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.
THE GOLD RUSH
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.
ILLEGAL BUT NECESSARY
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.
DIVING TO SURVIVE
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