Stripped of our Sand: The Effects of Magnetite Mining in Cagayan
Feedback 2011 January-March
by Cheamson Boongaling
A member of the Environmental Investigative Mission team conducts a focused group discussion with residents of Brgy. Batangan, Gonzaga where magnetite mining operations are currently on-going
To investigate concerns of retreating coastlines, loss of livelihood, and displacement due to black sand mining, the Center for Environmental Concerns –Philippines conducted an Environmental Investigative Mission (EIM) on four municipalities in Cagayan province namely: Aparri, Gonzaga, Camalaniugan and Lal-lo (See figure 1) from September 18-19, 2010.
Among the participating organizations were: peasant organization Kagimungan, Save the Valley Serve the People- CV, Taripnong, Lakbay-C V, BACALEM, Samahan ng Maralitang Mangingisda-Aparri, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, University Student Council-UP Manila, Bayan-CV and Defend Patrimony.
Figure 1. Map showing the study area under threat by magnetite mining operations .
Using focused group discussions, key informant interviews and ocular inspection, the EIM aims to document the effects of mining activities in the environment, as well as the economic and social life of affected communities. Documentation can deepen our knowledge regarding the issue and can serve as basis for future actions. The event also provides venue for educational discussion regarding the nature and effects of magnetite mining among local stakeholders such as community leaders, academe, church, professionals, and the media.
Municipalities of Camalaniugan and Lal-lo (along Cagayan River)
Mining or dredging?
Magnetite sand is being mined along Cagayan River in the municipalities of Camalaniugan, Lal-lo, and some parts of Aparri. A review of government records, verified by people in the community, put that blacksand mining and processing, and not simply dredging has been going on along Cagayan river.
The various operations of Chinese company San You Philippines Mining Trade Ltd. in Lal-lo, and Taiwanese company Shaitan Cagayan Sand and Gravel Corp. in Camalaniugan, were justified and approved by concerned local government units (LGUs) based on the premise that these de-silt the river and enhance water flow to prevent flooding and bank erosion being experienced by their communities. Such aim was not realized after more than two years since operations commenced. This indicates that there are other reasons driving the operation.
Worsened flooding and bank erosion
Even if we consider the logic of simple dredging to solve flooding and bank erosion, recent field observations and resident accounts point to the fact that these operations are ineffective in addressing these problems. In contrast to the expected outcome, flooding and bank erosion have persisted or worsened. The latter has caused the destruction of houses, infrastructures and farmlands.
In Brgy. Sapping, some parts of the riverbank structure that control flooding and erosion were destroyed. (See figure 2.) Residents are now wary of the eventual collapse of the structure. Further downstream in Brgy. Bisagu, Aparri, nearly 100 households lost their home, where residents say that the river claimed nearly half of their barangay’s land area.
Figure 2. Riverbank erosion in Brgy. Sapping, Camalaniugan likely to worsen because of black sand mining.
Approximately 80 meters of land stretching 700 meters from Brgy. Dugo to Brgy. Gen. Batalla was reportedly eaten away by the river within a year, since typhooon Pepeng hit the region last year. The area used to be planted with coconut and other trees. (See figure 3) Abandoned and destroyed houses can be seen near the present riverbank. Nearly 78 households lost their homes and evacuated the area, according to interviews.
Figure 3. Approximately 80 x 700 meters of agricultural land from Brgy. Dugo to Brgy.Gen Batalla lost within a year.
Rice, corn, vegetables and coconut farmlands in Brgy. Jurisdiction has been reported by its residents to experience flooding after heavy rains. Bank erosion is also present in the area. Magnetite was previously extracted in the area and a bank house of the mining company can still be seen.
While flooding and bank erosion may be considered as natural processes in a river system, the mining-dredging operations may be considered as contributory to the problems. It is important to note that the location of magnetite ores will not necessarily coincide with appropriate dredging sites. Because operations are primarily for mining, these will generally focus on finding and extracting the highest concentration and volume of magnetite. Considerations relevant to flooding and bank erosion, such as flow regimes, sediment discharge, and channel geometry will be secondary, or worse, irrelevant to the operation.
For instance, in Brgy. Jurisdiction, the agreement between the municipal government and the company is for the latter to dredge the middle part of the channel cross section, where sandbars have accumulated causing bank erosion in the adjacent side. The company, however, did not abide by the agreement and instead dredged the already deeper part of the channel close to the river bank.
Magnetite sand mining physically alters the river by disturbing the sediment supply of the fluvial system and by modifying the channel geometry. Sand mining reduces the sediment being supplied to areas downstream of the mining operation. Reduced sediment supply generally leads to channel incision and lowering of the river bed, which, in turn may cause bank instabilities.
Mining also locally modifies the channel geometry by increasing the channel depth at the sites of extraction. In cases where there is on-site separation of magnetite from the sand, the dumping of 'waste' sediment causes other parts of the channel to become shallower. The changes in the channel geometry may lead to a modification of the existing flow regime, which may cause undesired enhancement of flooding, deposition and/or erosion at specific sites. Extraction of sand at or close to the base of river banks can remove basal support, increase the height of the bank, and thus induce bank instability.
Threatened fish supply
Cagayan River as well as the surrounding ocean is very important to the people living in the communities. The majority of the communities earns its income in fishing and is therefore highly dependent on the fish supply of the river or the nearby ocean.
Mining activities threaten this important supply of fish and other aquatic products. The extraction of black sand from the river/ocean bed disturbs the habitat of benthic organism- one of the key elements of aquatic life. Main inhabitants here are worms, shells and arthropods as well as a huge variety of algae. As these species are especially adapted to their environment, they are highly sensitive and react to any kind of change that occurs.
The most obvious impact of mining that utilizes dredging methods is the direct destruction of benthic habitats. On a larger scale the surrounding area is affected as well. Changes in the turbidity of the water, mine wastes and dredged spoils cause the death of benthic animals. When turbidity increases, the lack of sunlight entering the lower parts of the water will negatively affect productivity of photo-synthetically active algae, thereby also affecting their reproduction. This lack of nutrients again affects the benthic organism dependent on algae.
As the marine system is a net in which all is connected, this destruction of benthic habitats does not leave the fish supply unaffected. Apart from the destroyed breeding places and therewith a decreasing productivity of many kinds of fish, it is largely the lowered food supply for fish that threatens local fish supply. As benthic organisms are the bases of the marine food chain, a lack of this basic nourishment hits all kind of fish.
Some of the fishes and other aquatic products present in the area are pasga, talakitok, unnok, dilis, kabibe, suso, binnik, angrat, kapiged, carp, ipon, rasa, ludung, alimango, tulya. Of these species, the local fresh water mollusk known as Unnok and the fish locally known as Ludung were reported to have drastically decreased in supply.
The above discussion is consistent with observed phenomena in the studied area, and suggests that mining is likely contributing to the problem. These problems need to be approached more systematically, taking into consideration geomorphologic and engineering principles in river management. Moreover, the mining-driven dredging operation should be stopped and its impact, investigated.
Municipalities of Gonzaga and Aparri (along the Coast)
Coast already eroding
The Cagayan coast spanning Aparri and Gonzaga is being threatened by coastal erosion. This is evident from the satellite image of the beach in Brgy. Punta, the destroyed sea walls in the said barangay, and the gradual erosion of the sand dunes in Brgy. Dodan. (See figure 4)
Figure 4. Sattelite image showing beach of Brgy. Punta Aparri that is already eroding.
This phenomenon is likely to be enhanced by climate change, which could increase the erosive potential of waves and storm surges. Particularly, Brgy. Minanga in Gonzaga has yet to recover from the ~100m coastal retreat caused by typhoon Pepeng in 2009.
Mining increases vulnerability to erosion
Lian Xing Philippines Stone Carving Corp. has a small scale mining permit (SSMP) and currently operates along the coast of Brgy. Batangan, Gonzaga. The operation covers 11.2349 hectares . This despite several laws such as Batasang Pambansa Blg. 265, which prohibits extraction of sand along beaches, and Section 15 of DENR Administrative Order No.96-40, which states that “onshore areas within 200 meters from the mean low tide level along the coast” shall be closed to mining .
Meanwhile, Philippine Mining Group Holdings, Inc. (PMGHI) has operated in Brgy. Dodan, Aparri. The mining facility is currently closed but the compound remains secured by the company. From the observation of the team, the operation has drastically increased the rate of erosion of the beach sand dunes. Approximately 500 meters stretch of sand dune along the coast area have already been mined by the company on the immediate, but has affected 800 meters of nearby sand dunes, which leads to a 1.3 km stretch of sand dunes totally affected.
a. Through destruction of sand dunes
Sand dunes build the connection between the land and the ocean and therewith play an important role as barriers against any threat to the land, coming from the ocean side like heavy storms, erosion through waves or floods. Also, they serve as habitat for many small animals and plants that are part of the marine and coastal food web and whose loss implies a threat to other species as well.
Destroying only small parts can already have a huge impact on bordering areas, as wind and water using this channel can widen it further. Next to these physical functions, sand dunes also have a chemical importance as they act as filters for the water. Destruction of this natural cleaning process can lead to a decreasing quality of the ocean as well as the ground water.
Sand dunes develop over a long period of time by accumulating sand in a slow evolutionary process of succession. Destruction of this area thereby means the destruction of a precious ecosystem that has been formed over many decades and that cannot easily be reconstructed.
b. Through disruption of coastal sediment budget
The advance or retreat of the coastline is determined primarily by the coastal sediment budget. When the rate of sand input to the coastal system is greater than the rate of sand output, the coastline will advance seaward. When more sand leaves the system, the coastline retreats landward. This is most likely the case for the said coast.
Mining of beach sand can worsen the problem of coastal erosion in the area by disrupting the coastal sediment budget. The operations directly remove sand from the system, and/or deprive areas in the downcurrent direction of their sand input. Recovery of a mined out coast, as argued by the operators, cannot be guaranteed. Based on the experience of several areas in La Union province, coastal erosion has continued to affect the areas even decades after the cessation of magnetite mining .
As a general rule, coasts experiencing high rates of erosion should be closed to sand mining. If ever mining should proceed, the designed sand extraction rates should be based on a thorough characterization of the sediment transport in the area. However, the present state of coastal erosion, the potential impacts of climate change, and more importantly, the presence of vulnerable communities provide a strong argument to stop sand mining in the said coast of Cagayan. A comprehensive plan to protect the coast and the communities should be drawn up and implemented instead. ###