As a balikbayan [Filipino with a foreign passport returning home], sometimes you’re confronted by a situation that makes you embarrassed to have a Canadian passport. This last Christmas season was pretty crushing for both the Filipino and Canadian in me.

I mean what do you say to a Filipino community where the air, food, and water are poisoned? Where almost everyone has heavy metal poisoning? Where many are suffering horrible symptoms, children are being born with physical and metal illness, and some are even loosing limbs to it,–what do you say when the reason for all this ties back to Canada?

I spent this past Christmas season on the island of Marinduque, the site of one of the world’s greatest mining disasters and in Zamboanga del Norte, where another Canadian company is accused of major human rights offences.

In the movie “Blood Diamond,” you see how the world’s love affair with diamonds resulted in conflict, displacement, and a lot of lost limbs and lives. “Conflict diamonds” are a massive cause celeb these days with Kanye West hogging airtime to rant political. For us Filipino’s our “conflict diamonds” is a much more common product, gold. Like diamonds, gold mining is responsible for the same sort of conflict, militarization, displacement, and loss of limbs and lives.

For us Fil-Cans this gold issue hits even closer to home.

The Philippines is ranked second to South Africa in production (per unit of land area). Gold is found throughout the islands and mining is one of the centre pieces of the government’s economic strategy. Canada is one of the world’s top mining countries, and the Toronto Stock Exchange (with 60% of the world’s mining listings) is one of the world’s three top financial centres for mining (with Melbourne and London).

Large-scale mining is recognised as one of the most problematic ventures in the world. Where ever there is a large scale mine there are community accusations of human rights abuse, and livelihood and environmental destruction.

Marinduque was depressing. There were three major toxic spills on this island: 1) Calancan Bay where 200 million metric tones of mine tailings were purposefully dumped into the ocean at surface level. This dumping continued 24 hours a day from 1975 to 1991; 2) the Boac River where a dam breach spilled 3-4 metric tones of tailings in 1996; 3) the Mogpog river had a similar spill in 1991.

This mine closed down in 1996, but the health and environmental problems linger. Heavy metal poisoning is rampant throughout the island, and none of the sites have been fully rehabilitated. Sometimes when the wind picks up the toxic mine waste is blown about, the locals call this their “snow from Canada.”

While there for Christmas I thought about the toy recall incident from last year when toys made in Asia were chastised for their lead content and possible health risks. In the Philippines the health risk from heavy metals is not a possibility but a fact, and it’s source is the West, often from Canada.

And Marinduque is not an isolated incident. Even without ‘accidents’ mining causes huge problems for the local communities. And the supposed economic benefits are difficult to see. Few jobs are created around large scale mining, and many are lost. Worse still, the money made from this mining doesn’t even stay in the Philippines as the government grants companies long tax holidays, and allows for 100% foreign ownership and 100% repatriation of capital and profits.

I also visited Mt. Canatuan, where Toronto Ventures Incorporated was tried and convicted by the local Subanon tribe for human rights violations including:

– Entering Subanon land without consent.

– The creation of a “Council of Elders” so as to circumvent the traditional leadership of the Subanon tribe.

– Physical injuries to the local people including: physical assault; firing live rounds at protestors; health complications resulting from polluted waterways.

– The destruction of their sacred mountain.

As Filipino-Canadians I believe that this is an issue we can get behind.

Subanon tribal leaders spoke to the Canadian Parliament in 2005 and helped jump start a committee to examine how Canadian mining operates abroad and their recommendations will finally be commented on this spring.

There is also a drive to create a kind of international branding for gold. There is a major initiative called ARM (Association for Responsible Mining) that is developing standards and verification systems to certify gold from small scale producers so it can be marketed like fair trade coffee. And there are also a number of organizations that are working on something called the Green Gold campaign.

Just a few years ago I remember how few people knew about the problems with diamonds in places like Sierra Leone. These days I think we’ve all gotten use to wondering if the diamonds we buy are ‘safe,’ I hope we can also start thinking about our brothers and sisters in the Phils and how the gold we buy here affects them.

So what do you say folks? I know there are some of you that are jewelry producers, and even more of us that are jewelry consumers, what are your thoughts?

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Please feel free to contact me directly for photo and story inquiries: alexfelipe.photographer@gmail.com

 

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