VLOG: When tragedy struck Itogon miners in the mountains

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – What was supposed to be an expedition for gold in the Cordillera mountains ended with death and devastation.

A massive landslide, triggered by Typhoon Ompong (Mangkhut), buried a bunkhouse of miners and their families in Itogon, Benguet. The search and rescue for the missing continues, but as the typhoon had already left the country, people are now asking: Who is to blame?

Rambo Talabong files this video blog.

SEARCH CONTINUES. Volunteers carry a retrieved body from the landslide site in Itogon, Benguet. Photo Jire Carreon/Rappler

SEARCH CONTINUES. Volunteers carry a retrieved body from the landslide site in Itogon, Benguet.

Photo Jire Carreon/Rappler

RAMBO TALABONG, REPORTING: We are here at Zone 070 of Barangay Ucab in Itogon town in Benguet. This is ground zero of the massive landslide triggered by Typhoon Ompong or Mangkhut.

Behind me, the eroded earth took away what used to be a bustling bunkhouse for hundreds of miners.

The mountainside of Barangay Ucab was soaked in rain from the past weeks. Ompong was the final push that led to the collapse.

Presidential Political Adviser Francis Tolentino says mining operations in the area made the situation worse.

Tolentino was named conduit for response efforts for Ompong by President Rodrigo Duterte.

FRANCIS TOLENTINO, PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: The amount of rainfall brought by Ompong was more than the amount rainfall brought by previous typhoons. I don’t have the exact figures, but the mining operations contributed, the illegal mining operations contributed to the gravity of what we have now behind me.

Most of the missing are small-scale miners and their families living in a bunkhouse at the foot of the mountain. The facility is a few minutes away from the Antamok mining area owned by  Benguet Corporation.

The mining company had used the bunkhouse but abandoned it after large-scale operations were suspended.

Itogon Mayor Victorio Palangdan says it is Benguet Corporation’s fault that the miners and their families settled in the bunkhouse.

Palangdan says the big mining company could have stopped the small-time miners from taking over its abandoned mines.

VICTORIO PALANGDAN, ITOGON MAYOR: When I said Benguet Corporation, why – in the first place, why did they allow these people to mine their abandoned mining tunnel? There is something there, so people were lured to mine to go inside the abandoned mining tunnel of Benguet [Corp] that is behind the [collapsed] building.

Palangdan says only the DENR, and not the local government, can enforce environmental laws. Headed by Roy Cimatu, the DENR has since ordered a halt all small-scale mining operations in the Cordillera Administrative Region.

But this means the loss of livelihood of thousands of miners.

Barangay Councilor Jake Naboye says 90% of the people in his village depend on mining, including his father and grandfather.

JAKE NABOYE, UCAB BARANGAY COUNCILOR: This is our main livelihood. We only rely on this.

Generations of miners in Itogon had always seen mining as their lifeline. Now it has taken their lives.

Now, volunteers scramble to find the dozens missing.

With the passageways and power lines cut by Typhoon Ompong, the search is slower than hoped for.

Rescuers use small equipment and even their bare hands to dig through the earth for the missing.

NESTOR GORIO, BAGUIO CITY FIRE MARSHAL: We’re usually ready to respond to these cases, but the roads have been washed out, so we couldn’t bring our heavy equipment. So it’s really slow. Our movements are limited because we dig manually with shovels. That's what we have. We don't have heavy equipment.

As the tragedy from Ompong’s aftermath unfolds, Itogon Mayor Victorio Palangdan announces his plan to shift the town to farming – agri-tourism with coffee beans as the main product. He says he plans to end itogon’s dependence on mining in 5 years.

PALANGDAN: We are going into agritourism project[s], as stated by our President that we should ingo agritourism. So that's it, we are introducing little by little, the people will forget mining. Because mining is only [a] temporary source of income.

But right now, rescuers are focused on finding the missing.

MARIO MAYAMES, ITOGON POLICE RESCUER: If you think about its scope and its weight, it is difficult. It gives [rescuers] low morale. But the perseverance is there that we want to [find the missing].

Because the family members are there waiting for us to find someone. So what gives us strength are the relatives mourning, praying, and there, digging.

Rescuers hope they will. Find everyone missing. Some still pray they would find someone alive.

MAYAMES: We are not just hoping, we are also praying that we can find them. It is our moral obligation as countrymen, as Filipinos. And this is our culture in the Cordillera. We will not stop until we find all of them.

It was all about finding gold. Now it’s about finding bodies in the mud. As mountainside communities here in Itogon reel from the landslides, local authorities, mining companies, and environment officials only blame each other.

Rambo Talabong, Rappler, Benguet. – Rappler.com