Sun, Oct 23, 2011 - Page 11 News List

Sparkling price of gold feeds fever on Philippines’ ‘golden mountain’

Thousands of small mining operations on the mountain are cashing in on rising gold prices, despite the dangers posed by unregulated mining in the area

By Jason Gutierrez  /  AFP, MOUNT DIWATA, PHILIPPINES

A general view of the Philippines’ “golden mountain” at the gold rush site of Mount Diwata in the country’s strife-torn south on Sept. 20.

Photo: AFP

As grime-covered men emerge from deep shafts on the Philippines’ “golden mountain,” Norie Palma eagerly prepares to haggle for her share of ore from the weary miners.

The former laundrywoman turned gold buyer directs the procession to her small milling shack amid grunts from the miners whose backs are stooped under the weight of their hauls from the dangerous honeycomb tunnels of Mount Diwata.

“It is like this everyday. People are always digging, searching and haggling for that stone with the best gold,” said Palma, a 36-year-old mother of four who runs one of many backyard mining operations on Mount Diwata. “Gold is what we live for on this mountain.”

With global gold prices rising as investors park their funds in the precious metal to hedge against an uncertain global economy, Palma said she and other prospectors on Mount Diwata were enjoying a windfall.

Gold hit a record high of US$1,921.15 an ounce early last month and, although it has since fallen back, some analysts have forecast it will hit the US$2,000 mark this year.

A college dropout, Palma’s operation has lately been producing thousands of dollars’ worth of gold — a fortune in the impoverished Philippines.

“You could say gold changed our life. I now have the money to buy the things that I want,” she said. “And we want more of it while the prices are high.”

Palma buys the ore dug up by miners who do not have the means to process it, then trades with jewellers and brokers who regularly make the arduous trip up the 2,012m mountain to buy the yellow nuggets.

The Philippines has some of the biggest gold and other mineral deposits in the world, according to the US government, but the country’s official mining industry is relatively small and hard to access for foreign firms.

Illegal mining, in which individuals or small-scale ventures simply start digging on vacant land, is rampant.

Mount Diwata — located in the violence-plagued and often lawless southern region of Mindanao — is the country’s biggest and most famous of these “gold rush” sites.

It has yielded at least 2.7 million ounces of high grade ore since a tribesman first discovered gold there three decades ago, according to local government data.

The discovery of gold on the mountain triggered a mad rush of people from all walks of life, from military deserters and ex-communist rebels to gun runners and ordinary folk dreaming of that life-changing haul.

The government estimates that at the height of the gold fever in the early 1980s, the population in the area peaked at nearly 100,000.

The present population is believed to be 40,000, according to officials, but they said more miners had started returning to the area recently to take advantage of the rising prices.

However, Mount Diwata is as famous for the misery it has wrought upon the miners and the destruction of the local environment as it is for the riches enjoyed by the lucky ones.

The first generation miners and their families settled in small cliff-side shacks and dug tunnels under their homes, creating the blueprint for a chaotic and dangerous existence in which many of the laws of society and nature were ignored.

Highly toxic mercury is used in the mining process, polluting the Naboc stream that cuts through the village.

Armed disputes erupted between rival miners and their thugs, according to local village chief Rodolfo Boyles, himself an ex-miner, although he said violence dropped after the military stationed some troops there nine years ago.

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