A Watery Grave
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Outside magazine, January 1997
A Watery Grave
Life sprang abundant from the Philippines’ Boac River. Then something killed it.
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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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
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
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
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.
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 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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
James Hamilton-Paterson is the author, most recently, of Griefwork (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
Copyright 1997, Outside magazine