CAOAYAN, PHILIPPINES – Catholic priest Sammy Rosimo followed truck tread marks to a coastal mine in the northern Philippines, where a stockpile of fine black sand presided over scenes of a desert apocalypse.
Instead of tall, brush-covered sand dunes that have for centuries protected the small farming town of Caoayan from the powerful waters of the South China Sea, trenches cut through barren beaches.
“This is the death sentence of the people of Caoayan,” said Rosimo as he accompanied a reporter to the recently abandoned mine.
“The dunes are the natural barrier to the salt water, like a sea wall. Without them, the sea floods inland at high tide.”
As with many other beaches in the Southeast Asian archipelago, Caoayan’s coast has been stripped in recent years for its magnetite, an iron ore that is in huge demand by China’s steel mills.
Environmental groups, national authorities and the nation’s big miners all blame small-scale mining firms, most of them allegedly Chinese and often operating in collusion with shady local government officials.
“They’re giving the industry a bad image,” said Ronald Recidoro, vice president of the country’s Chamber of Mines, which groups 35 large miners.
Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of Kalikasan, a coalition of environmental groups, said the problem is particularly acute in four northern provinces, where dozens of beaches are in retreat and riverbanks are crumbling.
“There was a school that was swallowed up by the seawater because of black-sand mining,” Bautista said.
Seen on a recent tour of the area, the coast at the town of San Vicente, near Caoayan, had retreated inland by several meters from where the sand had been scooped up.
While the ocean has yet to spill into San Vicente or Caoayan, locals believe it is only a matter of time.
The mine at Caoayan was shut in January by the national government’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau, part of the Environment Ministry, for breaching a law against mining close to the ocean.
The firm’s earth movers, trucks and conveyor belts lay abandoned nearby. Officials from the company, which the bureau and provincial officials said was Chinese, could not be contacted for comment.
Carlos Tayag, regional chief of the mines bureau, said black-sand miners regularly flouted a law that banned all forms of mineral extraction inside 200 meters of the water’s edge at low tide.
“The main impact is coastal erosion,” Tayag said.
Under the country’s mining law, the Environment Ministry has regulatory oversight over big operations but not small-scale miners, who are defined as using only light equipment and no explosives.
Instead, small-scale miners are licensed by local governments, which often lack the expertise or will to properly supervise them.
Bautista said corruption is a problem, with many mining firms widely suspected of bribing local officials or offering to share profits with them in order to win licenses.
“Given the strong opposition of local communities against magnetite mining, the continuing operations of these Chinese (firms) in these provinces were likely made possible with the collusion of corrupt local government officials,” Bautista said.
Tayag said the national government was able to step in and start closing some of the black-sand mining operations, such as the one at Caoayan, because it had breached the law banning extraction close to the water.
Tayag said most of the output from the operations was being shipped to China.
Recidoro, from the Chamber of Mines, said large miners were furious at the black-sand mining, which he said was being mainly done by Chinese firms and in many provinces across the country.
“You’re disturbing the ecosystem there, and there should be a remediation process in place before you’re allowed to do it,” he said.
“For big mines like our members, that would involve putting up anti-siltation measures, making sure whatever flora or fauna is found there is identified and protected, and the displaced native species must be replaced with the same native species.”
Recidoro said the Chinese firms typically used Filipino front companies to secure mining permits from local officials.
Bautista said that while magnetite is the main mineral being mined on the coasts, Chinese entities are also involved in extraction of gold and nickel inland in some areas including Zambales province, near Manila.