SANTA CRUZ, Philippines (Reuters) - His brother kept telling him that the mine would reopen and he would be hired again: but when Winston Ordonez didn’t get a call from a mining firm, he took a laptop charger cable, tied it around his neck and hanged himself in his kitchen.
Ordonez worked at the nickel mine operated by Eramen Minerals Inc near Santa Cruz, a town in the mountains of the northern Philippines, that was suspended for environmental offences in July and later ordered to shut for good. He took his own life in September.
“He became depressed. He said his life was worthless,” his widow, Leni Modelo, told Reuters from their home where she is now raising their seven-year-old boy on her own. “He tried to find work in city hall but there was none.”
The Philippines is the world’s top nickel ore supplier and China’s huge demand for the raw material that makes stainless steel meant there was long a captive market for the four big mines in the Santa Cruz area.
But the suspension and closure of the mines by Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez has meant thousands of jobs have disappeared here. A crusader for the environment, Lopez has ordered the shutdown of 23 of the country’s 41 operating mines. She stepped up her crackdown on Tuesday, cancelling almost a third of the country’s contracts for undeveloped mines.
The mining sector employed 219,000 people as of end-September last year, according to government data. But the planned closures and the suspension of another five mines will affect about 1.2 million people, including families and businesses that rely on mining for a livelihood, according to Artemio Disini, head of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines.
At Eramen’s mine, company president Enrique Fernandez said headcount had dropped to 150 from more than 1,000 previously and more workers could go by the end of this month.
In a nearby mine run by Zambales Diversified Metals Corp (ZDMC), owned by property-to-power firm DMCI Holdings Inc, the number in work has fallen to under 50 from a peak of 1,200, said Hendrik Martin, manager at ZDMC.
Ronald Esquiray, 39, was among those laid off. He now weaves bamboo strips to make walls for small huts, which pays half of what he used to earn in a day.
Many who lost their jobs tried their luck in Manila, Esquiray said, including his 20-year-old son who found work at a construction project.
Many residents of Santa Cruz won’t miss the mining. They say it denuded mountains, leading to heavy flooding in valley villages. Locals also blame the mines for the siltation of farmlands and rivers, and the destruction of the main road that heavy trucks used to rumble along carrying ore to the port.
Martin from ZDMC said mining is demonised so routinely in sermons at his local church that he has stopped attending the weekly service.
When it rains heavily here, thick mud rolls down from mine sites in the mountains, contaminating farmlands and streams below with nickel laterite ore.
Mining companies scrape the laterite off planting areas, but farmers and residents say it is only pushed to the side, submerging parts of houses. And the crop yield is far smaller than before, forcing farmers to use more fertilizer.
Rice farmer Eduardo Morano lost money on his last crop as the harvest from his one-hectare plot more than halved. “I had to sell one of my animals to pay off debt. Then I had to take a new loan to buy more fertilizer,” he said.
The siltation has spread to rivers, said Edgardo Obra, vice chairman of the Concerned Citizens of Santa Cruz, pointing to one that he says had almost dried up because of the silt. “Kids used to dive here.”
Fishermen have to go farther into sea due to the sediment build-up closer to land, he said, adding that only a few town officials benefit from the funds allocated by mining companies to help communities around them.
“I feel like we were fooled,” said Obra, a Baptist pastor. As a former village official, he approved mining in the area but was dismayed two years later by the environmental damage.
As in Santa Cruz, opinions in government are divided on Lopez’s campaign. President Rodrigo Duterte has supported her decision to shut erring mines but his finance minister, Carlos Dominguez, wants a review of the order.
“When you take action like closing a mine, there are other considerations to be taken,” Dominguez said after a five-hour meeting with Lopez and other officials last week.
Countering accusations that he has a vested interest, Dominguez said he has no mine investments and has not been involved in the sector since 2006.
Miners have also questioned the appointment of Lopez, a former yoga missionary who describes herself as an eco-warrior.
Among them is Dante Bravo, president of nickel ore producer Global Ferronickel Holdings Inc, who says Lopez was “overwhelmed by her emotion without putting science into consideration”.
(Click here for a graphic on mine closings in the Philippines here)
Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan