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The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

United Kingdom

Taking it in their stride: Tower workers refused to be told their mine was closing.
photo by ANOUK RIDE

The Light at the
end of the tunnel
Deep in the mountains of the Philippines and South Wales
there is a ray of hope, says Anouk Ride.

It is not yet light when the miners arrive. They joke about the near-misses as their cars skid on the ice that lines the road to the colliery. It’s so cold they can see their breath and in their orange overalls, with their lamps on their helmets they look like dragons in the mist. Today at the Tower colliery in South Wales they will cut 1,500 tons of coal.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, it is mid-afternoon as the indigenous men emerge with their trolleys of ore from tunnels in the mountains of the Cordillera region. The miners are greeted by their families, the sun on their faces and the sounds of their oxen in the terraced vegetable fields.

It may seem that these miners from opposite ends of the earth are as different as moon and sun. But while humankind increasingly orbits around large-scale mining, the Igorot (the Cordillera’s indigenous people) and the workers at Tower have broken out of the boom-bust cycle of the mining giants. Each community has wrestled back control of its own destiny.

The early missionaries prayed the lust for gold would drive Spanish adventurers into the Cordillera to pacify the natives and promote conversion. Today the region is home to a million tribal people and is the largest remaining stronghold of indigenous culture in the country.

But golden greed still threatens to devastate large parts of the Philippines – two-thirds of the Cordillera mountains, the home of the Igorot, is now leased to foreign companies. With religious zeal the London’s Financial Times in the late 1980s enthused: ‘The Philippines is far more densely mineralized than Australia, the tonnages are bigger and the terrain is largely unexplored. The place is wide open.’ National and local governments became infected with rampant economic liberalization programs spread by the United Nations Development Program, the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In 1995 the Philippines Mining Code was enacted. Lauded as one of the most favourable to foreign mining companies anywhere in the world, it includes provisions for 100-per-cent foreign ownership, repatriation of all profits overseas and mining concessions of up to 81,000 hectares.

Authorities encourage large pit-mines, pointing to the employment they create. In the 1970s around 6,000 people were employed at the Cordillera’s biggest open-pit mine. But workers were paid low wages, lived mostly in overcrowded bunkhouses and were subjected to daily body searches and internal scans. The thousands of jobs did not last long. Today fewer than 600 people are employed at the mine. Even this number is tipped to fall further as the Benguet corporation, Asia’s largest mining company, plans to mine out the reserves in less than a decade.

A vast valley stripped of vegetation and filled with pollutants will be left behind. Jill Carino of the Women Workers’ Program in Baguio City says: ‘The mining operations have caused serious pollution of the river system from Itogon down to the sea. Women are unable to fish, do gold panning, wash or bathe in the river.’

Britain too was once awash with deep-pit coal mines. Miners here have a history of resistance but the Government of Margaret Thatcher proved to be their most implacable opponent, pursuing an unrelenting liberalization program. Ken, a worker at Tower colliery says: ‘When I started there were 40 pits in South Wales, so there was a job for life. Everybody thought they’d never close.’ Since 1985, 140 deep-pits have been sold and 90 per cent of the workforce made redundant. Whole towns built around mining projects have been left without a livelihood.

Since then, private companies have moved in and set up large open-cast mines instead. Open-cast mining companies – which strip the surface of the land then move on to do the same elsewhere – are increasing the number of mine sites across the land.

It is like a bereavement when you see a familiar landscape destroyed,’ says Eric Evans from the pressure group Wales Against Opencast. Nothing grows on old open-cast mine sites, called ‘voids’. Often companies fill their voids with waste. They actually earn £10 ($16) per cubic metre of waste dumped – more for toxic waste – and a typical void might represent 20 million cubic metres of empty space. A layer of plastic provides the only protection from seepage into the soil and underground water.

These ravenous companies claim to provide jobs to communities starved of employment following the pit closures. But open-cast mine workforces, unlike deep-pit miners, are mobile rather than drawn from local residents. And while an open-cast mine may offer employment for six to ten years, a deep-pit one employs miners for an average of thirty.

In March 1994, British Coal executives said Tower colliery would be closed because there was no market for coal. The workers did not believe them. Ken says sarcastically: ‘It’s pretty obvious now that British coal weren’t interested in marketing coal in any real way. We had a wonderful marketing team on very high salaries but I don’t believe they were selling anything.’

‘They kept telling us the mountains had been sold and we had no right to oppose,’ said a woman from the community of Mainit in the Cordillera, where resistance was equally strong. The Philippines Government had agreed to Benguet Corporation’s mining development plans. The women described how they stopped them: ‘We women got together and followed the survey team...We thought of having teams of five women and each of them tackling one of the surveyors... Seeing our determination to keep fighting the survey team finally left. We destroyed their walkie-talkies and burned down their camp houses.’

A barricade was later set up to prevent Benguet from entering the area. Communities used all the resources they had to thwart the company’s ambitions. An elderly woman recalls: ‘Company personnel tried to blast our position with dynamite but the old women on picket duty took off all their clothes, exposed themselves and chased the company men to shame them.’ Protesters were harassed and imprisoned but pickets are still preventing Benguet Corporation from opening some sites.

The struggle at Tower also continued for many years. ‘We’d been fighting this closure for 20 bloody years so I had to learn about my coal mine because I had to defend it for so long,’ says Tower chair Tyrone O’Sullivan. The miners knew that they could keep the coal mine going and elected five officials who became the Tower Employee Buyout Team. All the banks insisted that three of the five board members must have senior management experience before any loans could be guaranteed. ‘In our rules and articles we put in that as soon as that loan was paid off the workforce could elect who they want to the board,’ said Ken, who is now a director. Eventually around seven of the management team were brought back, plus lawyers and finance experts. Apprentices and young men have also been employed. ‘That’s the exciting part about this company – seeing young faces. Everyone has a quickness in their step now they know they’re expected to train people again,’ says Tyrone. The company has now been running for three years, and made around £20 million ($32 million) in the last financial year.

‘They do not work the mines steadily but only when forced by necessity... they do not even try to become wealthy,’ wrote a Spanish conquistador in 1566 when describing the Igorot. This has not changed – gold is regarded as common property as all members of the community are involved in its production. It is not uncommon to see a line of people outside the tunnel, waiting to ask for gold ore as the men emerge. The laborious processing of the gold involves women, the elderly and children.

A young man explains his preference for Igorot mining: ‘We small-scale miners have a better life than those who work for the company. We can take a rest day when we like. We have our gardens so that we don’t pay for our food.’ On average small-scale miners earn three times as much as company employees.

All employees at Tower have equal shares in the company and the same number of holidays, unlike under British Coal. In the hum of the canteen the miners reflect on the changes since Tower was bought by its workers.

‘With British Coal it took a couple of days to actually get in to see the manager. And there was them and there was us. That’s still there to a certain extent but now there’s...’ Alan pauses and searches for the right word.

His mate butts in to fill in the blank: ‘More diplomacy and less confrontation.’ This analysis brings cat-calls and laughter. But the words are appreciated. ‘As far as possible no-one’s in the dark,’ Ken says. Management reports officially to the miners and when the light is on in their offices, the door is open.

‘We get together as shareholders four times a year and argue. And some of our meetings are quite... I wouldn’t say nasty but they’re quite loud and noisy and we argue the points,’ explains Tyrone. Every few years miners appraise the performance of the board members and vote on whether they should be retained as directors. Tyrone admits these meetings can be nerve-racking: ‘Yeah, democracy is sometimes a pain in the backside. But at the end of the day its got a lot of benefits going for it.’

The benefits are not only for the workers. Since the buyout, the company has started restoring some land. ‘We’ve got 14 dragonflies there already, different species. They tell me that if we get 15 we’ll have a special nature reserve,’ he says. They also aim to limit air pollution, particularly the methane that coal mining always produced. ‘Up till now we’ve just blown it up into the sky. We’ve decided, as a company, to capture this gas and turn it into a generator, to generate electricity so you won’t have this problem of methane going straight up into the atmosphere.’

In the Cordillera, the effects on the environment are minimal. Indigenous miner Dalinco describes the process: ‘First we find a suitable place where high-grade ore might be found. A group of five to eight people band together to excavate the ore. A team works for three months gathering it in sacks. The fourth month is spent grinding the rock in a simple ball mill and then separating the gold. This is done using washing and gravity separation. We use no chemicals. When this is finished the leftover tailings are still rich in gold. There is also gold in the soil round the site. This can be reworked. Community members are given the tailings to process again.’ Anthropologists state this environmentally-sustainable tradition of gold mining is hundreds of years old.

The Igorot hold out hope that the mining giants will spare the mountains that are their heaven on earth. In late 1996 the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) was passed. Since then there has been much confusion over what the Act means and a commission established to recommend how to solve the problem. But everyone believes nothing will be done about land-rights issues until after the elections in May this year.

Tower’s future is constantly under debate: ‘An older person may say, “Right, let’s work the pit for another five to ten years then sell it and I can retire with all this money.” And a younger person will say, “No, let’s work the pit for 20 to 30 years and then sell it.” Both of these people are doing what’s best for their families, not the company,’ says Tyrone. ‘I want to create another 400 jobs and then I think the Tower story will start to mean something. If it’s going to be a never-ending story, owned by the workforce, we must put some money aside for the next generation.’

The news of these alternatives is spreading. Tower has received visitors from every conceivable country on earth and indigenous people from the Cordillera have visited Britain. Mick Appleyard, Welsh campaigner and former miner, was one of the hosts. He says that the same dark cloud hangs over the future of the mining communities in both countries: ‘Profit before people every time.’ The miners at Tower and the Igorot people believe that this should be reversed. Mining is not an either/or choice – the question is how to do it. These two communities have shown that there are alternatives to digging yourself into a hole. By enshrining the principles of democracy and respect for the land, they have proved that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Sources: Costing the Earth: Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC).
All British interviews by Anouk Ride.
Philippines interviews from Survival International, Cordillera Links and Geoff Nettleton.

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New Internationalist issue 299 magazine cover This article is from the March 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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