Enchanted Mount Diwata (First part)

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By Jesus “Jess” Dureza

Advocacy MindaNOW

Saturday, February 4, 2012


(NOTE: This is the first of a series of articles that the author will publish about Diwalwal, small scale mining and mining as a whole. He revisited the area a few days ago with some friends and prospective investors)

MONKAYO, Compostela Valley -- A few days ago, I revisited barangay Mount Diwata, more popularly known as Diwalwal. Many tend to mix up the two names. But Diwalwal was derived from the local dialect’s phrase “diwalwal ang dila” which literally means “one’s tongue hanging out” after a steep climb.

Mount Diwata, on the other hand, is the political unit within the Monkayo municipality in Compostela Valley province (ComVal).

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Monkayo town is about two hours’ drive in first class road north of Davao City. Diwalwal elevation is about 600 to 700 meters or 2,000 feet more or less above sea level. I had been there several times before, with then DENR Secretary Elisea Gozun, Sen. Sonny Alvarez and others. My last visit was with former President Arroyo about three years ago. On those trips, I flew in by helicopter.

For the first time, I travelled by land starting the ascent from Monkayo town, the fiefdom of the Brillantes family, one of the mining families in the area. Mayor Junjun Brillantes, who succeeded his assassinated brother “JB,” received us at the town hall. Eldest brother “JB,” who was murdered in a cockpit in Davao City in 2003, was one of the original mining stalwarts in the area together with a hand-full of other mining families who up to now control the business through sheer industry, guts and with some amount of luck and audacity. And lots of “muscle” of course.

JB mining company’s chairman, soft-spoken Lito Brillantes conducted us up to the hive of “small scale” mining in the mountains. The road in the less-than-one hour ascent was manageable except that one needed to take a sturdy four wheel-drive vehicle to survive the slippery surface in a slight drizzle – a common treat at this time of the year.

‘GOLDEN RULE.” There were a few “habal-habals” (motorcycles used as public transport) along the way. Not as many as during the early “gold rush” days when there were no roads and only the two-wheeled motorcycles abloom with paying passengers and cargo plied the dangerous route – dangerous not only for its risky terrain but for the ambuscades and armed attacks that were normal occurrences in what was a “wild, wild west” territory then. At that time, everyone merely observed the “golden rule.” No, not the typical “do unto others what you want others do unto you.” But the more down-to-earth: “Those who have the gold, rules!”

DIWATA. Mount Diwata is the official name of the barangay. Legend has it that “diwata” (or enchanted goddess) continues to rule over the promontory high up in the sky where precious gold teem from its bowels. No wonder new miners go through some tribal customary rituals before they poke their first spade into the ground hoping to “please” and ask permission from the “Diwata.”

I gathered a bit of backgrounder from close friend companero Atty. Ruben Abarquez, a frat brod in the law school TAU MU Fraternity who now dawdles in mining. Ben was my student in law school who made it to the Top Ten of the Philippine Bar exams (nope, I’m not that old) and my former law partner during those rough-and-tumble days of law practice in Davao City.

According to Ben, local stories pointed to one native, Camine Banad, who led a group of lumads (natives) in “discovering” almost 30 years ago in 1983 precious gold spewing from uprooted tree trunks. This triggered a mad rush to this virgin forest. Its population peaked at 200,000. The green lush cover gave way to shanties clinging perilously at cliffs.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST. A bit of flashback. The “gold rush” was unbridled and unregulated. Those who had the stomach for survival and those who “go for broke” since there’s not much to expect down in the lowlands anyway found the area a place of hope and a veritable arena for survival. The steep precipice suddenly sprouted with makeshift shanties.

Upon entering a shed, a hole or portal gawks as one enters. That’s where the digging begins, deep into the bowels of the mountainside. Everybody has his ears and eyes open and orients the diggings towards the “vein” or the lode where others are reported to make their “hit” with high-grade ore. The wild chase is on. At some point, many tunnels underground crisscross one another. It’s at these crossroads that violence and killing take place. There’s an OMERTA rule among miners, just like the unwritten “secrecy” pact amongst Italian crime syndicates of yore.

Whatever happens underground, whether a “bar-down,” cave-in or murder is not reported to the authorities. (They’re nowhere to be found anyway.) They are merely told and passed on as gossips in hushed tones above ground. Grieving families do not bother search for missing “abanteros” or miners as they are whisked out of the area by financiers after paying them off some subsistence amounts as “social security” substitutes to lost loved ones. Others are just lost without anyone noticing or knowing. It’s when a landslide takes place, where the open side of the mountain is cut for all to see that attracts media and government attention. The usual modus operandi: mind your own business; hear nothing, say nothing; to each his own, etc. are practiced to the letter. Otherwise, you don’t belong there.

Life is Spartan and expensive. A bottle of coke that normally costs P15 in the lowlands fetches at P100 or so. Even some prostitutes who prowl the area and are cashing in on the isolated lifestyle of miners are reportedly known to settle not only for cash but will accept some equivalent “gold dusts” or something for their services. But I have still to see some of them carry on their backs a bag of ore after a tryst! It’s a wild country, indeed.

Each tunnel owner must have his own private army: armed goons to protect his own turf – or in some cases, ready to forcibly take over known “high grade” areas of others who are vulnerable and less armed. Survival of the fittest is never so true anywhere than in fabled Mount Diwata.

VIRGIN NO MORE. However, a few days ago when I revisited the area, the population estimate was down to 20,000. Only 10 percent stayed. It seemed that the luckier and the sturdier ones -- physically and in spirit – stayed behind. Billions of pesos worth of gold had been taken from those mountains. And untold numbers of lives were also lost, by natural means like landslides, “bar-downs” or tunnels caving in or just through “rub-outs” or murders or plain terrorism. And of course, the forests of yesterday are no longer “virgins” today. They were ravaged and defiled.

I now wonder whether the enchanted “diwata” still smiles as she continues to hold sway and look down upon her once-lush and pristine domain into what it is today: a wasteland. No wonder the Diwata shows her wrath and displeasure from time to time in the calamities that we all face today.

(To be continued)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on February 05, 2012.

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