KASAMA Vol. 18 No. 4 / October-November-December 2004 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Breaking Promises, Making Profits:
Mining in the Philippines

A Christian Aid and Piplinks report, December 2004

Over the past eight years the authors have visited and listened to mine-affected communities, company representatives, government officials and groups from many different parts of the Philippines. They have visited communities in Siocon, Bayog, Sibutad, San Miguel, Midsalip, Pagadian, Leon Postigo, Sindangan and Iligan in Western Mindanao; Mainit, Tubod, Placer and Claver in Northeast Mindanao; and Toledo, Cebu, Palawan, Victoria, Pinamalayan Naujan and Calapan in Mindoro Oriental. They have also visited Aurora Province and the Cordillera Region, including the communities of Itogon, Mankayan, Cervantes, Tadian, Quirino, Bontoc and Sagada, among many other areas.

"We have seen the devastating effects of some of the mining operations: the spillages of mine tailings in Boac, Marinduque, in Sipalay and Hinobaan, in Negros Occidental, in Itogon, Benguet, and mudflows in Sibutad, Zamboanga del Norte. The adverse social impact on the affected communities, especially on our indigenous brothers and sisters, far outweigh the gains promised by large-scale mining corporations. Our people living in the mountains and along the affected shorelines can no longer avail of the bounty of nature." [1]
Statement of Catholic Bishops of the Philippines, 1998

ON 24 MARCH 1996 a cement plug in the base of a tailings pit burst at the Marcopper mine on Marinduque Island in central Philippines. Poisonous waste began to pour into the nearby Boac River.[2] The leak took months to stop, by which time an estimated four million tonnes of grey, porridge-thick tailings had filled the river bed and caused widespread flooding and damage to property and rice fields. Five villages had to be evacuated and an estimated 20,000 villagers living along the river and its estuary were affected, according to a UN report.[3] Today the river mouth and bed are still filled with waste and the metals in the silt are generating acids. The local economy and ecology have been devastated. [4]

But the 1996 disaster was by no means the only one to afflict the people of Marinduque. The Marcopper mine had been polluting the environment continuously since it was opened in 1969. Over a period of about 20 years up to 1991, it dumped around 200 million tonnes of mine waste into the nearby coastal fishing grounds of Calancan Bay,[5] extending a 500-metre-wide causeway five kilometres into the sea, and devastating the livelihoods of local fishing communities. Analysis by the United States Geological Survey, the Philippines Department of Health and Oxfam Australia's Mining Ombudsman has shown very high levels of lead and other metals in children's blood and the local environment. Some children have died of metal poisoning.[6]

A Canadian multinational mining company, Placer Dome, was the largest single investor in the Marcopper mine with a 39.99 per cent holding (the most a foreign company is allowed to own). Although it has strenuously denied accountability for Marcopper's activities and the disaster in 1996, Placer has spent millions of dollars since cleaning up the Boac River. A Philippine government report shows that after seven years of contamination the river is slowly returning to normal [7] and Placer says it is content it has behaved responsibly by paying for some of the clean up: "We hope the current owner is going to do the right thing... We have fulfilled our responsibility," said a spokesperson.

The company also claims that it was only a "minority shareholder with very little ability to influence and certainly not control" operations.[8] Placer Dome was, however, the only company with mining expertise involved in the Marcopper project. Staff who left Placer to run the Marcopper mine, and subsequently returned to Placer, were not described as 'secondments' but employees of Marcopper Mining.

But the company accepts no responsibility for the devastation caused in Calancan Bay and other areas polluted since 1969. As well as saying that it was not the operating company, it argues that the mine was operating legally. "Submarine tailings disposal was the accepted and approved way to go in that part of the world at that time," said a spokesperson.[9]

Asked whether Placer Dome had investigated reports of the damage, Keith Ferguson, vice-president for safety and sustainability, told Christian Aid, "I haven't seen any studies or any evidence or anything." There are many reports in the public domain describing the horrific state of Calancan Bay today. In the same interview, Christian Aid was advised that, "There are many parts of the world where these kind of things have occurred."

The headline-grabbing disaster in 1996 alerted people all over the Philippines to the disastrous environmental impact that has so frequently been the legacy of large-scale mining in the Philippines.

Marcopper remains the worst, but by no means the only, environmental disaster in Philippine mining history. It happened just one year after a new law, the 1995 Mining Code - intended to boost investment in the industry - was passed. All the disaster boosted, however, was the widespread community opposition to mining that still remains today. The industry appears to have lost its social licence to operate.[10]

In researching this report over the past eight years, the authors have visited communities affected by mining from Luzon to Mindanao, and from Cebu to Palawan.

What they found was that while companies express their commitment to high environmental standards and good relations with their host communities, the communities themselves tell of the repeated violation of environmental standards and their human rights by companies and their employees. Given the negative experiences of the past, locals fear for the future: they express openly their lack of confidence that either mining companies or the government will do enough to protect them from mining's worst effects.

This report asks whether mining as currently practised benefits ordinary Filipinos, and looks at what changes are needed to address their concerns.

Foreign and domestic investment in mining has been encouraged by successive administrations, with the backing of influential international organisations such as the World Bank. But the Philippine government is following policies that are hurting some of its poorest citizens. Going beyond simple economic measures, this report looks more broadly at the environmental and social costs and benefits of mining.

Two case studies explore these issues in greater depth. Lepanto Consolidated Mining, a Philippine company, owns a copper and gold mine in Mankayan that has operated since 1936, making it the oldest working mine in Asia. The report examines its environmental legacy: its waste has polluted and clogged a major river, the Abra, causing environmental damage across four provinces. It is accused of causing subsidence in the local area. The report looks at the response of communities, long familiar with mining, to proposals for its continuation and expansion.

The second case study looks at a Canadian company, TVI Pacific, which is attempting to mine gold in Canatuan, Siocon, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. It looks at whether the rights of the indigenous Subanon[11] to make decisions about its land have been sacrificed for the sake of foreign capital. Local people who rely on clean and plentiful water for agriculture and fishing fear economic ruin because of pollution from the mine. The area has become heavily militarised as TVI seeks to protect its investment.

National governments, including that of the Philippines, continue to introduce legislation favouring big companies, to the detriment of ordinary people. This report calls for a more sustainable form of development instead, in line with the wishes of local communities. It also criticises influential lenders, such as the World Bank, which promote policy reforms designed to expand the mining industry. The Extractive Industries Review (EIR), commissioned by the World Bank to assess its record in the sector and published in late 2003, agrees that mining projects, including many funded by the Bank, have too often entrenched rather than reduced poverty. The Bank has rejected its main recommendations.

Because the benefits to the national economy remain so unclear, with negative effects appearing to be at least as likely as positive ones, it is vital to focus on the local impact of mining. Here the picture is clear - people who live near mines in the Philippines are overwhelmingly being made worse off, because of environmental degradation, economic stagnation and human rights concerns. Only a small minority are benefiting from the few jobs available, and the occasional company-sponsored community programme.

If there is a role for mining in the Philippines, it must be within a context of human rights and truly sustainable development.

But if we are to change a system in which the long-term costs are borne by the environment, and the poorest, a strong framework of rights and precautionary law is urgently needed. The EIR argues that, at a minimum, clear conditions have to be in place prior to investment if that investment is going to benefit poor people. Domestic legislation to improve the accountability of companies based in prominent mining centres like the UK, Canada and Australia is critical.

Mining companies, financiers and international institutions must be compelled to comply with existing international law and emerging international and national standards. The rights of indigenous peoples to determine what development should take place on their lands, including the right to reject unacceptable development, must be respected in practice as in law.

Moreover, the numerous allegations of human rights violations associated with mining development should be investigated. Communities affected by a mining company should have a right of redress. They should be able to bring their grievances to an international or nationally-based regulatory body and pursue their case in the domestic courts of the countries where mining companies are based.

End Notes:

[1] Statement of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, 28 February 1998.
[2] Tailings are the rock wastes left behind following ore extraction. They often contain heavy metals, acid-forming minerals and residue from toxic chemicals used in the extraction process, including cyanide and sulphuric acid.
[3] Final Report of the UN Expert Assessment Mission, UNEP, 1996.
[4] For further information on the Marcopper mining disaster visit
[5] Catherine Coumans, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7 March 1998. Cited on Solidarity Philippines Australia Network site,
[6] Cited in "Island in the Sun", by Nina Field, in Oxfam News, Spring 2004, Oxfam/Community Aid Abroad.
[7] Mining Firms Clean up their Mess on Gozun's Order,
[8] Interview with Placer Dome, October 2004.
[9] Ibid.
[10] A Laquian, Social Impact Assessment of the Marcopper Mine Tailings Spill in the Boac and Makulapnit River Valley, Marinduque Province, Philippines, 21 October 1996.
[11] Alternative spellings are Subanen and Subanun. There is no definitive spelling.


The article above is the Executive Summary of this 62-page report written by Geoff Nettleton, Andy Whitmore, Jonathan Glennie and edited by Liz Stuart. Many people provided evidence for this report, especially the people of Canatuan and Siocon, and of the areas around the Mankayan mine.

Copies of "Breaking Promises, Making Profits: Mining in the Philippines" can be obtained from Christian Aid and PIPLinks at the following addresses:

Christian Aid, PO Box 100, London, U.K. SE1 7RT
Email: - Website:

PIPLinks Indigenous Peoples Links, 73 Thrayle House, Benedict Road, London, U.K. SW9 0XU
Tel: +44 (0)20 7095 1555 - Fax: +44 (0)20 7095 1555
Email: - Website:

Christian Aid works in some of the world's poorest communities in more than 50 countries where the need is greatest, regardless of religion, helping people to tackle the problems they face and build the life they deserve. At home and overseas, Christian Aid campaigns to change the structures that keep people poor, challenging inequality and injustice.

Philippine Indigenous Peoples Links (PIPLinks) supports indigenous peoples' organisations in their efforts to gain recognition and respect for basic rights and especially the rights of indigenous people to control their ancestral lands and determine their own future. PIPLinks conducts research, education and a range of advocacy activities in an effort to ensure that indigenous peoples' voices are heard and their views respected in decisions affecting their future.

More information: