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Division for Social Policy and Development


Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Government of Khabarovsk Krai and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON)




AUGUST 27.-29, 2007

Case Study on the Impacts of Mining and Dams on the

Environment and Indigenous Peoples in Benguet, Cordillera, Philippines
Paper by


  1. Background

Land and People of Benguet
The Cordillera region in Northern Luzon, Philippines, is homeland to more than 1 million indigenous peoples belonging to at least 8 distinct ethnic groups collectively known as Igorots. Two of these ethnic groups, the Ibaloy and the Kankanaey, are found in the province of Benguet, which occupies 265,538 hectares of the Cordillera region’s total land area of 1.8 million hectares. The Ibaloy people live in the southeastern portion, occupying 8 of the province’s 13 towns. The Kankanaey, meanwhile dominate the northeast areas of Benguet.
Benguet’s fertile land along the rivers and gold ore in the mountains saw the emergence of distinct villages engaged in various economic activities. Gold mining communities rose in the gold-rich areas in Itogon, while gold-trading villages were established along strategic mountain passes and trails. Rice-growing villages emerged in the river valleys. Swidden farming combined with gold panning in the streams and rivers.
Land ownership among the Ibaloy and Kankanaey is traditionally recognized by prior occupation, investment of labor and permanent improvements on the land, specifically irrigation systems and retaining stonewalls of the ricefields. The community shares access rights to the forests, rivers, and creeks, and the fruits of these lands and waters are open to those who gathered them.1
Entry of mining, construction of dams

Mining has a long history in the Philippines. Small scale mining has been practiced by Philippine peoples for at least ten centuries, and large scale mining by foreign as well as Filipino firms for about a century. Little is known, though, about mining prior to the coming of the Spanish colonialists in the 16th century.2

Corporate mining in Benguet started during the Spanish colonial period when Spanish businessmen secured a mining concession from the Igorots in Mancayan and launched the operations of the Sociedad Minero-Metalurgica Cantabro-Filipina de Mancayan in 1856. This mine eventually closed down. When the Americans arrived in the 1900s, they entered into contracts with local families to file legal claims to mineral-bearing land. These claims were later used by American prospectors to create the mining companies that would dominate the mining industry in Benguet. These were Benguet Corporation, Atok Big Wedge, Itogon-Suyoc Mines and Lepanto Consolidated.3
In the 1950s, the Agno River in Benguet was tapped as a source of hydropower. The first dam to be built along the Agno River was the Ambuklao Dam, followed by the Binga Dam. Twelve (12) other run-of-river mini-hydros, all privately operated, were also built in other parts of Benguet.

In the 1980s, widespread people’s resistance forced the Marcos government and the World Bank to give up its plans for major dam projects in the region. However, the Ramos government took advantage of the energy crisis in the 1990s and initiated with Japanese funding, the construction of the San Roque Multipurpose Project. The San Roque dam is the third dam to be built along the Agno River, located in the boundary between Benguet and Pangasinan province of Central Luzon.4

  1. Mining Operations, Dams and Impacts on the Indigenous Peoples of Benguet

Mines and Dams Present in Benguet

The province of Benguet has hosted 14 mining companies since corporate mining started in 1903. Some of these mines have closed down while others have continued. Presently operating in Benguet are two large mines using high technology for large-scale mineral extraction. These are the Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company (operating for 70 years) and the Philex Mining Corporation (operating since 1955). Benguet Corporation, the oldest mining company in the country, abandoned its operations in 1997 after mining for almost a century. The abandoned open pit mine site, underground tunnels, waste dump sites, mill, diversion tunnels and tailings dams in Itogon still remain today. The company now has ongoing contract mining arrangements with small scale miners. Itogon-Suyoc mines closed down in 1997, but is now negotiating with foreign investors to reopen its mines. In addition, new mining explorations and applications are now coming into other parts of Benguet with renewed efforts by the government to invite foreign investments. These applications of various kinds, numbering 138, are found in all 13 municipalities of the province covering 147,618.9 hectares or 55.7% of the province’s total land area. This figure is aside from the area already covered by past and existing mines. Thus we have a situation where most of the total land area of Benguet is covered by past, ongoing and future mining operations.

Accompanying mining operations is the construction of tailings dams needed to contain the mine wastes. These tailings dams were built across the river beds in various parts of Benguet. However, most tailings dams are not leak proof and have not been strong enough to withstand torrential currents during the typhoon season, and the major earthquake that rocked Northern Luzon in 1990. Through the years, tailings dams in Benguet have proved incapable of containing the volume of tailings that came from the mills. Time and again, these tailings have breached their dams. Benguet Corporation constructed 5 tailings dams. Lepanto has 5 tailings dams, 2 of which collapsed. Philex has 3 tailings dams, 2 of which collapsed in 1992 and 1994. In 2001, tailings breached another Philex dam. Itogon-Suyoc has 1 tailings dam that collapsed in 1994. Thus we have a situation where burst, broken, weak and leaking tailings dams dot the major river systems of the province – the Abra River, Agno River, Antamok River and Bued River.
Another concern is the series of three mega hydroelectric dams built along the Agno River - the Ambuklao, Binga and San Roque dams – that block the river flow to generate electricity. The power generated by these dams has gone to supply the power needs of the mining companies as well as the overall power demand of the Luzon Grid. However, Ambuklao and Binga dams are dying and no longer fully operational, crippled by the voluminous silt that has accumulated in the reservoirs, upstream and beyond. The San Roque dam, which has the generating capacity of 345 megawatts, is now generating only 18 megawatts.

Impacts of Mines and Dams

The combination of mines and dams in Benguet has had devastating impacts on the environment and on the Kankanaey and Ibaloy people in the province. These impacts have not only caused serious environmental destruction and suffering for the affected communities, but have also violated the collective rights of the indigenous peoples. As proven by the experience of the Benguet indigenous peoples, large-scale corporate mining and dams destroy, pollute, disrupt agricultural economies, and displace indigenous peoples.

  1. Land destruction, subsidence and water loss

Corporate mining in Benguet is done by surface mining as well as underground tunneling and block caving. Also significant are other surface excavations by the mining companies for the installation of facilities, such as portals for deep mining, lumber yards, ore trains, mills, tailings ponds, power houses, mine administration offices, and employee housing.5
Open pit mining is the most destructive as it requires removing whole mountains and excavation of deep pits. Generally, open pits need to be very big – sometimes more than 2.5 kilometres long. In order to dig these giant holes, huge amounts of earth need to be moved, forests cleared, drainage systems diverted, and large amounts of dust let loose. According to the Benguet Corporation, “Any open-pit mining operation, by the very nature of its method, would necessarily strip away the top soil and vegetation of the land.”6 Sure enough, open-pit mining in Itogon by Benguet Corporation has removed whole mountains and entire villages from the land surface. After exhausting the gold ore, the open pit in Itogon is now abandoned as the company has shifted to other economic ventures like water privatization.
Not known to many, Philex also practices open pit mining in Camp 3, Tuba, Benguet, presently affecting 98 hectares of land. The affected area is continuously expanding as the open pit mine operations of Philex continue. The land damage has displaced homes and communities and caused the people to lose their lands.
Meanwhile, underground block-caving operations by Philex and Lepanto have induced surface subsidence and ground collapse. In Mankayan, where Lepanto is operating, the land surface in populated areas is sinking, causing damage to buildings, farms and property. In July 1999, Pablo Gomez, a villager in Mankayan, was killed when he was suddenly swept away in a landslide along with the Colalo Primary School building. 71 million cubic feet of earth gave way beneath him, covering and destroying 14 hectares of farming land.7
Aside from land subsidence, the water tables have also subsided as deep mining tunnels and drainage tunnels disrupt groundwater paths. Tunneling often leads to a long-term lowering of the water table. In 1937, a disaster hit Gumatdang, Itogon’s oldest rice-producing village. Atok-Big Wedge drove in two gigantic tunnels on opposite sides of the village, immediately draining the water from its most abundant irrigation sources. In 1962, Benguet Corporation drove in another drainage tunnel that stretched between its Kelly mine in Gumatdang and its mines in Antamok. Instead of just draining water from the mines, the tunnel drained the water from a major irrigation source, drying up ricefields. Ventilation shafts have also drawn water away from surface streams, irrigation canals, and pondfields. In addition, the felling of timber to shore up underground tunnels has denuded surrounding watersheds, aggravating water loss.8
Not only does mining cause water subsidence, it also deprives farming communities of much-needed water. The industry requires large volumes of water for mining, milling and waste disposal. Mining companies have privatized numerous natural water sources in Itogon and Mankayan for the purpose. Now, the people in many mining-affected communities have to buy water for drinking and domestic use from outside sources through water delivery trucks, or by lining up for hours in the few remaining water sources to fill up a gallon of water.

  1. Pollution of Water and Soil

Open-pit and underground bulk mining by Philex in Tuba and Lepanto in Mankayan generate ore and tailings at a rate of up to 2,500 metric tons per mine per day.9 Toxic mine tailings are usually impounded in tailings dams. However, when pressure in the tailings dams builds up, especially during times of heavy rainfall, the mining companies drain their tailings dams of water or face the risk of having the dams burst or collapse. In either case, the tailings eventually find their way out, polluting the water and silting up the rivers and adjacent lands.
People of Mankayan remember the Abra River before the mine. It was deep and narrow, just 5 meters wide, full of fish and surrounded by verdant rice paddies. Now there is a wide gorge of barren land on either side of the polluted river. Fruit trees and animals have died from the poisoned water and rice crops are stunted. 10
When Lepanto started operations in 1936, the company dumped mine tailings and waste straight into the river. It was only in the 1960’s that the first tailings dam was built. The dam was abandoned after less than 10 years and the land became unsuitable for agriculture. Tailings dam 2 was constructed in the 1970s. Its collapse caused the contamination of nearby ricefields. Tailings Dam 3 and a diversion tunnel gave way in 1986 during a strong typhoon. Another spillway collapsed after a typhoon in 1993. The spilled tailings encroached on riverbanks and destroyed ricefields downstream. They also caused the riverbed to rise and the polluted water to backflow into other tributaries of the Abra River. 11
An Environmental Investigative Mission (EIM) in September 2002 indictaed that heavy metal content (lead, cadmium and copper) was elevated in the soil and waters downstream from the Lepanto mine. Water samples from the Abra River were found to have low level pH (acidic) capable of solubilizing heavy metals. One resident who used gravel taken from the Mankayan River for construction of his house reported that the steel bar reinforcements were corroded after a few months. The same EIM report revealed dissolved oxygen readings at the CIP Mill Outlet and at Tailings Dam 5A to be below 2 mg/L. Aquatic life cannot survive in conditions where dissolved oxygen is below 2 mg/L. Sulfuric acid is also believed to be the cause of the “rotten eggs” smell that residents report when mine tailings are released into the Mankayan River during heavy rainfall. Another concern is the high amount of Total Suspended Solids (TSS) and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) found at various points of the Mankayan River downstream from Tailings Dam 5A.12
Abandoned mine sites like Benguet Corporation and Itogon-Suyoc Mines in Itogon have long-term damaging impacts on rivers and their surrounding fields because of the build up of acidic mine water. Acid mine drainage comes from both surface and underground mine workings, waste rock, tailings piles and tailings ponds.13 Pollution of this kind can continue long after a mine is closed or abandoned, and the water that leaches into the ecosystem is frequently acidic, killing rivers and posing health risks to local communities.14

  1. Siltation

Siltation of rivers is a serious problem in Benguet resulting from mining operations and dam construction. The Ambuklao and Binga dams are stark examples of the detrimental impacts of siltation and megadams on rivers. The steadily rising level of silt in the dam reservoirs and along the Agno River upstream of the dams is covering a wider and wider area around the dams and continues to destroy more and more rice fields. In the case of the Ambuklao dam, the communities of Bangao and Balacbac were located far above the predicted water level of the dam and 17 kilometers away from the predicted edge of the reservoir. These two communities are now inundated because of the rising water level and accumulation of silt upstream along the Agno River. Government authorities dismiss the increasing siltation as a natural phenomenon. However, the Ibaloy people know that the dams are the real culprit. The farmlands and communities were never affected by silt before the dams were built despite storms and earthquakes. The dams blocked the free flow of water and silt down to the lowlands. Silt deposits built up in the dam reservoir and blocked oncoming silt that receded backwards upstream, swamping and inundating all farmlands and communities within reach.15

In the case of the Philex, a tailings dam collapsed in 1992, releasing some 80 million tons of tailings and causing heavy siltation in the irrigation system downstream. The company paid Php5 million to the affected farmers. Again, during a typhoon in 2001, another tailings dam of Philex collapsed. Ricefields in San Manuel and Binalonan, Pangasinan, were buried in toxic silt a meter deep. This time, Philex refused to admit responsibility for the disaster putting the blame on nature.16
In the case of Lepanto, the downstream impact of tailings disposal is that along a 25-kilometer stretch of the Abra River, some 465 hectares of riceland have been washed out.17 Further, Lepanto’s claim that Tailings Dam 5A is actually helping to contain siltation is deceiving. The high level of TDS and TSS from the CIP Mill Outlet up to Tailings Dam 5A indicates that the silt originates from company operations and is not due to natural siltation.18

  1. Serious health problems due to water, soil and air pollution

Contamination of water, soil and air contributes to increased toxic build-up in people’s bodies. Asthma and other respiratory problems often affect local communities as well as mine workers. When people’s health deteriorates, their ability to work and earn money is reduced even further. The old and the young are particularly vulnerable. 19
In 1985, a copper ore dryer was installed by Lepanto. The copper dryer affected the 3 barangays of Paco, Colalo and Cabiten in Mankayan. Local residents complained of abnormal withering of crops, sickness and death of domestic animals and high incidence of respiratory ailments. The company was forced to close down the dryer in the face of people’s opposition.20
The most common symptoms felt by residents of Mankayan who have inhaled chemical fumes emanating from the mine are: headache, dizziness, cough, chest pain, nasal and eye irritation. Other symptoms reported are itching of the skin, rashes and diarrhea.
Some residents report that wounds take longer to heal when exposed to the water of the Abra River. Because of past adverse reactions, people avoid contact with the river water. They do not allow children to bathe in the river. Nor do they let their animals drink from it. Incidence of cancer is a cause for further study as it is among the top 3 causes of mortality in some affected communities.21
Women are primarily responsible for maintaining the health of the family and the community. As such, women have to carry the burden of ill health arising from environmental destruction and pollution due to mining operations. At the height of the open pit mine and mill in Itogon, some pregnant women suffered miscarriage, while others experienced diseases of the skin, respiratory tract and blood when exposed to toxic fumes emanating from the mill. The drying up of natural water sources in another contributory factor in the poor health and sanitation in the community.22

  1. Loss of Flora, Fauna, Biodiversity, and food insecurity

The drainage area of the Abra River is home to about 1689 species of plants belonging to 144 families, including 177 species of orchids in 47 genera. More than half (51.2%) of the plants found within the area are classified as endemics with 60.7% of all the orchids classified as such. Benguet has the highest plant species diversity within the river basin area compared to other provinces.
The EIM conducted in September 2002 noted gross differences between the waterways located directly below the Lepanto mining operations and tributaries originating from sources elsewhere. When the company started a fishpond in March 2001, all the fingerlings died after only 4 days.
Aquatic organisms like udang (shrimp) and igat (eel) are reportedly becoming rare. Residents observed fish disease and deformities, aside from a drop in the fish catch. Fishkills occur every rainy season, attributed to the release of water from the tailings dams by the company. The loss in aquatic life is a major change in the life support system of the communities who rely on the river for daily food.
Not only are livelihood sources affected, but so is the general biodiversity damaged, causing breakdowns in the food web. Once-common birds and tree species have disappeared. Among the bird species reported now to be rarely seen are: pagaw, tuklaw and kannaway. Trees such as the kamantires and burbala were also identified to be no longer in significant quantities.23

  1. Dislocation of Indigenous People from Ancestral Land and Traditional Livelihoods

Large-scale corporate mining and dams have dislocated the indigenous Kankanaey and Ibaloy people from their ancestral lands and traditional livelihoods. Dams have caused the loss of ancestral lands to inundation and siltation. Descendants of families displaced by dams have been reduced to illegal occupants in the dam’s watershed areas or settlers in land owned by others. Mining patents granted by the government to mining companies have denied indigenous communities of their rights to ownership and control over their ancestral lands and resources.
In terms of livelihood, mining concessions have taken over lands used by indigenous peoples for their traditional livelihoods - ricefields, vegetable gardens, swiddens, hunting and grazing livestock. Rice fields along riverbanks have been damaged by siltation. Garden cultivators have lost their crops to surface subsidence. Traditional small scale miners have lost their pocket mines and gold panning sites to the big mines and dams. Some communities have lost entire mountainsides, burial sites and hunting grounds to ground collapse and deep open pits. Traditional fishing is no longer possible in polluted rivers, replaced by commercial fishponds in dam reservoirs.
An additional impact is the violation of the collective rights of the indigenous Kankanaey and Ibaloy people of their collective rights to self-determination and cultural integrity as they are displaced from the land and community that is the basis of their continued existence and identity.

  1. People’s Alternatives

People’s alternatives to corporate mining and dams and indigenous systems of sustainable resource utilization and management can be found in indigenous communities in the Cordillera.
The Ibaloy and Kankanaey people of Benguet continue to practice traditional small-scale mining till today. Traditional methods of pocket-mining and gold panning are crude but environment-friendly and have been passed down through generations since the 16th century. Small-scale mining is a community affair and access to resources is defined by customary laws, characterized by equitable sharing, cooperation and community solidarity. Men, women, children and the elderly each have a role to play in the extraction and processing of the ore. They extract only enough gold to meet their basic necessities and receive their share of the gold based on an equitable sharing system. However, as communities are deprived of their land and resources, these traditional small-scale mining methods and positive values are now under threat of vanishing.
An alternative source of energy are microhydro dams as opposed to megadams. The experience of the micro-hydro project (MHP) of the Chapyusen Mangum-uma Organization (CMO) in the Cordillera proves the viability of a community-based and community-owned power system to provide energy for lighting, rice milling, sugar pressing, blacksmithing and carpentry. The MHP has built up the people’s capacity to develop their own local resources while ensuring affordable access of poor households to electricity. It also became an opportunity for the people to improve their organization by participating in all phases of project implementation. The observance of ubfo or the traditional system of labor exchange in community mobilization has had a positive outcome by restoring traditional cooperative practices and the free utilization and exchange of individual skills towards a common objective.24

  1. Recommendations

The experience of the Kankanaey and Ibaloy people brings to a fore the need for changes in the development paradigm and policies affecting indigenous peoples. The following recommendations, arising from various reports and fact-finding missions, are forwarded for consideration by the United Nations, by international financial institutions, mining and dam companies and national governments:

  1. The international community should develop minimum standards for the protection of the environment and human rights that are binding on all countries and companies, based on the highest existing standards, and with effective monitoring and sanctions imposed on the offending parties, be it the national government, funding institutions, or the companies.

  1. There exists the Akwe:Kon voluntary guidelines, developed under the Convention of Biological Diversity, for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessments regarding developments proposed to take place on, or which are likely to impact on sacred sites and on lands and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous and local communities. These guidelines should be made binding rather than voluntary and could be adopted as a minimum standard by international financial institutions and national governments when implementing development projects affecting indigenous peoples.

  1. Countries that are home to transnational companies should enact legislation that will require those companies to operate using the same standards wherever they operate in the world. Home countries whose nationals and corporate entities inflict damage in developing countries, particularly on indigenous peoples, should impose some form of penalty on the offending parties.

  1. An international system should be created to allow complaints to be filed by affected indigenous communities against companies, governments and financial institutions whose development programs and interventions violate the rights of ownership and control by indigenous peoples over their ancestral land, territories and resources and cause serious destruction of the environment.

  1. In the case of Benguet where the indigenous people have already suffered and will continue to suffer enormous damage to their lands and environment due to the long-term impacts of mining and dams, proper and immediate compensation and reparation should be provided to all affected people to include adequate monetary compensation, sustainable livelihood, alternative land, employment and other sources of regular income. A program for the restoration and rehabilitation of lands and waters destroyed by mines and dams should also be implemented.

  1. Past experience has shown that no monetary compensation nor livelihood project could replace or surpass the destroyed ancestral land and traditional livelihoods of affected indigenous peoples. The solution to restoring the living quality and to stop the permanent destruction of the environment is to stop destructive large-scale corporate mining and decommission unviable tailings dams and megadams. Alternatives such as chemical-free traditional small scale mining methods and community-based microhydros need to be promoted and supported.

  1. National legislation and policy on the liberalization of mining and the energy industry need to be reviewed and revised as these have proven detrimental to indigenous peoples in different parts of the country. A new mining policy should support the Filipino people’s efforts towards nationalist industrialization and ensure the creation of jobs, food security, a stable economy, mitigation of environmental degradation, and environmental rehabilitation.

1 Jacqueline K. Carino. Case Study. WCD. 2000

2 APIT Tako. Mining in Philippine History

3 APIT Tako. Mining in Philippine History

4 Cordillera Peoples Alliance. December 2002. Cordillera Hydropower Projects and the Indigenous Peoples


6 Christian Aid and PIPLinks. Breaking Promises, making profits. Mining in the Philippines.UK. Dec. 2004

7 CA and PIPLinks

8 APIT TAKO. Mining In Philippine History: Focus On The Cordillera Experience. Paper presented to the United Nations Economic and Social Council’s Commission on Human Rights during its Transnational Extractive Industries Review. December 2001 and revised March 2002.

9 APIT Tako.

10 CA and PIPLinks.

11 Save the Abra River Movement (STARM). What is Happening to the Abra River? A Primer on the Effects of Corporate Mining on the Abra River System. September 2003.



14 CA and PIPLinks

15 Jacqueline K. Carino. A case Study of the Ibaloy People and the Agno River Basin, Province of Benguet, Philippines. Presented during the Consultation on Dams, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Minorities. Geneva, Switzerland. August 1999)

16 Croft



19 CA and PIPILinks



22 Jill K. Carino and Cornelia Ag-agwa. The Situation of Mining in the Cordillera Region, Philippines and its Impact on Land Rights and Indigenous Women. Paper presented during the Second International Conference on Women and Mining. Bolivia. 2000


24 Hapit, The Official Publication of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance. 3rd Quarter 2005. A basic Service to the People: The Chapyusen Micro-Hydro Project

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