A Watery Grave

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1997

A Watery Grave

Life sprang abundant from the Philippines' Boac River. Then something killed it.
By James Hamilton-Paterson

The Philippine province of Marinduque is a heart-shaped island roughly 30 miles by 20. It lies in the middle of the archipelago, about 110 miles southeast of Manila as the crow flies.

Evidently crows have been flying in these parts for some time, because the name of the little capital town, Boac, is said to derive from the Tagalog word for "crow," uwak. Certainly the birds can still be seen in the interior, flapping lugubriously over hills that were once jungled but now are covered mainly in coconut palms. If I say the island is no tourist paradise, I feel I am being disloyal, for I have lived there on and off for the past 16 years and have come to love it. But its charm for me lies precisely in its comparative lack of the sort of attractions that typically pull in today's globe-trotter: great beaches, great food, great diving. Nor are there any outstanding natural peculiarities such as an active volcano, a prodigious waterfall, or the last known habitat of some photogenic furry creature.

Marinduque does have one major tourist attraction, but it is strictly seasonal. This is the Moriones festival of Passion Week, in which the legend of Longinus is re-enacted. Longinus was the Roman soldier who pierced Christ's side during the Crucifixion. Blood from the wound spattered Longinus' blind eye, which was immediately healed. Converted on the spot, he later testified to the Resurrection and, refusing to recant, was executed. The Marinduqueo version is colorful indeed, not to say bizarre. Fancifully masked figures dressed as centurions chase Longinus around town and through nearby fields. Thrice he is caught, thrice he escapes; the fourth time he is captured and led to his public beheading.

Lasting the better part of a week, this Passion play has become doctrinally somewhat free over the years. The legend itself may be old, but this version isn't. It was introduced by a Jesuit in the last century and since then has been given the inimitable Filipino treatment, which turns even the most sacred ritual into a fiesta, a mythological grab-bag, Calvary meets Mardi Gras, so that among the Roman soldiers running past Boac's billiards parlor may also be glimpsed Batman and Miss Piggy.

But Passion Week only happens once a year, and though the Moriones festival attracts Filipino as well as foreign tourists, they generally leave Marinduque as soon as it is over, there being little else to keep them. For the rest of the year the island retreats into a peacefulness that borders on the soporific. Marinduque's freedom from major crime, bloody vendettas, holdups, bank robberies, and other forms of violence so common throughout much of the archipelago ought to have paid off handsomely in terms of economic progress. Yet the interior remains chronically underdeveloped, most of it still lacking electricity, telephones, medical facilities, adequate transportation, and paved roads. And much of what infrastructure does exist is there thanks mainly to the province's only major industrial presence, its single largest employer, and source of most of Marinduque's revenue: the Marcopper Mining Corporation.

I first traveled to Marinduque in 1980 on the recommendation of a former government minister who had just spent time there himself. He told me the province reminded him nostalgically of his childhood, in that it had retained a rural way of life little different from that common throughout the Philippines 50 years ago. I myself was greeted with curiosity and a mannerly kind of friendliness quite distinct from the boisterous "Hi Joe!" one usually encountered as a foreigner in better-traveled parts of the Philippines. I landed in a nondescript fishing village on the coast, little guessing it would become my adopted home for the next decade and a half.

The villagers found my decision to live in a palm-thatch hut on a hill outside the village to be extremely odd. They were also puzzled by my willingness to fetch my own water and chop my own wood. Some sort of breakthrough came during a long apprenticeship in the art of spearfishing at night off the reef, using a homemade speargun powered with strips of old rubber and a flashlight waterproofed with a motorcycle inner tube. This subsistence fishing was exhilarating, strenuous, and sometimes dangerous. Over countless hours I learned the varieties and habits of all sorts of fish and reef creatures. I grew accustomed to a state halfway between fascination and asphyxiation, diving deeply and repeatedly with nothing but a held breath. Occasionally I used a "hookah," a plastic tube attached to a compressor (a form of diving whose mere mention gives life insurance actuaries a heart attack). These nocturnal expeditions were comradely. They built up mutual reliance and affection. Not only did we pool our catches, but in the course of five or six years we put behind us a lengthening list of shared adventures and minor emergencies: injuries, treacherous currents, the occasional shark, lost spears, failed batteries.

One evening I came down to the village for my usual stint of fishing and was surprised to find a celebration about to take place under the firelit palms. Too late I realized I was the guest of honor. It was a traditional form of welcome for a visitor, which involved the stranger being decorated with a paper crown and half a dozen women singing a lengthy song with various balletic surgings and retreatings. I underwent this in the approved fashion--fairly drunk--and then there was another ceremony in which I was formally adopted as a son of the village.

From then on it was only natural that I should become bound up with village affairs, with gossip and deaths and well-digging and all the rest. Looking back, I can see how lucky I was in my choice of lifestyle. Had I turned up from the first with scuba gear, I would have found myself part of a different world. Even if I could have found a supplier of air bottles, all that high-tech equipment would have put me in another category and subtly cut me off from local life. Instead, our lives were very low-tech indeed, bounded by scraps of elastic and flashlight batteries stood in the sun to squeeze the last millivolt from their exhausted chemicals.

I became fascinated by a way of living that was at once quite different from the one I knew in Europe, and yet similar in essentials to how things were for nearly everybody everywhere before the turn of the century. One lives very close to nature, getting up with the sun, watching the weather narrowly, noting the colors of the sea. One also acquires an intimate sense of how the larger world bears down on a rural community. The politics of illegal fishing, the careless exploitation of natural resources: Everything comes home to roost in the bamboo huts of the poorest. For a while I moved down the coast to a tiny uninhabited islet, where I did a lot of underwater night fishing and wrote a book, Playing with Water, about this strange way of life. Maybe my interest in such tiny localities made me less aware of what was happening in the rest of Marinduque. But the extended family is central to Filipino society, and gradually I started meeting relatives of my own friends scattered all over the little province, until Marinduque itself felt like a diffuse version of home.

Beneath its top-dressing of coconut palms, Marinduque is a volcanic island made of igneous rock that originally formed deep within the earth's mantle. Such rock is often rich in minerals, and in 1956 Canadian prospectors found extensive deposits known as hydrothermal sulfides. These tested out for minable quantities of copper, and in 1968 open-pit mining began on the slopes of Mount Tapian, up in the island's north-central zone. By then the Marcopper Mining Corporation had been formed, with the Philippine government owning 60 percent and Placer Dome Inc. of Vancouver owning the rest. It was clear from the start that this would be a major operation, because Marinduque's ore is fairly low grade, containing only 0.44 percent copper. That meant a good deal of rock would need to be removed for it to be a worthwhile operation. In fact, a steady 30,000 tons of ore were mined every day, 365 days a year. The operations went on day and night, with huge machinery sinking its claws into Marinduque and dragging out chunks of rock that were carried away by a nonstop succession of dump trucks. The trucks fed the crushing plant, where the rock was progressively smashed, granulated, and ground to powder.

Marcopper's arrival had immediate social effects. The nearest coastal town, Santa Cruz, expanded rapidly to accommodate the influx of executives, engineers, and labor. Eventually Santa Cruz began to bustle, overtaking Boac in size and commercial importance. A satellite township formed in the hills at Tapian, at the end of a broad red track bulldozed through the dark green foliage. Hundreds of families soon came to rely on Marcopper paychecks, and thousands more on the mine's various support services. By contrast, Boac, with its Spanish cathedral, capitol, and governor's residence, went on dozing charmingly beside the Boac River, a broad waterway that winds down from the hills where the mines are, joining the sea a few miles beyond town.

Given the island's size, it was difficult not to be aware of Marcopper's presence regardless of where one happened to be. When I first built a bamboo hut on a hill some way inland from the west coast, the daytime view suggested the very opposite of an industrial landscape. On one side, beyond the unbroken green of palm crowns, lay the glittering sea with its gray-blue line of mountains on the far horizon marking the neighboring province of Mindoro. Inland, the carpet of palms and bananas and ylang-ylang trees rose into the steep hills of the interior. In the clear, shimmering air above the fronds twirled bright golden orioles, jeweled bee-eaters, and large butterflies whose gaudy wings proclaimed them poisonous and therefore immune from attack. The occasional crow rowed its way overhead, letting fall a harsh, sardonic syllable or two.

By night, however, this bucolic scene changed significantly. When the daylight sounds of chickens, pigs, children's voices, and laundry being beaten fell silent in the village below, a deep mechanical growling became audible, borne on the wind from beyond the hills, now fading entirely, and now growing so clear it gave the impression of a single vast bulldozer. It was Marcopper, of course, miles away over the trees, clawing and crunching tirelessly away. On moonless nights a faint glow was visible in the same direction, like the streetlights of a nonexistent city.

Over the years I encountered more tangible evidence of Marcopper's presence. It was a gradual, piecemeal process, partly because of the difficulty of getting about. It might seem odd, when referring to such a small island, to talk about "the interior" or "the hinterland" as though it were of African proportions. Yet the hilly terrain and absence of paved roads give most inland journeys the quality of an expedition. Once, in a place known locally as Pulang-lupa, Red Earth, I thought I might have become lost in another century. A skyline of ridges screened off views of the coast. Miles from the nearest paddy, a stony field was being planted with one of the tough hill varieties of rice. A young man named Lando carried a long pole over his shoulder, one end of which was furnished with a dibble. Using the other end of the pole as a counterweight, he moved slowly over the baking hillside, pecking little holes in the ground at nine-inch intervals. Lando was followed by a girl with a basket, who dropped a few rice grains into each hole, while a boy tagged along behind her to scrape the soil back over the seeds with the side of his bare foot before giving a little jump to tamp it down. Among the nearby palms, chickens and pigs rooted about a large thatch house slightly lopsided on its hardwood legs. Except for a transistor radio tuned to a popular soap, there was scarcely a sign that we were living in a mechanized age.

Lando's father was lying on a bamboo platform in the shade of a mango tree, the skin drawn taut over his skull. You would have taken him for an ill old man of 70. He was 39 years old. He knew he was dying, and alternated between high good spirits and worries about what would become of his family. He had been employed by Marcopper as a driver for ten years, sometimes on the endless chain of dump trucks and sometimes driving a bulldozer, working in swirling clouds of red dust. "They work you like a water buffalo," he said in Tagalog, with a smile. Then he added, "But that's what water buffalo are for." Two years ago he'd become ill, coughing and coughing. He thought he had tuberculosis, which is endemic in these parts, but it turned out to be lung cancer. He was given a month's wages as severance pay. Marinduque, with its subsistence economy, was nothing but a labor pool of youngsters clamoring for his job. So he put on his best clothes and took the ferry to Lucena City, over on Luzon, where a doctor at the big hospital told him he had a kind of mesothelioma, probably caused by dust. "'Fifty-fifty,' the doctor said. He was looking at my X rays, you see. I asked, 'What, my chances of recovery?' 'Oh no,' said the doctor. 'Fifty-fifty you'll survive the operation.' In that case, I told him, I won't have an operation and then it's a hundred percent I'll live till I die. Well, he couldn't fault the logic in that, could he?"

Lando's father laughed at his own peasant astuteness, but it brought on painful coughing. The one thing he felt bitter about was his powerlessness. There was no arguing his case for compensation, no possibility for redress. What proof was there that his illness was work-related? They would only find people to swear he had been a heavy smoker. "I'm not the only one like this," he said. "When we started they didn't issue masks, not in those days. Nobody told us about dust being dangerous. We tied T-shirts over our faces. We didn't know anything about what we were doing. We still don't."

The old man of 39 died four months after my visit. Through friends Lando found a job as a tricycle driver, bouncing a Yamaha with its sidecar over the rutted tracks between the towns of Cawit and Gasan. He was angry about his father, and his small revenge was to deal in goods "liberated" from Marcopper. He became the principal source of thick rubber strips for my speargun. He was also a source of gossip. From him, rumors reached me of the mines beyond the hills: harsh labor practices, a polluted landscape, local protests smothered. How else could one learn such things? There was no local newspaper in Marinduque, and few national press reporters would stir out of Manila for much less than a spectacular disaster. Marcopper was simply there, crouched in the interior: a powerful multimillion-dollar outfit whose PR department tacked up posters in the airport to illustrate how responsibly it was dealing with Marin-duque's precious environmental heritage. These no doubt reassured the only Marinduqueos whose opinion counted, the flying classes.

To the rest, who rode overcrowded jeepneys and tricycles like Lando's, Marcopper remained a monolith to which many owed their livelihoods--and which would crush dissent with the same casualness with which it crushed its daily ration of 30,000 tons of rock.

It was becoming clear that Marcopper occupied far more of Marinduque than just the range of hills it was tucked into, and that it bulked large in many islanders' minds. On a fishing trip to the offshore islands in the province's northeast, for instance, we passed what looked like industrial ruins: vast rusty pipelines on stilts emerging from dense green forest, abandoned gantries, a shore stained red. "Old Marcopper workings," someone told me. These were certainly not featured on the airport posters.

Since it was no secret, I learned something of the process being used to extract the island's copper. Up there in the hills, the ore-bearing rock was progressively reduced to powder and the powder mixed to a slurry with great quantities of water. Chemicals were added to this slurry, developing differences in surface tension among the various minerals. Compressed air was then pumped through the mixture, which made the particles of copper cling to the bubbles, forming mineralized suds on top like the head on a glass of beer. This was skimmed off for refining, leaving the vast tonnage of now copperless slurry as waste.

Until 1972, Marcopper disposed of all its waste on land. Then it began piping tailings to the nearest point on the coast, dumping them in a shallow bay called Calancan--out of sight, out of mind. For local Marinduqueos, however, the effects were all too visible and very much on their minds. Calancan, with its shallow reefs and sheltered waters, had been a good fishing ground for the locals, but soon a causeway of tailings began building up, blocking the sea's normal circulation. The locals noticed that the corals were dying, fish were becoming scarce, and the shellfish tasted odd. They protested. Nothing happened. They protested some more. Certain chill, broad hints reached them via local bigwigs that deterred further protest. It should be remembered that President Marcos declared martial law in that very year, 1972, and it was widely believed that the "Mar" in Marcopper didn't stand for "Marinduque."

The more one knew, the more one heard the sound of a threat in Marcopper's nightly growling from beyond the hills. The machines were not digging down so much as munching steadily outward, engulfing more and more of this unpretentious little island and reducing it to rock soup.

Finally one day I realized that Marcopper's baleful influence had reached my own doorstep. I was having yet another conversation with a village elder about the water supply. When I first came to live here, everyone took for granted the constancy of the broad stream that flows from the hills. The width of its valley floor shows it has taken this course for thousands of years. Not long ago this was confirmed when some well diggers found countless shards of fire-blackened pottery some ten feet below ground. It was clear evidence that for centuries, at least, other people had thought this an ideal spot to live in, on the banks of a stream full of fish and surrounded by a forest larder. When the diggers had got over their immediate hopes of buried treasure, they realized they were dealing with long-dead people who had owned no more gold than they themselves. What these unknown folk did have was earthenware pots identical to the palayok currently on sale in the Boac market. It was touching to observe today's villagers looking at their predecessors' relics and perhaps for the first time seeing themselves as part of a long continuity in that place.

Over the years, though, our lifeline--this brook used for everything from drinking to washing down buffalo--had been shrinking. On this particular morning the elder and I found ourselves contemplating the remains of the stream, now wandering lost in its former bed as a series of ankle-deep rivulets. "It's serious," he said, and paused. "Because of Marcopper's dams, maybe? Like the floods in Boac?" To my surprise I had never made this connection, perhaps because that growling from over the horizon, while quite close to the headwaters of the Boac, seemed too far away to affect our local stream.

The Boac had always been broad as it approaches the capital, because in the rainy season it collects a huge volume of water from the hinterland. A few days' tropical downpour produces a great tawny torrent that hurtles past the low-lying town and floods out to sea, spreading an ochre stain far into the strait. When not dangerously in spate, however, the entire length of the river serves the people living on its banks exactly as our own stream serves our village. Thousands rely on it for laundry, fishing, bathing, cooking, and transport; children swim in it, hunt shellfish by night with lamps, ford its shallows in their long walks to and from school.

But over the last ten years these seasonal floods had been getting noticeably worse, periodically submerging the area around Boac, until one night in 1993 a hastily built protective dike was breached. The floodwaters swept out to sea a sleeping family that had incautiously built its shack too close to the river, and poured into town. Homes and shops filled with water.

The next day Boac presented a lamentable sight as gangs of citizens labored with spades to remove banks of thick silt from the streets. Shopkeepers threw ruined stock into heaps on the sidewalks and spread what could be saved out to dry. The new cement bridge over the river was badly damaged, and I noticed that freshly painted slogans in red now ran along both its balustrades. The messages blamed Marcopper for the flood, and local officials for siding always with the company rather than with the people who had elected them.

The popular opinion seemed to be that Marcopper was responsible because it now effectively controlled the Boac River system. Since its extraction processes demanded a large supply of water, the company had built several dams up in the hills. The belief in Boac was that when the rains came and the water in the reservoirs reached dangerous levels, Marcopper opened the sluices to protect its dams, and this sudden addition of water to the already brimming river caused it to burst its banks. It did seem possible that such radical meddling with the province's major river system might after all have effects detectable even in my own village's modest stream.

Yet in a strange way it had almost ceased to matter whether or not Marcopper was to blame for this latest, and worst, flood. Enough people believed it was, and to that extent the failure of the management's credibility was an object lesson in how not to conduct a mining operation in a small province. It was foolish to have reached a point where local resentments outweighed the perceived benefits of the company's presence. After all, those benefits were real enough, even if they did stem from self-interest. Apart from the employment Marcopper was giving to hundreds, it had over the years built roads, piped water, and supplied public services that the government still hadn't got around to providing.

Many Marinduqueo students (including my own godson) found themselves confused, too, by visiting Marcopper's site at Tapian. They were given a glowing account of what was being done and could hardly have remained unimpressed by the sheer size of the operation. These youngsters suddenly saw the raw power represented by removing most of a mountain and the enviable signs of wealth--the orderly roads and services of the mining township, the management's villas.

To someone from a family used to planting rice with bamboo dibbles, the Marcopper mine's presence could look very like an outpost of that modern world of technology and progress which seemed to be happening beyond the horizon. It looked, in short, plausibly like the future.

On March 24, 1996, the future came to an abrupt end. A huge jet of mine tailings suddenly burst into the headwaters of the Boac River from a little-known drainage tunnel, over a mile long, that led to the bottom of a pit at Tapian. This pit had been used as a dump for years and now held upward of 20 million cubic meters of slurry. The grayish mass poured into the tributary and surged downstream, killing the Boac River as it went, by burying its ecosystem beneath a deep layer of muck. Marcopper's Canadian engineers tried vainly to plug the leak with gravel. Within days, thousands of people were without water. When the lava-like tide reached Boac, the town's mayor, Roberto Madla, appealed directly to President Fidel Ramos, who promptly declared a state of calamity in Marinduque. The government ordered Marcopper to suspend all mining operations. Helicopters rescued trapped villagers and flew in drinking water. Meanwhile, the slurry kept pouring out. Aircraft pilots said it was plainly visible far out to sea. It was also creeping down Marinduque's coastline, threatening the coral reefs.

Technicians were not able to stop the leak of tailings until June 11. By then at least 2.5 million tons had escaped and most of the Boac River was dead. Marcopper vehemently denied its tailings were poisonous. The river was dead, a spokesman conceded, but only because its ecosystem now lay beneath the silt. Marinduque's Vice-Governor, Teodoro Rejano, claimed that experts from the University of the Philippines had found traces of mercury and lead, which appeared to contradict the company's assertions.

Publicly, at least, Marcopper behaved well, opening up a $200,000 contingency fund and promising to dredge the river. None of this, it said, implied the slightest admission of criminal liability, which gave its reparation efforts a surreal gloss of altruism. Placer Dome has other projects around the world and a good name to maintain, and it publicly committed itself to repair the Tapian pit, rehabilitate the river, and generally clean up the damage. But wider political issues are involved that go far beyond Marinduque's small coastline. The Marcopper incident is merely the latest in a long list of environmental disasters in the Philippines involving mining, illegal or otherwise. Only four years ago the Agno River was seriously polluted when tailings overflowed from the Itogon-Suyoc mine in Luzon.

But now public as well as official attitudes appear to be changing as the economic and human costs of these accidents become apparent. The Philippine government faced concerted environmentalist opposition in 1995 when it passed the denationalizing Mining Act, which some claim has opened as much as one-fourth of the country's land area to mining concessions. This is part of a worldwide bonanza, to be sure, in which 70 countries have changed their laws in the last few years expressly to attract overseas mining companies. But now, with Placer Dome left feeling morally obliged to foot a bill that might easily exceed $40 million, the Philippine government is clearly giving thought to the long-term consequences of the Marinduque case and the effects it may have on the resolve of other foreign-based mining corporations considering a partnership with a Filipino company.

Certainly the government took an unprecedented step last June when the Department of Justice told the Department of Environment and Natural Resources that it had a "prima facie case" against Marcopper. Three Marcopper executives were arrested on charges of "reckless imprudence," but it remains to be seen whether their cases will actually go to trial. For now, environmentalists are writing off the government's talk of a new "get tough" policy as mere window dressing. They will remain unimpressed, they say, until criminal convictions and stiff sentences are handed down.

The disaster has had a profound effect on Marinduque. Its main river is dead, and hundreds of people have been forced to move. The island's major industry has come to a halt, and few would bet on the mine's chances of reopening. For a while, at least, the local economy must revert to what it always was underneath: subsistence fishing, farming, handicrafts, and the Moriones festival. An alternative way must be found for the province to earn its living, one that doesn't subject it to despoliation. For there have been consequences other than the purely economic. There are signs that the slurry, like the blood that miraculously healed Longinus's eye, has cured many islanders of blindness to the high price they have been paying for small returns. Dead people, dead fish, dead and dying rivers--nearly 30 years' extraction of its mineral wealth has left Marinduque with the bad end of a bargain that the islanders themselves never struck.

I visited my own home in late May. The headman was worried about our stream, about the local economy, about the future. "I suppose something will turn up," he said. I was unable to reassure him. Whatever happens, one rebels against the idea that to pay its way a small province must be prepared to submit to a kind of rape.

That night, the view from the hill behind the village was suddenly ancient. The stars sprawled brightly to every horizon, undimmed by distant lighting. From the east the breeze brought nothing but fireflies and the scent of ylang-ylang. Total silence. Marcopper's--and Marinduque's--mechanical heart was stilled. Next morning a couple of crows crossed the dawning sky like an omen, whether for good or for ill it was impossible to tell. Their harsh cries sounded like the name of a river.

James Hamilton-Paterson is the author, most recently, of Griefwork (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Copyright 1997, Outside magazine

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