swallowed an entire school whole and led to the death of at least one rescuer whose body was no longer found. She also raised the issue of siltation of rice fields downstream which she described as viscous and sticky as cement. When the silt hardens, the fields become useless for planting. She attributed the siltation to the overflowing of Lepanto’s tailings dam. As to human rights violations, she also spoke of the militarization going on in their area, as with other places with mining operations. She also relayed a rape incident involving a 12 year-old girl and a soldier. The latter case has yet to be resolved. Yet despite all these anomalies, Anongos said that the company never owned up to any of these incidents.

In light of these, their organization is requesting an Environmental Investigation Mission (EIM) to update the status of the Lepanto-affected portions of the Abra River which was last investigated in 2004. Akien said that the affected communites would also want to know about the relationship of the siltation of their fields and rivers with Lepanto’s mines, as well as the “viscous murky water” they have observed, and about the structural integrity of the tailings dam in their area. He said that any supporting data may be used as a scientific evidence for the upcoming International People’s Tribunal in which they will lay their reasons for suing the company. He also said that the lawmakers may use the findings from the EIM in aid of legislating better mining laws. As for Anongos, the EIM will be used to highlight Lepanto as a case study for their campaign to reorient the mining industry from the current export-oriented set-up, and to hold Lepanto accountable for the damages and have it shut down. She says that the community has been long clamoring for the “pad-locking” of Lepanto and affected local governments have released resolutions in support of the recent DENR Audit recommending the company’s suspension.

Geologist Ric Saturay of AGHAM-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People said that since his organization as well as that of its youth counterpart (AGHAM Youth) is lacking in people, one of the immediate challenges is to mobilize science experts and science students to volunteer for the conducting of the EIM. “Isipin natin na di natin sila inaabala, na opportunity ito for these ‘doctors’ [scientists] to make science serve the people,” he said. Personal engagements can be done with the experts instead of letting bureaucratic procedures hobble the mission, he added. Nonetheless, Marian Lomboy from the College of Public Health in UP Manila raised the concern on funding. Leon Dulce of Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment (KPNE) said that efforts must be doubled to find funding for the mission.

The Roundtable Discussions concluded with the formation of five priority aspects for investigation: Public Health, Geohazards, Structural Engineering, Biophysical and Agricultural, and Socioeconomic. Volunteers willing to be part of a particular aspect would have to come up with a Research Design for the secretariat’s further scrutiny before November 7. More volunteers would be also needed.

“We hope that by providing these services, we would be able to strengthen their campaign and preserve [the people’s] remaining resources and seek social justice,” Anongos said.

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