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Method To Madness

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There were already gunshots hours before the mountain fell. The sentries say they fired into the air again and again – a warning to the villagers to run, as small rocks and soil began to slide.

The landslide occurred at three in the morning at the hilly portion of Sitio Uno to Sitio 700, a gold-panning area situated in Barangay Napnapan, Pantukan, Compostela Valley. “Said incident,” according to the Jan. 14 report signed by Director Benito Ramos of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, “occurred due to continuous rains in recent days. Dozens were buried alive while several shanties made with light materials were wiped out.”

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The national government ordered the immediate evacuation of the surrounding areas. Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo demanded the closure of mine tunnels. Pantukan Mayor Celso Sarenas announced that his administration would shut down all tunnels and stop the renewal of the annual permits to mine in the high-risk area.

President Aquino’s spokesperson Edwin Lacierda quoted Robredo as saying that the government was of the impression that local officials had simply allowed residents to continue mining in the area despite the hazards.

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Lacierda’s deputy Abigail Valte said that unlike previous administrations, the Aquino administration would not hesitate to punish local officials who have failed in disaster mitigation and management: “Well, this time it will be different. We have always mentioned that accountability is one of the key points, one of the stronger points, of the Aquino administration, and certainly we will not hesitate to push for accountability where it lies.”

Forty-two died in the Pantukan landslide of Jan. 14. Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of the local government and the miners too stubborn to leave the site in spite of danger warnings. Critics chastised the government for being reactionary. Too little, too late, said the editorials, marking the numbers of the dead and missing.

In the 2006 geohazard map of Compostela Valley presented by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the entire Pantukan is marked in red, the highest probability of landslide susceptibility, and natural high-risk zones for mining and habitation.

It was a map that existed on May 18, 2009, when 27 people, most of them miners, were killed in a landslide in Sitio Mangapispis, also in Napnapan. The same map existed on April 22, 2011, when continuous rains triggered another landslide at Sitio Panganason in Barangay Kingking that killed 13 people. It is the same map that marks the danger zone where three miners were killed in August 2011, the same map that predicts the sort of danger that listed five dead in a December 2011 landslide, less than a month before the “said incident” on Jan. 5.

Every landslide leads to the same series of events: the cancellation of mining permits, the demonization of small-scale miners, suspicions of local support from officials who own Pantukan tunnels, forced evictions and immediate evacuations, plans for livelihood programs and for shipping miners back to their home provinces, as well as reports from the NDRRMC listing its own contribution to curb the aftermath of disaster: P54,450 on cadaver bags in 2012, P5,000 to each affected household in 2011. The list goes on. Burial assistance. Management of the dead. Relief and retrieval operations. This many trucks and this many teams and this many body bags for this many dead.

Of Pantukan’s population of 70,000, those dependent on mining number 20,000. As many as 700 of 1,000 tunnels are without a permit. The miners return, and their numbers increase. At every incident, Mayor Sarenas calls for a halt in all mining activities and cancellation of permits. In a GMA 7 report, several small-scale mining permits were allowed in 2011 as a response to a public outcry in Pantukan.

It cannot be allowed to happen again, says the President.

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At 10 in the morning of Feb. 17, a little more than a week ago, a number of small-scale miners reopened the padlocked gold tunnels in Napnapan, in the areas where mining and habitation have been banned. Government demolition teams sent to stop the miners backed down because of heavy rain. Miners who had planned to build a human barricade began mining instead. At least 11 tunnels are now active, according to a message from miner Paciano Banuelos, who said in a text message to the Inquirer that the tunnels were opened despite incessant rains. They say their families are starving.

Robredo says he will have this stopped.

There is a room where rescuers kept the Pantukan dead, shortly after the Jan. 5 landslide. There were many bodies. Laid out in a corner were three small bodies, daughters of a widowed miner who was still on his hands and knees at the landslide site, scrabbling in the mud for the body of his fourth child. The four girls did not live with their father in Napnapan. He had picked them up from their home in Upper Lahi in Tagdangua, Pantukan, to spend Christmas Day and New Year’s Day with him near the mines. He had planned to bring all four home after New Year’s Day, but the motorcycle ride down the mountain cost P250 for each passenger.

On Jan. 4, the day before the mountain fell, a miner named Bernabe Tolentino left for another village to borrow money to take his four daughters home to Tagdangua. By the time he returned, the tunnels had caved in, the homes had been flattened, and the bodies of 14-year-old Bernalie, 12-year-old Shiela Mae and 6-year-old Beah had been laid out in a corner of a room where the rescuers kept the dead. There were holes in their legs where their knees should have been. In the official report filed by the NDRRMC on Jan. 14, a 9-year-old girl named Chona is listed as missing.

It may be too late for four small girls and a man named Bernabe, but there are other children, and other fathers. Perhaps this is where “never again” should begin. After all, rain falls on Pantukan today. With reporting by Karlos Manlupig

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TAGS: Compostela Valley, Disaster, landslide, Method to Madness, opinion, Pantukan, Patricia Evangelista
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