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Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu

Walking along my favorite trail, I savor the earthy smells of early rain permeating the woods. The last time I visited this area, I heard songs of a variety of birds. Today, a chorus of different tones and tunes breaks the morning silence.

Soon it becomes apparent that some migrating birds have arrived. It is exciting to see them in flocks, numbering in the hundreds and even thousands, glistening against the clear blue sky as they find their way to their favorite spots in the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary.

Olango Island is part of the East Asian Migratory Flyway, one of the most important shorebird and waterbird migratory flyways in the world. Every year from late July until late November, anticipating the scarcity of food and winter cold, thousands of migratory birds stop over the Olango area on their way from Siberia, Northern China and Japan to as far as Australia. Among the migratory birds usually seen here are the Greater Sand Plover (Charadrius leschennaltii), Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Redshank (Tringa tetanus), Gray-tailed tattler (Heteroscelus brevipes), Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica), Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) and the Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes). We see them again in February to May, when they come to Olango for some rest and food, to fly north and complete their long journey to the more favorable summer season in East Asia.

I was already in Olango when the area was included as the 82nd country member of Ramsar in 1994. This recognition from a prestigious international body highlighted the sanctuary's importance as wintering and roosting grounds for some 10,000 or more migratory birds, and focused much needed attention on Olango as a globally significant natural resource.

I work with other environmentalists on the island. We do research work such as bird banding, monitoring of the feeding ground, bird counting, etc. Working with non-governmental organizations and people's organizations, we conduct an information and education campaign aimed at increasing people's awareness and appreciation of the sanctuary as a local and national heritage. We hold lectures and organize exposure trips to the sanctuary for students and teachers. Through all this, we have all become partners in the conservation and protection of the sanctuary.

Mt. Malindang, Western Mindanao

I hold two very different images of Mt. Malindang: the picture I remember from my childhood, and the Mt. Malindang I know as a Franciscan Missionary.

As I child, I reveled in the experience of this mountain with the vast rainforest, teeming biodiversity and the small, scattered close-knit communities whose farming activities were confined in the rolling areas of the lower parts of Mt. Malindang.

As a Missionary, I rue the degradation of the forest due to logging and the influx of settlers from the lowlands, the loss of biodiversity, and the consequent loss of the natural capacity of the ecosystem to regenerate.

The indigenous people of Mt. Malindang, especially the Subanens, are highly dependent on the produce of Mother Earth, gathering food, such as fruits and wild animals, from the forest, their umbilical cord virtually tied to the earth. They believe that all creations are inter-connected and controlled by spirits and gods. They believe in the cosmos movement and life cycle, so they have rituals in almost everything, from the cutting of trees to planting and harvesting, from conception and birth to death. Their traditions and beliefs are rooted in the environment, where Man and Nature must co-exist in harmony.

Such harmony has become threatened by the sheer need for survival in Mt. Malindang's now less-than-generous environment. The around 18,000 people - mostly Subanens and Dumagats - who now inhabit the buffer zone and protected area are poor and marginalized, and at the bottom of the socio-economic scale. Because the forest has become denuded and unproductive, Subanens have turned to farming the steep slopes, a very fragile terrain. The integration of their economy into the market economy of the lowlanders is an added pressure on the environment.

Taking up the mining issue

Every so often, we read about toxic mining wastes - cyanide, mercury, lead and other heavy metals - being dumped directly or otherwise finding their way into the sea, rivers, and other bodies of water. I have heard many stories about mining operations that ignore safety concerns, whether for their workers or the environment, out of ignorance or sheer greed. The following incidents are just a few of the well-known cases:

Marcopper in Marinduque - The communities at Calancan Bay were the first victims of Marcopper's careless disposal of mine tailings. Placer Dome, the Canada-based management dumped some 200 million tons of mine wastes into the shallow, coral-rich waters of Calancan Bay, via a 14-km pipeline that discharged the wastes round-the-clock. Sometimes, the pipes were broken, and mine tailings also contaminated farm fields and forests. Local people derisively called these tailings "our snow from Canada." The waste contamination went unabated for 16 years, from 1975 to 1991. On March 24, 1996, disaster struck: a drainage tunnel of Marcopper burst, spilling 3-4 million tons of toxic waste into the 26-km Boac River, and shattering the lives of 20,000 people. In March 1997, a research team led by Dr. Fellizar of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos reported heavy metal contamination of soil, water and biota in the Boac River area. To this day, Placer Dome, the Canada-based company that used to own part of Marcopper, has steadfastly denied the toxic contamination.

Toledo, Cebu - In 1999, Biga Pit, a tailing pond of the defunct Atlas Copper Mine, spilled toxic waste into Tanon Strait, causing a massive fish kill and damaging marine life along the shores of Asturias and Balamban.

Diwalwal, Monkayo, Davao del Norte - Time and again, diseases and deaths due to gas poisoning and violence resulting from an ongoing conflict between small-scale miners and big companies are reported from this gold-rich but perennially troubled region.

Sibutad, Zamboanga del Sur - Cyanide tailings from Philex Gold Mine found their way into the sea, affecting 33 species of fish, mollusks, and shells. Mercury from small-scale mining operations in the area has pushed the mercury level of seawater to well beyond the tolerable limit of 0.05 ppm. The waste contamination issue is aggravated by other mining-related problems such as siltation, the displacement of farmers, human rights violations and poverty.

Hearing about these problems and the sad plight of the poor people affected by mining can be a frustrating exercise, because the mining issue is not just an environmental or even economic concern, it is also an often complex political and social dilemma. The Mining Act of 1995 (Republic Act No. 7942) grants foreign companies a free hand in the exploitation of vast tracts of land under an arrangement called the "Financial Technical Assistance Agreement", or FTAA. This has resulted in economic dislocation, and the loss of our indigenous people's ancestral land rights, loss of control by Filipinos over their natural resources, and loss of environmental knowledge and destruction.

And for what? The answer provides an important point to reflect on, especially for women: Gold glitters on your fingers, necks, and ears. Do you know that tons and tons of earth are bulldozed from our beautiful mountains to produce those glittering jewelry? According to a study of the Mineral Policy Center in Washington, DC, 2.8 tons of earth (one dump truck) must be crushed and processed to produce a single ring; 80% of all gold produced worldwide is used to make jewelry, and only 10% is used for industries.

As frustrating as it may all seem, we realize we cannot just stand, see and wait; we must take action. Through the initiative of our Bishops, a committee on mining issues was organized under the chairmanship of Bishop Jose Manguiran of Dipolog City. This is a coalition of different non-governmental organizations and people's organizations focusing on organizing communities affected by mining, documenting mining issues, research and advocacy. We campaign against destructive mining at the local, national and international levels.

An awakening

My involvement with mining issues stemmed, initially, from a feeling of disgust and anger stirred by the sight of an open pit mining's devastation of a beautiful mountain, now barren and desolate like a desert. Soon, I began to actively search for solutions, to dialogue with people in authority, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the local government units, and mining companies. I have found that, more than anything, solidarity with the people most affected by mining operations and sharing their problems - the loss of potable water, fishing grounds and biodiversity, and the degradation of their environment - are important to sustaining our fight against destructive mining.

As a religious Missionary, I did not set out to be an environmentalist, but my experiences in Olango and then in Mt. Malindang have served as an awakening for me. The birds of Olango and Mt. Malindang's simple and beautiful people have taught me where I stand in relation to Creation. I've come to realize what it truly means to be a steward of God's creation. It means mending our broken relationships with God, Humanity and Nature by living a life of simplicity and humility.  Creation is a gift to mankind, easily robbed of its intrinsic worth once it is manipulated, spoiled and abused.

- Ester S. Paredes
Franciscan Sister

This essay originally appeared in Overseas, a magazine published in the Philippines by oneocean.org

Photograph by J.R. Goleno (USA).

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