CASALUGAN, Philippines – Noel Austria tugs on a rope, signaling to his companion to pull him up from where he is hanging from almost 60 feet down a mining shaft in Casalugan, eastern Philippines.
“There is poison, we need to use the blower,” he said after reaching the top of the shaft, breathing heavily amid the fumes that are naturally released at depths of more than 50 feet below the earth.
Austria has been mining for 15 years and has survived two accidents, including one where he was trapped underground for three hours after the walls inside a mine tunnel collapsed.
Elsewhere in Casalugan, Domingo Chavez smokes a cigarette after emerging from the water at a compression mining site along a rice field, an epa journalist reported.
“It is very cold and dark under the water, the cigarette warms our bodies,” he said. “I have four children. I need this job to feed them.”
After 10 minutes, Chavez puts on his goggles and inserts into his mouth a small tube connected to a compressor and goes back underwater again.
A gas-powered generator keeps the compressor running, which provides air for miners like Chavez to breath underwater.
As these miners don’t use lights when they go under the water, this work is literally a grope in the dark for rocks that could contain gold, which they break off and send back up.
Chavez told epa that he usually finds some gold during his 45-minute to three hour-shifts that last all day.
Despite the dangers of compression mining, it is cheaper than other methods because it doesn’t require electricity, only gas for the generator.
On a slow day, he might find only 300 pesos ($6) worth of gold, and on better ones as much as 1,500 pesos ($29.60).
Austria and Chavez work in different mining towns in Paracale in Camarines Norte, an eastern province known for its abundance of gold.
The two men, together with 300,000 other miners (including over 18,000 women and children) in the Philippines, rely on the artisanal and small scale gold mining (ASGM) industry as their main source of income. ASGM takes place in more than half of the provinces in the Philippines, producing 80 percent of its gold supply.
Most of the miners work at unregulated and illegal mining sites that rely heavily on mercury to extract gold. Miners work without proper protective gear and handle this toxic liquid metal with their bare hands, which can cause serious damage to their health, the community and the environment.
Some miners purchase bottles of mercury from vendors who reportedly sell it cheaply.
Mercury is used to attract and bind gold, usually mixed by hand in a pan to form a clay-like amalgam, which is squeezed to let out the excess liquid.
The amalgam is then heated using a blowtorch to burn off the mercury, leaving behind the gold, but also releasing poisonous mercury vapor into the air.
Mercury attacks the central nervous system causing headaches, brain damage and, in some cases, death.
In October 2013, the Philippines signed the Minamata Convention but has yet to ratify the agreement that addresses human activities to reduce mercury pollution.
The United Nations and independent non-governmental environmental organization BAN Toxics are working to reform the ASGM sector in the Philippines and around the world under the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Global Opportunities for Long-term Development (GOLD) Program.
The program focuses on mercury-free technologies, improving livelihoods by connecting miners directly to markets, and allowing miners to work safely and legally by introducing ASGM-friendly policy and permit systems.