It was an order that ultimately came far too late. On Jan. 6, Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo ordered the forced evacuation of people still living in the mining areas in Barangay Napnapan, Pantukan, Compostela Valley after a landslide killed at least 22 people Thursday.
The killing mud came rushing down the mountainside in the middle of the night, swallowing up entire lines of shanties and engulfing men, women and children as they slept. In the morning, the entire side of the mountain looked as if a giant hand had smoothed over where people used to live, as if they had never been there. Rescue workers and volunteers swarmed the area, hoping to find survivors buried in the mud, but hope vanished along with the time. Like their best efforts, the bulldozers tried their best to make headway up the mountainside only to fall back and then try again in their Sisyphus-like efforts.
One terrifying thing about this natural disaster is that it has happened again and again. In May 2009, some 27 lives were lost to yet another mudslide in Barangay Napnapan. Just a month ago, in December 2011, five people died in Barangay Diwalwal in Monkayo town. A few months before that, in August 2011, three people died in New Bataan town, while in April, 13 people were killed in a landslide in Barangay Kingking. Each time, the local government instituted measures to hopefully prevent these slides from happening again—but the efforts always proved to be not enough.
As horrible as it sounds, a great deal of the blame still falls on the residents in this part of Compostela Valley. The majority of them aren’t long-time dwellers—instead, they are migrated miners, coming to the area because of the chance to mine gold in the valley. They had come with nothing and plunged themselves into an almost fanatical quest for gold in the dangerous mountain area. When the landslides struck, the miners and their families were squarely in the path of the devastation.
Yet they remained. When the local government shooed them away, they came back and built anew. They reasoned that at least here, even in the face of daily danger, they had a chance to earn some kind of living. To move away was to give up any chance of hitting it big with the gold rush. The miners kept clinging to a grim fatalism: if it’s your time to go, no matter where you are, it’s your time to go. So here they would stay, no matter how much the government officials pleaded with them. Even now, with the death toll rising and rescue efforts proceeding, the surviving miners seem to just be waiting to go back to their digging for gold once the hullabaloo is over—like before.
Except this time, Malacañang is taking a hard stance. Along with the forced evacuation being implemented with the help of the Philippine Army, President Aquino is determined to find out if local officials did not do enough to save Pantukan town from nature’s fury.
“The responsibility of evacuating or doing a forced evacuation is with the local government officials. But, having this thing happen, this is totally unacceptable,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters. “You are elected to office to provide service in all forms and that includes ensuring the safety of your constituents.”
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the disaster is that it will almost surely happen again—unless something serious is done to prevent it. The local government has the police power to force the miners to abandon the area in the face of possible mudslides. But perhaps next time, it would actually force all of them to leave, instead of leaving the stubborn among the miners to remain and place themselves in the path of more devastation. Elected officials are required to remove their constituents in imminent danger, even if those same constituents don’t want to go.
Robredo’s evacuation order also came with the fortuitous order to shut down all the mining tunnels spider-webbing inside the mountain. Perhaps nothing but an absolute order to cease mining in the area will prevent another tragedy from happening. There are many other ways government can help the miners, such as initiating livelihood projects or providing new jobs. Now, perhaps the local government will make them go before the rains threaten again. Now, perhaps the residents will leave when told to do so. Now, perhaps the order to leave won’t come too late.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.