RED bald mountains loom over the green stretch of the coastal town of Cantilan, Surigao del Sur, the last town in the ore-rich region of Caraga to resist the encroachment of giant mining companies.
The people, however, are not just fighting mining through mass mobilizations and campaigns, they are offering an alternative that can bring in the money to more people: tourism.
On an outrigger boat toward Ayoke island, a sitio of Barangay General of the more 233 years old settlement, you catch glimpses of the barges and ships loaded with mounds of red soil that dwarf the backhoes that shovel the soil in. No wonder the bald expanse of red mountains in the background looked angry...
But it's not just the mountains that are angry...
"People have barricaded the road made by Marcventures Mining and Development Corporation [MMDC] in barangay Cagangahan toward the neighboring town of Carrascal," said Emma Hotchkiss, president of Baywatch Inc., the organization rallying the people of Cantilan against mining.
Carrascal hosts the biggest mining operations in the province of Surigao del Sur and has mountains upon mountains traversed by hundreds of heavy equipment kicking thick clouds of red dust that reach the island group of Barangay General.
Hotchkiss was referring to the barricade set up in April 2013 that forced Marcventures to stop its incursion in Cantilan territory.
The Municipal Government of Cantilan has been waging a legal battle against Marcventures after it started mining operations in Barangay Cabangahan, through what town officials claim is a cancelled mining production sharing agreement (MPSA) from another company, the Ventura Timber Corporation. Marcventures has been insisting that its operation is aboveboard.
In May 2011, continuous rain unleashed floodwaters thick with silt that covered the rice fields with a mass of thick red mud. The mud killed the rice plants and rendered the rice fields infertile until the residues were washed away for several planting seasons. The fields became too acidic for rice to grow.
The greater source of unrest is that the slopes of Barangay Cagangahan are the headwaters of two of its major rivers -- Carac-an and Alamyo -- and irrigation sources.
The floods happened again in 2012, Mayor Genito B. Guardo said.
"We have 2,200 hectares of rice lands, 1,800 hectares are irrigated. The 2011 floods destroyed around 80 percent," Guardo added.
Worse, the mountains that nurture the minerals are not just where the headwaters are but also the watershed from where the town gets its drinking water.
"If our waters become polluted, what will happen to us?" Hotchkiss asked.
Voices from the fields
Anamae Fernandez Lico, a mother of four whose husband is an overseas Filipino worker (OFW), was supplementing their income through rice farming. Rice farmers in Cateel observe two planting seasons a year.
For each planting, she spends P15,000, which she can recoup after harvest. But when the floods came in 2011, the yield from her one-hectare field was just around 11 sacks.
"When the floods came, I could no longer recoup my capital and even until the second cropping I couldn't harvest enough because the floods brought in sand from the river when the dike broke," she said in the vernacular.
She stopped planting for two years and had to make do with what her husband earns for all their family's needs.
Chito Trillanes, spokesperson for the Vicariate of the Carcanmadcarlanpar (referring to the five municipalities of Carrascal, Cantilan, Madrid, Carmen and Lanuza, and Barangay Parang of Cantilan, in Surigao del Sur) and chief of staff of the mayor, said that while the Alamio River regularly breaches its banks when the regular week-long rains in Cantilan would pour this would take hours even days, since the buildup of water is steady. In the 2012 floods at the time that Marcsventures was operating in the mountains of Cantilan the Alamio overflowed in just 45 minutes.
"The flooding not only came from the minesite but also from the road widening made in their forestland, bringing silt two feet deep," he said.
The soil became very acidic. The advice from agriculture technologists: increase the nitrogen. This cost the farmers more, aside from the fact that too much nitrates from soil pollutes water sources. The siltation also reduced the capabilities of irrigation systems to the point that as much as 450 hectares could no longer be irrigated.
The sad part is that while the people were trying to protect their land from mining, they were being sued for various offenses.
"This is a big blow to the people who are just protecting their livelihood when they are now the ones threatened," Trillanes said.
"All those mountains are our watershed, that is where all mining operations are," Barangay Cabas-an Councilor Agustin Andoy said.
Fr. Frank Olviz, San Pedro Apostol Parish priest, reminded his people, "Atong kabukiran, tinubdan sa tubig (Our forests are our wellsprings). No trees, no water, no water, no rice. Dili dapat ta magduhaduha (We should never hesitate to put up a fight)."
Carlos Consigna, vice chairman of Nagkahiusang Managat para sa Kalambuan sa Ayoke (Union of Fishermen for Ayoke's Development or Nagmakaayo) said the northeast monsoon usually triggers flooding but for as long as they can remember, it lasts only up to three weeks. Since mining started, their waters remain brown for up to two months.
"Silted ang tubig (Our sea is silted)," he said.
As a result, fishermen need to go farther to fish, as far as Siargao. They also can't catch octopus that they can readily harvest in knee-high waters because the waters have become so silted they can no longer see where the octopuses are hiding.
"The dust from the mines reach our island during habagat. The wind turns red," Consigna said in the vernacular. Using a straight line from the beachfront of Carrascal's cove using Google Earth, Ayoke is around 12 kilometers away.
Nagmakaayo has a marine protected area with a 23-hectare core zone and a 19-hectare buffer zone.
General Island, the main barangay to which Ayoke belongs, also maintains a marine protected with a core zone of 28 hectares and a buffer zone of 19 hectares. Ayoke is around three kilometers across the sea from General. The MPA in General is maintained by the Islahanon Andam Magdumala Nan Kinaiyahan (Islanders Ready to Protect the Environment or Islamdunk), a people's organization.
Islamdunk chair Eustaquio "Jojo" Juralba Jr. said the waters around them become "kulay kape" during the rainy season. "It's like a three-in-one coffee mix," he said.
Juralba, who is among those tapped to represent the grassroots aquatic sector in the court-appointed committee to study the environmental situation of Cantilan following a counter-charge of environmental case filed by the Cantilan government, said the initial studies made from samples gathered July 14-23 showed that all the town's rivers are polluted.
The case can drag on; the people meanwhile could go hungry and forced willing to sell anything to whoever lusts for their land.
Cantilan's name said to come from the word Tilang, the local name of giant clams (Tridacna gigas), which used to be abundant in the town's water. There are still enough remaining, but the mine's tailings and silt can easily kill everything in its path.
For as long as the floodwaters from the denuded mountains are not brought down by the rains, Cantilan's waters are very clear, you can see the seabed from your boat.
On General Island is the Bills' Sanctuary or Inijakan, a sanctuary privately managed by the William K. Hotchkiss Foundation, Inc. Foundation executive director Tanya Hotchkiss, Emma's niece, said the endangered Napoleon wrasses, can be seen scooting about at low tide along with some humphead wrasses.
Tanya said the island is also home to rufus hornbills.
Ayoke boasts of surfs that can give Siargao and Lanuza a run for their money, while the mainland has vast stretches of very fine black sand beaches.
Baywatch's Hotchkiss said that only Cantilan has both sunrise and sunset, and this can be experienced on Ayoke.
These, aside from the fact that this tiny town has already produced five generals of high ranks including the 24th and now retired Commanding General of the Philippine Air Force Lieutenant General William K. Hotchkiss, who is current Director General of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines; and the newly installed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Lt. Gen. Hernando Delfin Carmelo Arreza Iriberri, who before his appointment last July 10, 2015, was the 56th Commanding General of the Philippine Army.
"They were all raised from rice farming," Emma stressed.
They are drumming up interest in ecotourism to bring in the visitors and make people realize that there is more to be gained from tourism than from mining.
"From the person who produces the food to the souvenir makers, everyone benefits," Emma said.
They are inviting friends to come over and are earning some space in the media for their largely undiscovered destinations, and are encouraging organic farming to serve as food destinations, as well. It's a race against time.
A look at the Mines and Geosciences Bureau website shows that there are 43 existing mining production sharing agreements in Surigao del Sur and Surigao del Norte, out of the total of 338 MPSAs all over the Philippines. The agreements cover 3.91-million hectares, most of them for chromite, gold, copper, silica, and nickel. More than half of the total area of the two provinces. The two provinces have a total land area of 6.906-million hectares. Cantilan has a total area of 240,100 hectares.
The two provinces also have four of the 30 existing exploration permits.
In the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government Policy Brief on Mining in the Philippines entitled "Is there a Future for Mining in the Philippines?" released in October 2012, it reads:
"According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), the mining (and quarrying) sector's contribution to national total employment has always been below 1 percent (1%). Recent data has shown that it has been 0.5% since 2008 until 2010. So far, for the first half of 2011, contribution has been reported as 0.6% (in contrast to agriculture at 33% in 2011). All over the world, extractive mining is known as a low-employment generating activity. The Tampakan project, with expected investments of $5.9 billion, will provide only 2,000 permanent jobs."
In Surigao del Sur and del Norte, the only town putting up a fight against mining is Cantilan.
In the meantime, the 2016 elections loom. Will the people decide for those who are for the sustainable or will the mining companies win the people over?