From Magellan to Hinatuan: How mining keeps Eastern Samar deeply wounded

From Magellan to Hinatuan: How mining keeps Eastern Samar deeply wounded was also published by The Manila Times on 3 and 10 May 2023.

Five hundred years ago, on 16 March 1521, Ferdinand Magellan landed on the shores of Homonhon Island in what is now part of the municipality of Guiuan, Eastern Samar, Philippines, after more than a year of rough sailing on the high seas. Known for his exploits as a seafarer and a risk-taker of gigantic proportions, he appeared to be driven more by monetary rewards than by some kind of patriotic anchor. He led an expedition for the King of Spain—his benefactor—instead of his native country Portugal. Spain and Portugal at the time were locked in a battle for supremacy as an imperialist power.

Magellan’s history-altering voyage was tough. Two of the five vessels that comprised his fleet did not make it; he himself would eventually perish at the hands of Lapu-lapu in the nearby island of Cebu.

But his feat was a giant leap for mankind. It marked the first time a human being had successfully sailed across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans—traversing more than half the globe. It led to the discovery by Europeans of natural resources that abound in the far east. Driven largely by the promise of greater accumulation of wealth, colonization of the country by Spain followed (1565 to 1898), which also gave rise to a social order in which money and political power fed on each other, and those who possessed either one or both earned the birthright to pillage the country’s natural wealth.

The colonizing power leveraged the moral suasion of the Catholic Church and took up her mission to evangelize peoples everywhere as its own. The church had a bountiful harvest in the Philippines; not only did up to 90 percent of the local population embrace Christianity, but the transformation also established norms where Church and State jointly administered public affairs.

When, after close to 400 years, Spain ceded its control of the Philippines to the United States, Eastern Samar again figured prominently in the grand mix of schemes carried out by the new colonizers. In 1901, remnants of armed opposition to American control all but dissipated, including Emilio Aguinaldo who declared the country’s independence from Spain on 12 June 1898, except for pockets of rebellion that the stubborn guerillas in Samar intermittently mounted. American forces went on to wage a “pacification drive” and established a battalion in barrio Balangiga which, like Guiuan, is now part of the province of Eastern Samar. Irritants occasioned by foreign occupation soon provoked the people of Balangiga to resent the way the Americans imposed their will and abused the accommodating nature of the natives.

At daybreak on September 28 of that year, exploiting the element of surprise, the oppressed attacked the oppressors, resulting in the death of 48 out of 74 Americans. Written on the footnotes of mainstream history books as “Balangiga Massacre”, this incident had been described as the “worst single defeat of the US military during the Philippine-American war.” The American forces retaliated by setting Balangiga and its surrounding settlements ablaze and shooting to death everyone on sight. The reported number of casualties varies, but the common summary is that thousands died from the reprisal—including women and children that were too young to be involved in an armed combat.

During the Japanese occupation (1942-1945), the Americans lost their naval base in Olongapo and an airfield in Clark, Pampanga. When the Americans, led by Douglas “I shall return” MacArthur, returned in 1944 to liberate the country from the Japanese, they established a naval base and an airfield in Guiuan, complete with a 3,000-bed hospital, a water system in Salcedo (north of Guiuan), a gas-refilling station in Lawaan (west northwest of Guiuan), a receiving station in Tubabao Island, a ship repair base on Manicani Island, Guiuan, a supply depot in Calicoan Island, also of Guiuan, and a sawmill in Balangiga.

The Guiuan airport served as the US Air Force launch pad for aerial attacks on Japanese ground forces in Luzon and other parts of the country. Although largely unmaintained, this facility remains functional until today; it became handy during super typhoon Yolanda rescue, relief and early recovery operations. (Guiuan was ground zero of Yolanda’s first land fall.)

Fast forward to current issues and events, media outlets early last month reported that “a Chinese vessel transporting 55,000 metric tons of nickel ore to China ran aground off the coast of Guiuan.” Going over the full text of the report, I noticed that it made no mention whatsoever about the mining operations in Homonhon—eg: “the Philippine Coast Guard said the ship was not damaged… the Marine Environmental Protection Unit conducted a surface assessment and did not detect any traces of oil spill…The DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau will also evaluate the corals in the vicinity of the grounding to assess any damage to marine life…, etc.”

But something towards the end of a CNN report intrigued me: “Last January, the PCG rescued Chinese crewmen near Guiuan after the hull of their fishing vessel, KAI DA 899, was damaged. The crewmen turned out to be suspects in China.”

At an estimated price of USD72.25 per metric ton of nickel ore, the treasure that got stuck in Guiuan is easily worth around 220 million in Philippine peso, an amount that almost matches the annual budget of a middle-class municipality like Guiuan. But it need not only be about nickel; having that much volume of soil being mined and transported elsewhere have invaluable use for countries like China that has been building artificial islands inside parts of a territory that is being contested by other countries.

On 11 April 2022, Bishop Crispin Varquez of the Roman Catholic diocese of Borongan issued a statement expressing alarm over the continued mining operations in Homonhon and the neighboring island of Manicani. Four mining companies are presently operating in Homonhon–Techiron Resources, Inc., Emir Mineral Resources Corp., King Resources Mining Corp. and Global Min-met Resources, Inc.—two of
which, Techiron and Emir, were suspended in 2016 by the late DENR Secretary Gina Lopez for violating their mining agreements.

In Manicani, the Hinatuan Mining Corporation (HMC) extracted soil and nickel ore despite being inside a protected area (in 1994, then President Fidel V. Ramos declared the coastal areas of Guiuan, including Manicani, as a marine reserve). In 2002, the Bishop of Borongan filed a complaint against HMC, prompting the DENR to order the suspension of its operations. Its mining agreement was eventually cancelled in 2004 following an investigation that found the company to have violated its Environment Compliance Certificate (ECC). Reports say that “the mining operations were found to have polluted Manicani’s seawater… residents also claimed that HMC continued to ship out part of its stockpile of 900,000 WMT even during its suspension.”

Mining in Homonhon Island

Mining in Homonhon Island. Photo by PNA.

Hinatuan’s license to operate expired in 2017, but the DENR approved its extension in 2022 partly on the strength of endorsements by the municipal government of Guiuan and the province of Eastern Samar.

Hinatuan had fueled contentious conflicts among local stakeholders, often dividing families and groups into two warring factions—one being in favor of mining, and the other against it. Anti-mining protests could spark violent confrontations among protesters and peace-keeping authorities. Casualties have been reported not only in Manicani but also in Salcedo, among other towns that host mining operations.

In 1996, the forests of Homonhon were razed to the ground by what locals believed as a premeditated arson by mining companies.

In 2013, the Geography and Geology Journal reported that in Manicani, “nickel mining has reduced the amount of land available to farmers and siltation into the ocean has adversely impacted fishing. Before mining came, agriculture and aquaculture could sustain the livelihood of the people of Manicani, but now they have been made poorer.”

From Magellan to Hinatuan: How mining keeps Eastern Samar deeply wounded

PART 2 – Also published by The Manila Times on 10 May 2023

Filipinos are indebted to Magellan for his expedition that, although it led to their subjugation by Spaniards, introduced them to Christianity. Among the invading colonizers were priests, missionaries, and members of religious groups that all belonged to the Roman Catholic Church.

The influence of church leaders over the conduct of government affairs facilitated the mass conversion of the natives to the universal church.
Today—some 500 years after the Spanish conquest—demographic data shows that up to 90 percent of the population belongs to Christian denominations (in the 2015 Philippine Statistics Authority census, 79 percent of the general population tagged themselves as Catholics while 11 percent says they belonged to various affiliations among Protestant Churches), with the rest being Muslims (6 percent) and other
churches (4 percent).

Centuries of Spanish rule (followed by more than fifty years of American control) shaped the social, economic, and political norms that guide the country in the way its government relates to the people—and vice versa. Alive in this land are superficial trappings of a democratic society—from the way leaders are elected (where majority of voters are ill-informed), to judicial double standards (where the rich, even if indicted for unbailable offenses, are free on humanitarian grounds while the poor are detained even for relatively trivial offenses). People know that corruption in government exists, yet they have in large part accepted that fact and adapted themselves to it probably because they believe they are too inconsequential to be able to change anything. How inequities work is public knowledge: people can build connections when they have money and things get done when money talks. At the time when the indulgences were up for sale (during the medieval period, circa 5 th to 15 th centuries), people could even build worldly connections to the heavens.

This unjust world order is best shown by the scourge of mining in Eastern Samar. (In the 1980s and 1990s, during Martial Law, the entire Samar Island was pillaged with rapacious, merciless, and unbridled intent by both mining and logging companies). The more the rich get richer from resource bases in which people draw their livelihood, the poorer the latter end up on account of their growing deprivation
of access to those resources.

Just an example: company records show that the net annual income of Nickel Asia Corporation, the mother company of Hinatuan Mining Corporation (HMC), has steadily increased from Php3.8 billion in 2019 to Php5.5 billion in 2020 (up by 43 percent), then doubled to Php10.6 billion in 2021 (up by 94 percent). Manuel Zamora, one of Nickel Asia’s owners, is also known as a prominent political player in
the Philippines; he was a major supporter for the candidacy of eventual winner Joseph Estrada during the 1998 presidential election; a report lists mining as his source of wealth and ranks him number 32 among the Philippine’s richest 50 individuals.

On the other hand, communities in the mined areas continue to struggle from a livelihood perspective. Villardo Abueme, the President of the Homonhon Environment Resources Organization, has been quoted by media as saying that “mining has caused forest denudation and water siltation. Most of the people on Homonhon Island are fisherfolk and farmers and mining has reduced fish catches as well as the amount of arable land.” Narcissa Baddilla, the Coordinator of the Save Manicani Movement, stated that “mining has reduced the amount of land available to farmers and siltation into the ocean has impacted fishing… These environmental effects have damaged the livelihoods of the island’s residents. To quote her further: “without mining, agriculture and fishing could sustain the inhabitants but now with mining, people have become poorer.”

While Philippine Statistics Authority poverty incidence data for Guiuan shows a slow but steady improvement, from 42% in 2009 to 36% in 2012, and 34% in 2015—a downward trend that mirrors those at the provincial, regional and national levels—the resource base-rich municipality rates below Borongan, Eastern Samar’s capital city (which does not host large-scale mining), with poverty incidence rates of 38%, 26%, and 32% for the same period. Guiuan also compares poorly in relation to regional data (31% in 2018 and 29% in 2021), and even more poorly at the national level (12% in 2018 and 13% in 2021).

Even if one sets aside for the moment non-negotiable issues related to incidental human rights breaches and unjust distribution of cost and benefits among key stakeholders, who must include the succeeding generations, there is no denying mining’s negative impact on the environment. Mined areas have to endure hazardous chemicals (eg cyanide and mercury), water contamination, air pollution, deforestation, threats to biodiversity, water siltation and water depletion, among many other environmental risks, even years after mining activities have stopped.

Scars of Mining in Homonhon Island. Photo by Alren Beronio

Scars of Mining in Homonhon Island. Photo by Alren Beronio


Yet for the most part past and the present administration have made it a policy to promote mining. With the country’s erstwhile major export products down (the agriculture sector is sick, the textile industry has been overrun by ukay ukay, etc., the combined total value of which is equivalent to just a single sale of a fighter jet by the US), the government has been hard pressed to prop up its balance of payment
position with proceeds from mining and the old reliable diaspora surplus (remittances from OFWs).

But where government hesitates, the Catholic Church in the Philippines—one that had been linked from the beginning to Homonhon Island—has not wavered in its opposition to mining in general.

Since the 1990s, the Church, whose social teachings—the latest of which being Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si,” (On care for our common home)—exhort its members to be the church of the poor, has rallied public support for government action on the need to stop mining in Eastern Samar. Borongan Bishop Crispin Varquez once said that “we cannot remain deaf and blind and not denounce the excesses of mining while our people suffer the consequences not of their own making.” He adds that he cannot allow the continued exploitation of “our already much-wounded land.”


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