Geographical - - PHILIP­PINES -

In re­mote South­ern Leyte in the Philip­pines, where scuba divers chase whale sharks and other ex­otic sea crea­tures, res­i­dents mine sub­aquatic gold to sur­vive

Young Da­nian dons his favourite baseball cap, fea­tur­ing an em­broi­dered dol­lar sign, and starts the diesel-pow­ered com­pres­sor that will feed the lungs of five fel­low gold divers. Mean­while, nour­ished by a bowl of rice, 58-year-old veteran miner Se­ber, who has nine years of gold-div­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, checks the pres­sure of his hose. A tat­too of Je­sus, which he be­lieves will pro­tect him, adorns his fore­head.

While un­der­wa­ter, Se­ber will bite the hose’s tip with one side of his mouth and move his jaw slightly in or­der to in­hale some air. Once the pre­cious gas has cir­cu­lated, he will bub­ble it out through the other side of his mouth. He may even have his lunch un­der­wa­ter. Seafood such as sea urchins, fresh clams, or any sort of kini­law (which lit­er­ally means ‘eaten raw’) are on the menu. For now, Se­ber per­forms the sign of the cross, in­di­cat­ing that he’s all set for the dive.


It’s cen­turies since the tiny vil­lage of Pinut-an in the prov­ince of South­ern Leyte in the Philip­pines made its mark on ex­plor­ers’ maps as a gold min­ing hotspot. It was dur­ing the 18th cen­tury that the Span­ish be­gan sur­vey­ing these east­ern shores for a new El Do­rado. They named their out­post, near what is now Pinut-an, Es­per­anza (‘hope’ in Span­ish) – per­haps a nod to their gold dis­cov­er­ies, al­though no-one knows for sure.

The Filipinos at the min­ing site as­sisted the gold­hun­gry con­quis­ta­dors, re­triev­ing ore from min­ing tun­nels, but failed to gain an un­der­stand­ing of the com­plete process. The col­lab­o­ra­tion, how­ever, didn’t last long. The Span­ish soon aban­doned the site and ma­chin­ery be­cause of nu­mer­ous land­slides.

The US gov­ern­ment de­clared mil­i­tary rule in the Philip­pines on 21 De­cem­ber 1898 and the Alde­coa Min­ing Com­pany flagged in­ter­est in the promis­ing ore veins on the shores of South­ern Leyte, start­ing oper­a­tions in 1935. The Amer­i­cans fol­lowed the same course as the Spa­niards, dig­ging for gold mostly be­low an el­e­va­tion of five me­tres, close to the Philip­pine Sea. The Sec­ond World War halted min­ing oper­a­tions and the lo­cals mostly turned to farm­ing or fish­ing, but af­ter lib­er­a­tion, the com­pany went back to work in Pinut-an, un­til the tides of a heavy typhoon in 1949 in­ter­fered with oper­a­tions anew.

Through­out this his­tory, the Filipinos were fa­mil­iar only with muck­ing the ore out of the moun­tain slopes, with only a vague idea of how to process and pu­rify the ore. All this was to change in 1968. Small-scale

min­ing above and be­low the wa­ter kicked off when some gold dig­gers from the nearby is­land of Min­danao dis­cov­ered gold right on Pinut-an’s beach. Ob­serv­ing the tem­po­rary set­tlers shov­el­ling peb­bles into a sluice box and catch­ing tiny gold nuggets, the lo­cals soon be­gan to im­i­tate the process, even­tu­ally be­com­ing ex­pe­ri­enced small-scale min­ers them­selves.

The main gold rush be­gan dur­ing the mid-1970s, with some 10,000 Filipinos from all over Lu­zon, Min­danao and other parts of the Visayan is­lands flock­ing into South­ern Leyte, armed with ba­sic tools such as gold pans, shov­els and hel­mets. Al­though clas­sic tun­nel min­ing was the daily grind for the ma­jor­ity of free­lance min­ers, some started their first un­der­wa­ter ex­plo­rations by ven­tur­ing out from the shore­line, while a few par­tic­u­larly brave in­di­vid­u­als dived into deeper wa­ter from their wooden boats. These am­a­teur sub­aquatic min­ers couldn’t af­ford com­pres­sors, so they would free-dive for a minute or so, goug­ing me­tal rods into boul­ders in or­der to har­vest smaller pieces of ore. Back then, the gold­bear­ing quartz was still cov­ered by corals, al­though these quickly dis­ap­peared. By 1978, af­ter three years of free-div­ing, the lo­cals had earned enough money to fi­nance diesel-pow­ered com­pres­sors that could pro­vide five or six divers with a con­stant air sup­ply, turn­ing the sub­ma­rine min­ing into an ef­fi­cient, 9-5 hard-labour job.

They would free-dive for a minute, goug­ing me­tal rods into boul­ders

The hos­pi­tal­ity of the Visayans is renowned. Even be­fore the small-scale gold in­dus­try be­gan to flour­ish, the lo­cals hap­pily shared a slice of their cake, help­ing the out­siders put up makeshift shel­ters near the tun­nels. ‘We even al­lowed them to build a small house in our back­yard,’ says Ernie Gaylo, one of Pinut-an’s veter­ans, who has spent most of his life in the gold­min­ing in­dus­try in Min­danao, hav­ing grad­u­ated as a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer. He has since re­turned to Pin­u­tan and has spent about five years un­der­wa­ter min­ing. Given the rich­ness of the min­er­als in the re­gion, this was an ob­vi­ous path to choose. ‘There’s a value of some 2,000–3,000 Philip­pine pe­sos [around £45] hid­den in this small wall of my tun­nel,’ Ernie re­mem­bers telling a friend who had only ba­sic knowl­edge of min­ing, only to see him im­me­di­ately be­gin ham­mer­ing like crazy into the ore. He flashes a smile. ‘You see, ca­reer­chang­ers can be good min­ers.’


To­day, there are roughly 300 gold min­ers in Pin­u­tan. Since there are no more quartz boul­ders left in the shal­low wa­ters, they ei­ther har­vest rock and sand far­ther out to sea, or they dig into the bedrock, cre­at­ing tun­nels up to 30 me­tres in length that fol­low Pin­u­tan’s six gold veins. Many of the small-scale min­ing fam­i­lies have set up tem­po­rary homes and sluice boxes right at the shore­line, where they fol­low the gold veins’ ex­ten­sions in search of the pre­cious el­e­ment.

Dur­ing the sum­mer months, when the sea is calm and the cur­rents mel­low, the shore­line is crowded with min­ers who ei­ther dive or process the sand that has al­ready been brought in. As the first sun­beams brighten the rocky beach, early ris­ers sneak out of their makeshift houses in or­der to set up sluice boxes and check their min­ing gear, which com­prises a hel­met, a co­conut half for dig­ging, a weight belt made of stones wrapped in rags

and clipped to a rope around the hips, self-made teak gog­gles ( an­tipara), and oc­ca­sion­ally footwear ( katay) which are used to with­stand the cur­rents. For health rea­sons, an un­der­wa­ter work shift shouldn’t ex­ceed two hours, but many min­ers labour un­til they’re fa­tigued or un­til the cur­rents get too strong.

Since the vis­i­bil­ity un­der­wa­ter can be very poor, the min­ers smash out sam­ples of rock and check their iden­tity by squeez­ing and shak­ing the peb­bles close to their ears. Quartz makes a dif­fer­ent noise to other rocks and will tell the min­ers if they’re close to the ore. The other op­tion is to col­lect the fine off­shore sand that had been de­posited on the bedrock fol­low­ing cen­turies of nat­u­ral grind­ing.

To­day, Se­ber is haul­ing out the sand that he has col­lected dur­ing the pre­vi­ous few days. He pulls him­self along a rope that leads down to a depth of 15 me­tres. To haul the sand, Se­ber places his bags into a big bowl that he has brought along with him, which is sup­ported by buoy­ant old oil drums. He mea­sures the weight of his load and ac­cord­ingly in­serts air into a cer­tain num­ber of the drums via a dif­fer­ent pres­sure hose. He then tows the rick­ety con­struc­tion back to shore. The fol­low­ing day, he’ll run the sandy har­vest over the sluice box to re­duce the vol­ume and con­cen­trate the gold be­fore even­tu­ally pan­ning it. Near his col­lec­tion of sand­bags lies the en­trance to his old tun­nel into the bedrock, where he used to work un­til he could no longer find high-grade ore, see­ing only mus­tard-yel­low wa­ter all day long.


Un­der­wa­ter gold dig­gers usu­ally quit div­ing around the age of 40, pass­ing the la­bo­ri­ous min­ing tra­di­tion down to the next gen­er­a­tion. For 67-year-old father of six Ernie, how­ever, there’s no end to the haz­ardous work. The so­cial se­cu­rity sys­tem in the Philip­pines re­quires ten years of un­bro­ken pay­ments to be en­ti­tled to a pen­sion. And even then the re­sult­ing pen­sion isn’t enough to feed a fam­ily and cover all ex­penses. Ernie, there­fore, re­turned to what he does best and is re­viv­ing small-scale min­ing on his land. He knows what he’s do­ing. Dur­ing the gold rush, Ernie rose from a labourer and ge­o­log­i­cal map­per to the po­si­tion of a mid­dle­man (su­per­vi­sor). Now, be­ing a landowner and a fi­nancier, he gives in­di­vid­ual min­ers a sched­ule for muck­ing in his tun­nels and of­fers them the use of his newly ac­quired grind­ing drum. He trades the amal­ga­mated gold re­cov­ered for 1,300 PHP (about £20) per gram to a buyer in Suri­gao City on Min­danao, who will take care of the fi­nal step of pu­rifi­ca­tion.

‘Ob­vi­ously, I’ve ended up in this sec­tor be­cause of the mon­e­tary op­por­tu­ni­ties,’ says Ernie. ‘But I can also sup­port our com­mu­nity and even out­siders by pro­vid­ing them jobs.’ He begins to heat up a small piece of amal­ga­mated gold over the kitchen stove, shield­ing his mouth and nose with an old T-shirt. This process vapourises the mer­cury that min­ers mix with the slurry – while gold dis­solves in the mer­cury, im­pu­ri­ties don’t, so the method re­sults in purer gold. ‘Many don’t use any mouth or nose pro­tec­tion while they’re get­ting rid of the mer­cury. They are quite in­cau­tious be­cause it gets solid fast again,’ the ex­pe­ri­enced miner says with a sigh as he starts weigh­ing the small lump of 75 per cent gold (18 Carat) – as pure as you can find in the re­gion.

Sluice min­ing, which in­volves pan­ning rocks us­ing mer­cury, was banned in nearby Min­danao a few years ago by the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment due to its de­struc­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects, but the small-scale dig­gers in Pinut-an con­tinue with their liveli­hood re­gard­less. Gold min­ing (even small-scale) is il­le­gal in the re­gion, but since it has been prac­tised for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions, bu­reau­crats strug­gle to push through the idea of ‘per­mit-only’ busi­nesses. En­forc­ing the ban would in­volve ar­rest­ing 300 peo­ple from three dif­fer­ent barangays (sub-vil­lages), who need the work.

Of­fi­cials from the De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­ment and Nat­u­ral Re­sources re­cently came to Pinut-an to in­ves­ti­gate and told the vil­lagers that their min­ing oper­a­tions were en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing, rais­ing con­cerns about its im­pact on corals. They were half a cen­tury too late – the corals dis­ap­peared dur­ing the gold rush some 50 years ago. ‘It looks like a desert down there,’ says Ernie.

The Philip­pines is thought to hold the largest cop­per and gold de­posits in the world and is the fifth most min­eral-rich coun­try for gold, nickel, cop­per and chromite, but min­ing is poorly reg­u­lated. The coun­try re­port­edly pro­duced 18 tonnes of gold at a mar­ket value of more than US$700m in 2014. Some 80 per cent of this came from ar­ti­sanal and small-scale mines that op­er­ate with­out a gov­ern­ment li­cense.


It takes Se­ber four days to shovel his sand into the bags us­ing his co­conut shell, and an­other day to

move the whole load to the beach. This will likely amount to 9,000 PHP (£140), just enough to feed his fam­ily of four and get the chil­dren to school. While the gold-div­ing ven­ture is dom­i­nated by men, their wives and off­spring also par­tic­i­pate, mainly work­ing on the amal­ga­ma­tion process, pan­ning or sluic­ing the quartz-bear­ing peb­bles.

Like most of his col­leagues, Se­ber sells his trea­sure to a fi­nancier in the vil­lage, or if it’s worth the trip, he takes it over to a gold buyer on Min­danao. The melted­down gold will be sold for re­fin­ing in ma­jor Philip­pine cities such as Tagum or Davao, from where it fi­nally finds its way to pri­vate clients in the form of jew­ellery or tiny gold bars.

Small-scale min­ing has in­dis­putably be­come a de­cent source of in­come for poverty-stricken fam­i­lies who live in an over­pop­u­lated coun­try where a tenth of cit­i­zens work overseas for bet­ter pay. Nev­er­the­less, many par­ents still strive for a less gru­elling fu­ture for their chil­dren by pro­vid­ing a de­cent education, which might lead to a job that doesn’t merely pay for bare ne­ces­si­ties and could even fund the re­tire­ment of their par­ents. Sadly, how­ever, not ev­ery­one on Pinut-an’s shores is for­tu­nate enough to have some­one to look af­ter them. Many young Filipinos from bro­ken fam­i­lies, or who have dropped out of school at an early stage, still take to min­ing. In Pinut-an, they have no choice but to dive for gold to se­cure their own sur­vival.

Divers breathe un­der­wa­ter through a thin tube

Gold min­ers pre­pare to dive. They will only come back when they’re fa­tigued or the cur­rents be­come too strong

Se­ber and his wife, Rose. He hopes that his Je­sus tat­too will pro­tect him un­der­wa­ter

Sand bags are car­ried to the sur­face us­ing drums filled with air

The en­trance to Se­ber’s tun­nel, where he worked for years un­til he could no longer find any high-grade ore

Harry, 50, has worked for 20 years us­ing the ‘di­rect tech­nique’ in which rocks are poured over the sluice box

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