Why mine despite landslide scare? 'Doon lang kami umaasa'

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – The mining town of Itogon in Benguet is no stranger to deadly storms, yet many of its residents would rather stay put than lose their only source of livelihood.

They're the miners of Barangay Ucab, a village with a swath of houses latched on to a mountain range. 

"Talagang 90% ng livelihood ng taga-Itogon ay mina.... Doon lang kami umaasa (90% of the livelihood of Itogon residents is really mining.... We only rely on that)," Barangay Ucab Councilor Jake Naboye told Rappler on Tuesday, September 18.

Ucab village was among the areas that suffered the highest casualties after heavy rains brought by Typhoon Ompong (Mangkhut) triggered a landslide that buried a bunkhouse packed with miners and their families.

In the village alone, at least 18 were found dead while dozens of others remained missing after the landslide.

Presidential Political Adviser Francis Tolentino, President Rodrigo Duterte's conduit for government response to Ompong, said the landslide was caused by both torrential rains and small-scale mining.

"The degree of soil loosening…greatly contributed and exacerbated the amount of rainfall brought by Typhoon Ompong," he said in an interview at the Itogon incident response center near ground zero on Tuesday.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu has since ordered a stop to all small-scale mining operations in the Cordillera region.

Finding replacement for gold

Naboye said residents in the area cannot easily find jobs elsewhere because mining has been the livelihood of the people in Itogon for generations.

In fact, he was a miner himself before getting elected as a councilor. His father and grandfather were miners too. Itogon has also begun attracting diggers from other provinces.

Asked about the alternative livelihood of Itogon miners since the government ordered the halt in small-scale mining in the region, Naboye said they would just follow where the national government leads them.

When Cimatu annonced the closure of small-scale mining operations, he was asked repeatedly by local reporters if the government would provide alternative livelihood to the miners. 

Cimatu could not answer directly, only saying that the miners, who he claimed were mostly from Ifugao, would be returned to that province. 

But with their lives on the line, the people of Itogon are looking for a more direct answer.

"Karamihan talaga po, honestly speaking, doon kami nabubuhay. Katulad sa lowlands, 'yung iba, pangingisda. Dito rin, 'yun din talaga ang kabuhayan dito (Most of us, honestly speaking, depend on mining. Just like in the lowlands, some of them fish. This is how we make a living here)," Naboye said. – Rappler.com

Read more stories from Rappler's coverage of the Itogon landslide:

Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers security, crime, and the city of Manila for Rappler. He was chosen as a Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.