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The Price of Gold

Photographer: Mark R. Cristino

 

Noel Austria pulls a rope, signaling his companion to pull him up where he is hanging from almost sixty feet down a mining tunnel. Noel is experiencing heavy breathing, 'There is poison, we need to use the blower,' he said after getting back on top. Noel has been mining for 15 years and has survived two accidents, one being trapped underground for three hours after the walls inside a mining tunnel collapsed. Domingo Chavez smokes a cigarette after coming out of the water at a compression mining site along a rice field. 'It is very cold and dark under the water, the cigarette warms our body,' he says. 'I have four children. I need this job to feed them'. After ten minutes, Domingo puts on his goggles and a small tube connected to a compressor in his mouth and goes back underwater again.

 

Noel and Domingo work in different mining towns in Paracale in the province of Camarines Norte. They rely on the artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM) industry as their main source of livelihood together with 300,000 other miners (including over 18,000 women and children) in the Philippines. ASGM takes place in more than half of the provinces in the Philippines, producing 80 percent of its gold supply.

 

Most of the miners work in unregulated and illegal mining sites that rely heavily on mercury to extract gold. Miners work without protective gears and handle this toxic metal with bare hands, which can cause serious damage to the miners, the community and the environment. Mercury is used to attract and bind gold, usually processed in a pan to form an amalgam. The amalgam is then heated using a blow torch to vaporize mercury leaving behind the gold.

 

Mercury attacks the central nervous system causing headaches, brain damage and even death. Charito Elcano, the president of the Samahang Magkakabod ng Pinuhan local community group, is a strong advocate of mercury-free methods after losing both her brother and nine-year-old son from exposure to mercury. Joeboy Corbito comes from a family of miners who struck gold and earned millions. Unfortunately, Joeboy also lost his father when he too was exposed to mercury. Still, he continues to mine but now using a safer method to separate gold from mercury.

 

In October 2013, the Philippines signed the Minamata Convention but have yet to ratify the agreement that addresses human activities to reduce mercury pollution. The United Nations (UN), who organized the trip, and independent non-government environmental organization BAN Toxics are working to reform the ASGM sector in the Philippines and around the world under the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Global Opportunities for Long-term Development (GOLD) Program. The program focuses on mercury-free method technologies, improving livelihoods by connecting miners directly to markets, and allowing miners to work safely and legally by introducing ASGM friendly policy and permit systems.