March 2014 – Being a fan of high fantasy, I have always wanted to see a mine where dwarves would toil day and night in search of gold. What I found in the mines of Benguet were not the creations of Aulë the Smith, but a sad story of modern-day
slavery work that is almost reminiscent of Panem’s District 12 (excuse the mixed references from different works of fiction).
After having breakfast at Burnham Park, we looked for the SSS building where we could find the jeepneys plying the Acupan-Balatoc route. As the Balatoc Mines Tour is not exactly a tourist spot, we shared the jeep with laborers, students, and aunties (older women in Northern Luzon are generally called aunties) on their way home from Baguio. Our inability to speak nothing but Tagalog (most of the passengers spoke in Iluko) made us stand out as tourists. It was embarrassing to have to peer over my friend’s shoulder every five minutes, trying to see if we were in Balatoc already. Fortunately, the passengers were kind enough to tell us when to get off the jeep. After about 30 minutes of zigzags and sharp turns, we arrived safely at Balatoc Mines.
We were invited to see the Benguet mines’ small museum, which showed several photos and replicas of the first American miners and engineers who established the Benguet Mining Corporation at the turn of the 20th century. I cannot help but wonder how, after centuries of defending their mines from the Spaniards, could the Igorots of Benguet have surrendered to the Americans. Unfortunately, that was a subject that was not discussed by the tour guide.
After putting our safety gear on, we were led down the dusty, wooden stairs to a yard with hundreds and hundreds of sacks. These sacks contained rocks that were to be transported to another site where these will be refined, through which the valuable stuff can be extracted. I didn’t care about the science of it; I just thought, ohh shiny rocks! The tour guide gave us a couple of rocks as a souvenir. Next, we were shown inside a covered walkway leading to the mines. We saw wagons filled with rocks and gold-bearing ores. We were introduced to the tools and equipment used by the miners. Having no interest in mining or geology, I mostly spaced out and looked around the area for dwarves. I mean, miners.
On our way to the mines, I asked Ate the Tour Guide where the miners live. She said they lived in communities around the mines, and most of them are natives of Benguet, but there are some Ilocanos and other workers as well. At that point, we saw a man down the side of the hill wearing a bright yellow shirt with a pan. Ate said that the man was looking for gold along the stream. Apparently, it was illegal because he was within the corporation’s premises.
Then a security guard came up to us and informed the tour guide that there were two Americans waiting at Ate’s office for the tour. Naturally, my friend and I thought that they were tourists who had nothing better to do (pretty much like us). To my relief, they were from some private electric company, and we were very lucky that they joined us for the tour. They were able to ask the questions we had in mind, like how much were the miners being paid, do they get time-offs and health benefits, are their families well-provided for, etc. It would have been awkward if my friend and I were the ones to ask those questions. (I can’t explain why, it’s a Filipino thing. You know, being suspicious of young people who inquire about the welfare of poor workers. We automatically assume that any person who are interested in the welfare of workers is a communist. /sarcasm) We entered a dusty unused mine through a wide, well-lit tunnel. Here are some of the things we saw:
I must admit the tour was very informative, especially for geology and mining engineering students. As for me, it helped me realize how my life is a lot more comfortable than most of my fellow Filipinos. When one of the miners demonstrated how to blast a particular spot a hundred meters away from us, I was scared shitless (but I had to pretend I wasn’t because it was my idea to visit the mines). I knew that the difficult life of a miner will never suit me. More importantly, this tour convinced me that mining is a serious environmental, social, and political issue. Being an ignorant Manileña, I had no idea about the working conditions of miners: they work in dank, musty, and dangerous holes under the mountain, with limited safety gear, and virtually no emergency exits. In addition, mining activities leave the mountain hollow underneath, and that certainly has serious repercussions. Needless to say, the metals and other stuff we obtain from the mountains are essential to our technology-dependent society, but is this the cost we’re willing to pay? I don’t know.
(A note on the title: Balatoc Mines Tour is actually in Itogon, Benguet, but I chose to include it in Baguio because it is one of its less popular side trips that one can include in a tour. They are open from Monday to Sunday, 8 AM to 2 PM and the tour costs P250. Visit their Facebook page for more information.)
Photos by Vin dela Cruz