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8 Pinatubo
28 Years Later


38 Marcopper
from three


The Philippines is
no stranger to disasters.
Located just above the equator in the Countless environmental disasters in the flooding in Ormoc in November 1991 and
Pacific region where warm ocean waters country have caused death, destruction and the March1996 mining spill in Marinduque
fuel storms, the country gets an average displacement. They have wiped out villages, province, a man-made disaster whose
of 20 storms a year, a handful of them altered landscapes and deprived communities effects have remained in the ecosystem and
powerful enough to cause devastation. of livelihoods. Long afterwards, the affected in the veins of its residents till this day.
Sitting on the Ring of Fire, where most communities continued to experience untold
of the active volcanoes are located, and misery, uncertainty, health problems and Stories written by journalists based on visits
where earthquakes occur because of the economic losses. to these places were first published on the
regular movement of tectonic plates, the VERA Files website and are now compiled
Philippines gets its share of quakes, tremors Journalists know this only too well. Many in this book.
and volcanic eruptions. have covered one disaster after another in
a span of months, sometimes even weeks. This e-book documents the stories of
While earthquakes, volcanic eruptions These disasters are front-page stories or people who survived the wrath of nature:
and typhoons that spawn flooding and top items in television news programs men and women who fled flooded
landslides are natural events, their impacts when they happen and days immediately villages in the nick of time; families that
on the Philippines are severe, authorities say, after. But slowly they become secondary lost homes, livelihoods and a part of
because they strike places where the poor news until they disappear from the news their past, people who continue to suffer
segments of the population live – in coastal altogether. from various ailments caused by a toxic
communities, hillsides, unsafe or unstable environment.
settlements in urban areas. More often than not, these disasters fade
from the public’s memory, along with the Some survivors of the Ormoc tragedy, for
lessons people ought to learn from them. instance, are still haunted by memories of
VERA Files, under a project with Internews, that fateful day when a rampaging mix of
sought to revisit three “cold” environmental mud, debris and logs swept their houses,
cases to see what changes have occurred kin and neighbors to the Ormoc Sea, wrote
over the years in places that took a hit from Cooper Resabal, who visited the place
the disasters. These are the eruption of where about 6,000 people lost their lives
Mount Pinatubo in June 1991, the massive almost 28 years ago.

“By looking into these ‘cold’ environment cases, VERA Files hopes to rekindle public
interest in these issues and highlight lessons that would be useful in crafting laws and
policies that could prevent a repeat of these disasters.”

Days after the disaster, dump trucks were enabled residents to evacuate to safer
collecting bodies of flood victims, taking places, preventing heavy casualties.
them direct to a common gravesite. A few But while residents were forewarned, they
corpses could be seen by the roadside. did not know what to expect. One resident
thought he could watch the eruption from
The Nov. 5, 1991 flash flood came after afar and take photos from a safe distance.
three days of heavy rainfall from a typhoon, But that was not how it played out.
aggravated by the deforestation of a
watershed. The presence of informal settlers When Pinatubo erupted, it spewed out 7 to
along the riverbanks and the Ormoc Bay 10 cubic kilometers of hot ash, rocks and
contributed to the heavy death toll. pyroclastic flows, blanketing its slopes,
burying farmlands and houses. The black
Measures have since been taken by ash clouds turned day into night, reaching
authorities to prevent a similar disaster from areas as far away as Manila.
happening. These include maintaining the
technical mitigating structures on the rivers, The Aeta that lived on its slopes lost their
restoring the watershed ecosystem, and entire world that day and for many years
preparing communities to face disasters. were forced to live in settlements alien to
their culture.
Villagers have also become more aware
of the ill effects of deforestation. Ormoc “We thought the morning after the
City now also has a Local Climate Change eruption it was all over. Then we realized
Action Plan. it was only just the beginning because
of the lahars that came every year,” a
Mount Pinatubo ejected ash for weeks resident and local historian told Johnna
before it blew its top on June 15, 1991 in Villaviray Giolagon, who spent a few days
what is now recorded as one of the biggest in Pampanga and Zambales interviewing
volcanic eruptions this century. survivors and officials.

Steam explosions and small earthquakes “Lahar” is an Indonesian term that

that occurred prior to the major eruption describes a mixture of water and rock
alerted people living around the volcano fragments that flows down the slopes of a
that had awakened from more than five volcano when it rains. In no time, it became
centuries of slumber. Timely forecasts a household term as residents would be

faced with lahar flows whenever typhoons continue to breathe in contaminated air,
pounded Pampanga and Zambales and and there is no certainty as to how the
rainwater loosened and carried the situation can be reversed. Heavy metal runs
deposits into rivers, sometimes reaching through the veins of its residents – adults
populated areas. and children alike – 23 years after the
Volcanologists warn that the danger from
lahar still exists, especially in cases of While Marinduque has imposed a 50-year
extreme rainfall. moratorium on large- and small-scale
mining in the province as a result of the
Meanwhile, something surreal is happening disaster, the contaminated environment
in parts of Marinduque that have been has not been rehabilitated and poses
poisoned by a toxic mine spillage. a serious threat to people and the
From a hill, two mine tailing ponds looked
like serene lakes surrounded by lush trees, The cases of Mount Pinatubo, Ormoc and
but Nikko Dizon, who made a trip to the the Marcopper mine spill constitute a very
province, was cautioned that the bluish small percentage of the disasters that have
green water is highly toxic. struck the Philippines through the years,
exacting a heavy toll on people and the
On March 24, 1996, a badly-sealed environment.
drainage tunnel in Marcopper Mining
Corporation’s Taipan pit burst, spilling 1.6 By looking into these “cold” environment
million cubic meters of toxic mine tailings cases, VERA Files hopes to rekindle public
into the Boac River and killed marine life. interest in these issues and highlight lessons
Three years earlier, another siltation dam that would be useful in crafting laws and
of the company gave way, flooding Mogpog policies that could prevent a repeat of these
town with mine waste. disasters.

Both Boac and Mogpog rivers are As a stern warning engraved on a slab of
considered biologically dead. granite built to memorialize lives lost in the
Ormoc tragedy says, “For when nature is
The environment is not the only casualty, disturbed, it strikes back in fury and spares
though. People living in those parts no one.” – Chi Liquicia

28 years

Eruption, The San Guillermo Parish Church,
originally built in 1576, stands just off the

Lahar, and
main highway linking Bacolor town to the
rest of Pampanga province.

Rebuilt in 1886, the structure is now
literally half of its previous glory. The
church’s bottom half is buried under six
By Johnna Villaviray Giolagon meters of lahar that swallowed the town
and most of the province. It still serves the
Whenever the townsfolk town’s faithful who access the building
of Bacolor go to the San through what used to be second windows
Guillermo Parish Church, converted into doorways.

they enter the worship place “All of Bacolor is buried under lahar
through the upper windows, especially the downtown area where the
as what they have been church is,” says Renato Solidum, chief of
the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and
doing the past 28 years
since Mt. Pinatubo erupted
and altered their lives in Solidum was already serving the agency
ways they never imagined. when Mount Pinatubo woke up from its
500-year slumber in 1991 following a 7.7
magnitude earthquake that shook northern
parts of the country a year earlier.

On June 15, 1991, the afternoon sky turned

pitch black as ash, rock and other volcanic
material were ejected into the sky.

On the same day, Typhoon Diding

(international name: Nunya) crossed 75
kilometers northeast of Pinatubo. While
considered by meteorologists as a minimal
typhoon, Diding nonetheless dispersed
volcanic ash all over Luzon and as far as the
middle of the Pacific Ocean and mainland
Southeast Asia.

After Pinatubo heaved its final explosion,

survivors of its wrath emerged from their
homes and sanctuaries to a world coated
by or buried deep under meters of gray
volcanic ash.
June 1991 after Mt. Pinatubo eruption.

File photo from Philvolcs.

The eruption of the then little-known
volcano destroyed or damaged houses,
farmlands and infrastructure and claimed
the lives of dozens of people and displaced
hundreds of thousands of families. It
was one of the world’s largest volcanic
eruptions in the past century, geologists say.

Mt Pinatubo eruption in June 1991.

File photo from Phivolcs. Jolts and ash fall pictures from a safe distance,” recalled
“We thought the morning after the eruption Tantingco, who was then 31 years old.
it was all over. Then we realized it was only
just the beginning because of the lahars that He was wrong.
came every year,” said local historian Robert
Tantingco, director of Kapampangan Tantingco was at the family home in
Studies in Holy Angel University. Mabalacat town when the sky turned dark
around noontime on June 15, 1991. Pinatubo
When Pinatubo erupted, it spewed out 7 to had finally erupted, ejecting a column of ash
10 cubic kilometers of ash that blanketed and other materials up to 34 kilometers into
areas as far away as Manila in a coat of fine, the air.
gray ash.
“I was bewildered by it,” he recalled. “I could
Much of that was dumped on the slopes of hear the mudflow in the brook near our
the volcano. Pyroclastic flows easily overran house. It was not the usual splashing water; it
the slopes of Pinatubo, engulfing gullies as was something heavy, something sinister.”
deep as 200 meters.
The darkness went on and on even as
The Aeta that lived on the slopes lost their Typhoon Diding pummeled the roof with
entire world. The mountain and centuries- rain and then, later on, with rocks and other
old forests they knew were wiped out and volcanic debris.
replaced by a barren and unfriendly place.
Earthquakes shook the ground every few
The U.S. Clark Air Base located several minutes, exponentially adding to the anxiety
kilometers from Pinatubo was abandoned of those in the vicinity.
after it was buried in volcanic ash. The “We were huddled together like frightened
American military eventually closed the animals, crying…Of all the things that
installation. frightened us that night, it was the
earthquakes,” Tantingco said.
While residents were forewarned of the
eruption, nobody knew what to expect. “It was continuous. They were hard jolts. I
“What I imagined was Mount Mayon. We realized (later) it was because of the falling
will watch it from afar. We would watch rocks, collapsing rocks from the crater, the
a trickle of glowing lavas and we will take rim of the volcano.”

Like in a twilight zone general feeling that you’re in the Twilight
There was a frantic flow of vehicle and Zone.”
pedestrian traffic away from the area that
night. “The next day, the sun came out and
the ground stopped shaking. I waited
People were fleeing because of fears of a patiently for daybreak. And when it finally
nuclear explosion from the nearby Clark came, everything was grey, everything was
Air Base. There were also unfounded destroyed,” the historian narrated.
rumors in the radio that “Pinatubo was He stepped out of the front door to an
spewing so much material that it was empty neighborhood heavily dusted with
emptying the underground, that whole volcanic ash. Not long afterward, a friend
province would collapse.” Another version “Then the orange, red, came over; they only had hugs of relief for
of the story was that “there was a fissure or green flashes of lighting each other.
a crack on the slope of the mountain that
crossing the sky, then the
will cause a slide, a massive landslide that “It had been a traumatic night and the only
will bury the province.” earthquakes, Tantingco response was to cry. It was the first time
continued. The general that I cried.”
“I honestly felt I was going to die,” feeling that you’re in the
Tantingco said. Tantingco stayed in the family home by
Twilight Zone.” himself after his family evacuated to Baguio
“And then sometime during the night, City, about 155 kilometers away, shortly
things just started getting weird because after the eruption. Eventually his father
the sound was already muffled. You can’t came home, and then his mother. After a
hear anything,” he said. “The ash fall while, even the little ones came home.
was so thick the soundwaves could not
penetrate the wall of ash fall. Everything Life was never the same after that fateful
was quiet. You could not hear the rocks fall day. Despite that, the Tantingcos stayed,
on the roof because there’s a layer of ash.” along with most Kapampangans.
They all adapted to life after a night of
“Then the orange, red, green flashes what seemed like the Apocalypse every
of lighting crossing the sky, then the time the lahars charged down to the
earthquakes, Tantingco continued. “The lowlands whenever it rained.

A viewing deck was

built on the edge of Mt
Pinatubo’s caldera to
provide tourists a better
view of Crater Lake,
built when the volcano’s
summit collapsed in on
itself during the eruption
and eventually filled
with water. It is now
becoming a popular
attraction for local and
international tourists.

Photo by Terence

Landscape changed by lahar The lahars follow the path of the river
Lahar is a rampaging slurry of thick debris systems. The provinces of Tarlac and
– pyroclastic material and ash – and water Zambales were relatively lucky compared to
washed down by the rain from the slopes Pampanga, where the rivers were circuitous
of Pinatubo. The lahar is then delivered to and wound around population centers.
lowland towns and cities through rivers
originating from the volcano – the Tarlac, “(Lahars) go towards the sea. And the path
Sacobia-Bamban, Abacan, and the Pasig towards the sea – which is Manila Bay for
Phivolcs chief Renato Solidum.
Potrero Rivers. Pampanga – is circuitous,” Tantingco said.
“Here in Pampanga, rivulets and rivers
Lahar flows buried half of the San and canals were located in the middle of
Guillermo Parish Church as well as the communities - towns, villages, and cities
Bamban Bridge in the North Luzon – before emptying into Manila Bay. All of
Express. that were buried.”

“Immediately after the eruption, you can And among Pampanga towns and cities,
see the smoother slopes of the volcano Bacolor was worst hit. Nineteen out of its
because river valleys were covered,” 21 towns were buried under lahar. In some
Solidum, the country’s chief volcanologist, areas, only roofs could be seen where a
said. barangay once stood.

“In satellite images you can actually see the Bacolor’s original name was Bakulud, a
difference. Before the eruption you can see Kapampangan word meaning high ground.
rough surfaces in the slopes of the volcano As it turns out, Bacolor is elevated ground
and then after, you see smooth because of precisely because pyroclastic materials
these thick deposits.” from Pinatubo is routinely dumped over the
area, piling up over the years.
Unfortunately, the lahars didn’t stay on the
slopes. In the years following the eruption, Regular lahar attacks from Mt. Pinatubo
seasonal monsoon rains eroded lahar stopped only in 1995. By this time, Bacolor
deposits and carried them down to the low had reclaimed its previous status as
lands – Pampanga, Tarlac and Zambales. elevated land.

Ash from Pinatubo now

forms the wall of the
gorge where the Tarlac
River. This demonstrates
how much volcanic
material remains on the
slopes of the volcano,
which continues to pose
a possible threat to low-
lying areas.

Photo by Terence

Lakes are formed, rivers diverted Tributaries are normally shallower than
Another phenomenon brought about the main river. With the Mapanuepe
by lahar flows is the damming of River heavily silted with lahar, it became
river systems. The mouths of rivulets shallower.
are essentially plugged, cutting off
the tributaries from the main river, Eventually the exit to the Marella River
flooding the adjacent area, and basically got plugged, drowning the adjacent
creating a lake because of the absence of communities. Today, the sole reminder of
drainage. the former barangay is the church steeple
jutting out of the middle of the lake.
The most spectacular of these lakes is the
Mount Pinatubo crater lake in Botolan But while areas like Bacolor and the
town, now a major tourist draw in Mapanuepe Valley were practically erased
Zambales. off the face of the planet, other areas were
relatively spared from rampaging lahars.
It was formed after the eruption That’s because lahar flows sometimes
destroyed the volcano’s original summit, dam certain rivers thus diverting lahars
leaving a caldera that eventually filled to other areas.
with water. It is as deep as 600 meters in
some points. “They cannibalized each other during the
Mount Pinatubo eruption. The alteration
These lakes are as much as worry for of the slopes was so extreme the rivers
scientists as rampaging lahars. were diverted one day then they were
back the next day,” Tantingco, the local
A fact sheet on Pinatubo issued by the historian, said.
U.S. Geological Services says: “After a
few weeks or months, the lakes overtop For instance, in 1992, secondary
and quickly erode through their dams, eruptions eroded the partition between
releasing large volumes of water that the Sacobia and Abacan rivers,
generate major lahars. Because these large diverting all the lahars to the Sacobia
and powerful mudflows can occur without River.
warning, even when there is no rain,
they are among the most dangerous of “People in the low lands don’t know when
Pinatubo’s lahars.” the lahars are going to come. One day
the lahars are flowing in Sacobia the next
“One lake on the Pasig-Potrero River, on day they are flowing in Abacan because
the volcano’s east flank, has formed and they keep cannibalizing each other,”
broken out three times (1991, 1992 and Tantingco explained.
1994), creating giant lahars that have
killed dozens of people,” it said. Longitudinal profile of the Sacobia-
Bamban River, starting at 350 meters in
Mapanuepe Lake in San Marcelino town is elevation, 12 kilometers from the summit
another one of these lakes. of Mount Pinatubo, and extending down
to less than 50 meters in elevation.
“This was an actual event happening in Pre-eruption profile is shown by the
front of my eyes,” Solidum recalled. lower solid line; 1991 lahar deposit by
the dashed line; 1992 lahar deposit by
“When the lahar was making the corner or the upper solid line. Note that vertical
the intersection of the Marella river with exaggeration is 5 times and that only
the Mapanuepe river becoming shallower, the lower, gently-sloping reaches of the
you would see the water going upstream.” Sacobia are shown.

The stillness of Mapanuepe Lake belies the tragedy that it
is borne out of. The lake was created when lahars blocked
the mouth of the Mapanuepe River, flooding the valley and
its settlements.

Photo by Terence Gonzalves.

A newbie hiker’s guide
to Mount Pinatubo
By Johnna Villaviray Giolagon

Hikers will be adequately challenged by

the terrain - which shifts from sand to
pebbles to unstable rocks - even if the
incline is barely noticeable.

Photo by Terence Gonzalves.

Mount Pinatubo exploded in a • A registered organizer will give a take. Some make it in an hour and a
spectacular display in 1991 and briefing as early as 6 a.m. to explain half. Some take as long as three hours
buried everything around it in ash how and why they strictly follow to get to the top – “senior citizen
and other volcanic debris. She heaved procedure. They will also explain the pace,” as a guide would say in jest.
everything out with such force that fees collected, where it goes, why • A hut marks the 4-kilometer distance
the peak collapsed into itself, plugging it is collected. Hikers over 40 years from the peak. The next rest stop
the crater and creating a caldera that old have to get their blood pressure marks the last kilometer and offers
eventually filled with water. checked. A trained medical volunteer two toilets.
will be sent to accompany your trek – • The last kilometer up to the peak is
Immediately after the eruption and some at an added cost – in case there are by far the most difficult you have to
years later, thousands fled her wrath. doubts about your fitness and health. maneuver. You basically trace where
These days, however, she is attracting • There is an 8 a.m. cut-off for tours. the water originates so the trail is wet
a steady stream of hikers up her slopes. No group leaves past this time. and slippery. Be extra careful.
They pay homage to Crater Lake, a pool • Sturdy sandals and socks are • The view deck is a small park where
of what looks like liquid jade that is 600 recommended. You will be crossing you can rest and comfortably soak in
meters at its deepest. streams so expect your feet to get the majestic view. From here, there
wet. On the other hand, closed is stone staircase leading down the
Getting to the view deck is an adventure footwear will provide protection other side of the slope to Crater Lake,
in itself. should you accidentally stub your toes about 160 steps below. It can take as
on the many, many rocks on the trail. long as 10 minutes going down and
Mount Pinatubo is at the tri-boundary of • There won’t be any trees to provide twice that long coming back up.
the provinces of Zambales, Pampanga, protection from the elements. Put on • Swimming is not allowed in Crater
and Tarlac but the most tourist-friendly sun block and a hat, wear comfortable Lake. A drunk tourist drowned there
point is from Capas town in Tarlac clothes, and plan for hot and rainy years ago and authorities do not want
through the military reservation where weather. Bring drinks and snacks that a repeat of the tragedy. You can touch
the army’s Camp O’Donnell is located. will give you a quick energy boost but the water though.
nothing so heavy. • Everyone – tourists and even the park
There are numerous tour organizers you • A maximum of five tourists will be staff – are allowed to stay there only
can contact and various hotels or hostels accommodated in a 4x4 jeep that until 12 noon. After that, everyone
to choose from. You can even try to go will take you from base camp to goes down. You risk getting stranded
solo and organize his or her own trek. the farthest point possible. The trail if you stay too late and caught by the
Whichever way, here’s what to expect for changes by the day and, in some afternoon showers.
the day: cases, by the hour, depending on • It rains suddenly and without warning
weather conditions. high in the mountain. The sudden
• The peak of Mount Pinatubo is 24 showers can cause the mountainside
kilometers from base camp at the streams to swell and become too
barangay. The jeep can take you as dangerous to cross. You don’t want to
close as 3 kilometers on really good get stranded there when it rains.
days in summer or as far as six • Do what your guide says. He’s been
kilometers when the weather isn’t as doing this for a long time so listen to
dry. his advice. He knows what he’s saying
• You will be trekking along the riverbed and doing.
of the Tarlac River. You will be • Enjoy the experience.
walking over sand, gravel, stones and
boulders. The slope has a very easy
incline that you will barely notice it.
• If on level ground you can cover 6
kilometers in just over an hour of
brisk walking, expect to go slower in
Pinatubo because of the terrain.
• The more stops you make to rest and
take photos, the longer the trek will

The trek to Pinatubo is more or less
a 6-kilometer hike across the rocky
riverbed of the Tarlac River. Photo by
Terence Gonzalves.

How the people living in the vicinity of
Mount Pinatubo, including the Aetas,
coped with Mount Pinatubo’s anger 28
years ago.

Phivolcs file photo.

Movement of people It took many, many years before

All this flooding is because the rivers were vegetation returned to Pinatubo but it
heavily silted with lahars initially dumped took the mountain’s original Aeta dwellers
on the slopes of the volcano and then decades to come home.
eroded downstream by the rains.
There are the Aeta, for instance, already
“The land became higher so that there granted titles to ancestral domain and
are areas that get flooded when it didn’t who have reestablished a community
get flooded before the eruption. There are up the mountain but continue to live in
areas where the floods take weeks before lowland resettlement communities.
they go down,” explained Art Daag, head
of Phivolcs’ geology office. This circumstance is not unique to upland
The local governments of Pampanga have
since reconstructed land titles for private “Now you will find resettlement areas in
land especially in population centers. Mabalacat, a whole town that was not
Some were able to rebuild over the there before. But there are communities
property they lost and pick up almost of thousands. They never went back,”
where they left off. Others – sometimes Tantingco said.
whole communities – had to relocate to
settlements designated by government. “During elections, for example, the
mayor running in Bacolor has to go there
Following the eruption and the lahars, (Mabalacat).
the government undertook hazard
mapping to determine which areas are Geographically, they are in Mabalacat
safe for habitation. Some of the original but…you will find yourself already in a
settlements now fall within danger zones. place populated by non-Mabalacat voters.”

He continued, “They brought with them their

own culture, their own community life.”

Aeta elders (L) Merly Bautista, 63, and
Merly Bautista, 60, reminisce the days
when they were little girls growing up in
the foothills of Mount Pinatubo.

Photo by Terence Gonzalves.

Aeta leader Rouvilane Margarito had to make sure no part of her being is left
grown up under the shadow of Mount behind.

the Aeta
“My grandmother used to slaughter a
As a young girl, she and her family lived (pig or cow) monthly and then share
near the U.S. Clark Air Base in Pampanga it with the village,” she said during a

where she led a life like any modern short conversation in the middle of an
girl her age. But during weekends and exposition showcasing traditional Aeta
holidays, her father would take her up to products.

his parents’ village in the mountains and
deliver her to his mother to be taught the “That’s how they were. They shared with
old ways. the community freely.”

By Johnna Villaviray Giolagon “Grandmother made sure we knew the Merly Bautista, 63 years old, recalled
old way of doing things, the old beliefs, that those who lived inside the former
how to cook food the way our people did U.S. military base (now Philippine Air
it,” recalled Margarito of those visits to Force base) did not want for work.
her grandmother who still lives in the old
community. “You just show up and, if you are kulot,
you get a job even if you don’t have an
While in the old Aeta village, Margarito education,” she said, referring to the
experienced to have her head traced Aeta’s curly hair that distinguished them
by the blunt side of a machete as a from other lowlanders.
protection from lightning during storms.
When she gets up from the banana leaf The lowlanders were referred to as unat,
where she’s been napping, grandmother referring to their straight hair, she said.
shakes her awake to be certain her In the past, being kulot automatically
soul does not stay asleep. And when gave them special treatment in the base.
Margarito goes back to her home in the But then Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991,
lowlands, grandmother makes sure to call forcing the Aetas of Mabalacat, Porac in
out her name while sending the girl home Pampanga, and in Zambales, and Tarlac

provinces to evacuate their mountainside As then chieftain, he would be fetched
villages. And, with the lahar or mudflow from his home and brought to Clark on a
continuing to devour lands years after helicopter so he could give jungle survival
the volcano went back to sleep, they training to American soldiers. Laxamana
remained displaced. is also a decorated World War 2 hero.

(The U.S. government closed Clark Air As the indigenous people’s representative
Base after it was buried in volcanic ash to the provincial government, Margarito is
An Aeta girl tends to her
from Mount Pinatubo’s eruption). spearheading a movement to remind the store in the Aeta Village,
a bazaar of Aeta products
younger generations of Aetas about their inside Subic. The bazaar is
A whole generation of Aetas were born rich and proud culture. part of the local government’s
efforts to promote the Aeta
and forced to grow up in evacuation culture.

centers in the lowlands. They were In 2017, they started a month-long Photo by Terence Gonzalves.
exposed to none of the benevolence of festival showcasing the Aeta culture –
Mount Pinatubo’s fertile lands. They and traditional fashion, dances, and even
their families knew only of squalid living games.
conditions, hunger, and uncertainty.
“Did you know we have our own version
Some of them had to resort to begging. of basketball? But instead of the hoop
being just there, the hoop is a basket
In droves, Aeta families would shuttle carried by one of the players and you try
to urban centers – Metro Manila in to shoot,” Margarito said.
particular – during the Christmas
holidays to beg for alms. This has given She said that in reviving the culture, she
lowland communities unfamiliar with the hopes that the younger generations of
Aeta culture the impression that begging Aetas, even if they get their hair rebonded
is all that Aetas know. as is widely popular, will remain kulot in
their hearts.
“But not all Aetas are beggars,” said
Rufina Sanchez, another community elder
and one of the original settlers in the
foothills of Mount Pinatubo. “Me, I would
never beg. At my age, I work for what
I have. I would never beg especially for
food,” she emphasized.
Aetas have been allowed
to return to and live on the
“Those beggars are from another tribe. slopes of Pinatubo.
Not ours,” she continued. “We’ve always Photo by Terence Gonsalves.
been in the business of selling souvenirs
or working at the US base.”

Theirs was a proud Aeta race wherein

tributes – what lowlanders wrongly
interpret as payment – are expected for
the performance of traditional songs and
dances or even just for the privilege of
having their photograph taken.

In fact, Margarito’s grandfather Kudiaro

Laxamana was held in such high esteem
by the Americans that they built a
monument for him inside the base.

Threat lessened The rich supply of sand from Pinatubo’s
but danger lurks slopes could last at least another 30 years,
Pinatubo has gone back asleep since then. said Art Punsalan, chief of Pampanga’s
environment office.
In 1995, a 56-kilometer U-shaped mega
dike costing P2.7 billion was built as a He acknowledged that the riverbeds are
catch basin for the Pasig-Potrero River, not as silted as before, and they need
which has become the main avenue for the heavy rains to wash down these deposits
lahars. downstream.

The mega dike, however, claimed more This is not the case outside Pampanga,
victims when a section of the dike however.
collapsed, drowning three towns and
resulting in a loss of P38.9 million for the “In Zambales, you still have a lot of rivers
government. in the upper portion filled up with ash or
lahar,” Solidum noted. “So there is still
The last bad lahar flow was in 1998 but potential for lahar occurrences if in case
overall, residual threats from the last there is extreme rainfall in the Pinatubo
eruption are low. area.”

But neither Pinatubo nor her immediate “The threat has been lessened, but it’s still
environs had gone back to their state pre- there.”

“The landscape that we Kapampangans

were familiar with for the last 300 years of
our existence was disturbed and changed
forever. Only to realize that this has been
a cycle throughout the eons and years of
history and prehistory,” explained Holy
Angel University’s Tantingco.

Studies undertaken immediately prior

to the eruption showed that Pinatubo,
in previous eruptions, dumped enough
pyroclastic material to completely change
the face of the land.

Remnants of prehistoric eruptions are

evident in what is known as Porac sand
- fine sand popular in the construction
industry and found abundantly and
quarried openly along Pampanga’s
A truck hauls so-called Pinatubo sand from the riverbed
of the Sto. Tomas River in Bataan. Pinatubo sand is very
Quarry operations contribute as much popular in the construction industry because of its fine
as P40 million daily to the province’s
Photo by Terence Gonzalves
earnings and employing thousands of


Rising but
– Ormoc
28 years
after the
deadly flood
By Cooper Resabal

ORMOC CITY- At dusk, children of varied ages play on a

promenade-like embankment for flood control along Anilao
River, oblivious to the tragedy that befell residents here
some 28 years ago.

There is a reminder though of what happened on Nov. 5,

1991 that claimed more than 6,000 lives. At the Ormoc City
public cemetery where some 4,900 victims of the flash
flood were buried in a mass grave, there’s a monument
depicting a soul lifting its hands to an angelic figure whose
wings are shaped like trees.

An angel statue stands at the

mass burial site of the victims
of the 1991 flash flood.

Photo by Liza Macalandag

On a stone wall, words in gold on black Department of Environment and Natural
granite say, “In loving memory…of our Resources revealed the intense rainfall
brothers and sisters who perished during impounded water upland. With the soil’s
the November 5, 1991 flash flood, whose capacity to hold rainfall breached, water
lives have been lost by the dreadful wrath rushed down, gathering debris and logs
of nature; a painful event, but a crucial along its path to Anilao and Malbasag
reminder of our obligations in the care of the rivers.
environment. For when nature is disturbed,
it strikes back in fury and spares no one.” Ciriaco Solibao III, head of the city’s
Disaster Risk Reduction Management
Some survivors are still haunted by images Office, also said the physical features of
of that fateful day when a rampaging Ormoc renders the place vulnerable to
mix of mud, debris and logs swept their flooding.
houses, kin and neighbors to the Ormoc
sea. The deluge came after three days of The Ormoc Ecological Profile 2015 says
heavy rainfall brought by typhoon Uring that “the city core is approximately 5 to 8
(international name: Thelma), which meters above sea level and 855 m below
caused massive flooding and landslides in the peak of the watershed of the two major
the Eastern Visayas region. river systems, Anilao and Malbasag, that
drain into the city center.” It is “like a
Robert Colo, a 35-year-old tricycle funnel where these two rivers converge,”
driver who was seven years old then, directly affecting six barangays.
remembered the water reached up to his
neck, and the current was so strong he had “The risks and hazards due to flash floods
to be carried on someone else’s shoulders. are further aggravated by the degradation
of the watershed area, and the presence of
When the floodwaters subsided, Colo settlements along the Anilao and Malbasag
saw bodies strewn in front of the church Rivers and the Ormoc Bay, which serve
and the current site of the plaza. He said as the final discharge area of these two Children playing beside Anilao
River, unaware of the tragedy
prisoners temporarily released to help in rivers,” the ecological profile said. in that very same place 28
years ago.
the disaster threw bodies from the side of
the road to the trucks, to be brought to a These days, however, those traumatic Photo by Liza Macalandag

mass grave. memories have somehow receded to the

background. There’s a pervading sense
The little pathways in the villages were of confidence that the effective flood
filled with muddy water and people tied mitigating measures instituted by the
themselves to ropes attached to posts city government will ensure that the city,
so they would not be swept away by the bustling with life and commerce, would
current. Because their house was on higher not see a disaster of such magnitude again.
ground, near the high school site, Colo’s
family survived. Those on or beside the Now a first class, independent component
river in Isla Verde village were “wiped city not subject to regulation by the
out, many swept to the sea unrecovered.” Leyte provincial government, Ormoc has
been recognized for “catalyzing global
Officials attributed the heavy death toll solutions to the climate crisis by making
to a combination of factors including the urgent action a necessity across every
unusually heavy rain and the presence of level of society.” It has a Local Climate
informal settlers along the riverbanks. Change Action Plan (LCCAP 2016-2025)
formulated through the United States
City Planning and Development Office Agency for International Development
head Raoul E. Cam said studies by the (USAID) technical assistance.

Ormoc City Mayor Richard Gomez overtaken the P3 billion total assets of the
recently received the Allen S. Quimpo region’s administrative center Tacloban.
Climate Leadership for Governance The city now hosts two malls which
Memorial Award—“for advancing climate opened in 2018—Robinson’s Place Ormoc
action and promoting renewable energy.” and SM Center Ormoc.
He also committed not to establish coal-
powered plants in the area. The city gripped by disaster in 1991 has
apparently bounced back. Its vision,
Moreover, the city implements according to the city’s Comprehensive
environmental policies like “No Plastic Development Plan (2017-2023), is to
Day” on Wednesdays and an ordinance be the “agro-commercial and industrial
requiring rainwater harvesting facilities gateway in Eastern Visayas, and the
in new buildings. The city also co-hosts renewable energy capital of the Philippines
the world’s second largest geothermal with a growth inclusive economy,
steam field. in a disaster resilient environment,
administered by an accountable local
To top it all, Ormoc City has been government.”
considered “richest” among seven cities
in the Eastern Visayas region based on In the light of apparently successful
the 2017 Annual Financial Report for moves made after the disaster —technical
the Local Government released by the mitigating structures on the rivers, the
Department of Finance in November watershed ecosystem, and overall disaster
2018. preparedness — Vera Files revisited the
site. Local government officials shared
With its P5.9 billon assets, Ormoc had hard lessons learned.

Amid the devastation,

surviving Ormoc residents
washed clothes and other
belongings even as they
continued searching for
relatives and burying the dead.

AP Photo by Boy Cabrido.

The estimated 500 millimeters of rain that fell
over Ormoc watershed on Nov. 5, 1991 – or
167 millimeters per hour – was “far beyond
the absorptive capacity of the soils in the
watershed” whose cover that time was 60
percent newly plowed sugar cane fields, 25
percent cogon, and 15 percent corn or bare
sloping ground.sloping ground.”

A 1992 study by the Environment and automatically considered forest lands

Research Division of Manila Observatory unsuitable for agricultural purposes.
stated the mistakes of the past:
Second, the hazard of flooding may
First, “the probability of flood occurrence” also be increased by conditions within
in Ormoc’s (or any) lowland area is the lowlands. “Unless the stability of
governed largely by the condition of the the upland is complemented by proper
upland ecosystems. This makes it “a prime planning and management of the lowland,
necessity to restore the stability of these the hazard of flooding will persist,” the
ecosystems,” including ensuring forest same report said.
cover of watersheds, changing land use
patterns and control, and the manner of In the case of Ormoc before the flooding,
cultivating slope areas. urban development had changed the
drainage and channel patterns, but the
The estimated 500 millimeters of rain flood patterns were not fully taken into
that fell over Ormoc watershed on Nov. account.
5, 1991 – or 167 millimeters per hour
-- was “far beyond the absorptive capacity Moreover, “the reclaimed embankments
of the soils in the watershed” whose cover of the Anilao River and the floodplain,”
that time was 60 percent newly plowed then the village of Isla Verde, “were both
sugar cane fields, 25 percent cogon, and 15 hazardous” but were “allowed to be
percent corn or bare sloping ground. densely populated” with informal settlers.

Large tracts of land with slopes greater

than 18 degrees were planted to
agricultural crops “even up to 600 meter
elevation,” the evaluation report noted.
Under government standards, lands
with slopes of 18 degrees or more are

Ormoc flood
ORMOC CITY – In an emergency, drop
everything and run for your life.
Marilyn Hamito, a 46-year- old

seamstress, learned precisely this when
floodwaters swallowed the riverside hut
she shared with her mother and siblings

on Nov. 5, 1991 and drowned the rest of
the city.

Drop everything
Hamito was 18 then. Her family lived near
the wooden bridge crossing the Anilao
River where she bathed and washed

and run for


On the day of the flood, she recalled that

her mother initially insisted on packing

your life the little valuables they had. But, when

a neighbor warned that the water had
already reached some barangays, her
mother instructed the children “to drop
By Cooper Resabal
everything and run up to higher ground
without looking back.”

“Dagan nga way lingi-lingi,” she told the

children in the local dialect.
Her two brothers, then 18 and 20 years
old, braved the muddy current and luckily

A neighbor who had an ice cream

business went back for her sewing
machine and piggy bank. She was swept
by the floodwaters out to sea.

For Hamito, the lesson is clear – in an

emergency situation, there is no choice
Ormoc flood survivor,
Marilyn Hamito, a but to run for your life; leave everything
seamstress. behind.
Photo by Cooper Resabal.

Ruel Sicsic, 46, lives in a hut atop the Reynaldo Manicor, 43, is also a flood
embankment adjacent to the Anilao River. survivor. He sells drinking water in JICA
From his home, Sicsic could still see the Lao relocation village.
spot where his family used to live by the
riverbed. To this day, Manicor is still bothered by the
thought that had they been less attached to
The Anilao River was only 4 meters wide some material possession, more members
28 years ago. Today, that spot where his of their family would have survived the
house once stood is already underwater. flood.

Sicsic said they sought refuge in a He related that they had vehicles at
“bigger house” only to literally jump to their disposal. They could have packed
another one when its walls broke down everyone and driven to safety immediately.
under the surge of water. He could have But because they tried to save their
been swept away had he not been able valuables, the rampaging waters caught up
to cling to the stair bannister and climb to with them.
the upper floor.
“We were already in the jeepney on our
Recalling that day, Sicsic said the way to evacuate. What happened was we
onrushing waters was like a bulldozer were met by the rushing flood waters. So,
ripping apart and hurling everything on its when our vehicle got toppled down, we got
way - houses, logs, vehicles, and people separated,” Manicor recalled.
out toward Ormoc Bay.
He was rescued much later drifting in the
sea. “I was very weak. There were lots of
debris like wood which moved with the
waves and hit my body hard. I had lots of
scars from that,” he recalled.
“But I survived that, and I’m thankful to be
alive,” Manicor said, now firm in the belief
that he was saved to fulfill a mission in life.

His father also survived, but his mother

and siblings aged 12, 10, and 4 were not

He shares the lesson that “Life is more

Survivor Reynaldo Manicor
important than your valuables or your believes there’s a reason
appliances. You can always find ways to that he was saved and
that he still has to fulfill a
acquire things again, but not the lives of mission in life.

your loved ones.” Photo by Liza Macalandag.

Nenita Ablen, 53, lives in JICA Lao village
tending a sari-sari store, which is part of
relocation assistance given to survivors of
the Ormoc flood.

Her little girl was barely two months

old when the flood hit; thankfully, her
husband was able to save her and the

“My husband came back for me, swam

after me. I was lucky he was still able to
rescue me. My daughter, she was just
two months old during the flood. We even
thought that maybe she already died Survivor Nenita Ablen
because we were really drenched in the (center) with husband (left)
and child (right) who was
water. “ 2-months old during the

Photo by Liza Macalandag.

“When we reached OSPA (the hospital), I
looked at the baby who had turned blue,
and I really thought that she had died.
But we were lucky. Look at her, she’s
all big and grown up now. We really are
survivors,” Ablen chuckled.

From that experience, Ablen learned that

she can’t have second thoughts about
saving loved ones even at the risk of
losing our own life. It might be the only
chance you get, she said.

Not everyone was able to get the chance

to save their loved ones, unfortunately.

Sicsic recalled having rescued a man

who was sobbing inconsolably because
his child and wife were washed away.
“You know what he did? He jumped back
into the water. He died,” he said.

Experiencing the deluge and fighting to

survive the raging waters was difficult,
but the survivors soon learned that
picking up the pieces left of their lives
demanded more endurance and strength.

Cause of the killer flood Sicsic said Ormocanons are now “aware
Like many Ormocanons, Sicsic believes about the ill effects of deforestation.”
that deforestation of the watershed was Manicor took note of the measures the
the primary cause of the flood. “The local government undertook to prevent
trees that were cut down, that was occurrence of the disaster. “I think,
one of the causes that aggravated the Ormoc is okay now. Our river is now very
flooding. Those mountains, that turned wide. Not like before when it was full
white (because) the trees have been cut of houses that were very close to each
down. And those debris from the logging other. Now, that’s no longer allowed,” he
activities, they were washed down here, said.
and the logs were really the ones that hit
our homes.” “And dikes have been built. If a similar
volume of water would come, we’d be
The 2015 Ormoc City Ecological Profile safe. The government has made sure of
indicates that the city environment in that. The people now also understand
1991 was aggravated by the degradation when they are told to evacuate from their
of the watershed area and the presence homes that are very near the river,” he
of settlements along the Anilao and added.
Malbasag Rivers, including Ormoc Bay
which serves as the final discharge area There is no more effective teacher than a
of the two rivers. personal encounter with disaster.

Children wading through Anilao

River unaware of the grim
happening in that site 28 years

Photo by Cooper Resabal.

Taming nature’s wrath
after killer flood
Revisiting the day of the flash flood, there
is a sense that all the elements that could
make a disaster happen happened that day.

In the morning of Nov. 5, 1991, Typhoon

Uring (international name:Thelma)
dumped heavy rains as it moved slowly
over Leyte, including the Ormoc
watershed. The intense rainfall, which had
been going on for several days, triggered
a massive volume of water to rampage
downstream with debris and land

The flood lasted just over three hours

and inundated a square kilometer of
commercial and residential areas of
Ormoc City proper.

Floodwater surfaces rose by seven feet in

15 minutes just before noontime, witnesses
said. An estimated 22,835,000 cubic meters
of water flooded the city.

“The sedimentation that took place

doubled the volume of fluid that flooded
Ormoc,” according to the Manila
Observatory Research.

Eleuterio Lugas — a 61-year-old broom

maker who was a resident of Biliboy village
near the current site of the Anilao slit dam —
recalled there was heavy rain with little wind
Dead bodies are loaded onto a truck. for three days. Then the skies darkened and
AP Photo by Boy Cabrido. heavier rain pounded the city.

At first he was happy to gather some

coconuts that floated with the onrush
of water in the river, but the water rose
so quickly that he had to run to higher
ground. A neighbor and her 11-year-old
daughter got swept by the flash flood.

When he walked through the river on

his way to Barangay Alegria after the
flooding, at first he thought he was
stepping on banana stalks, but they turned
out to be bodies of children and adults
buried in the muddy silt and debris.

Today, his house made of bamboo monitor the flood mitigation facilities:
overlooks the Anilao slit dam, one of the the three slit dams, the hydraulic drops
flood mitigating structures built with the and the three bridges, said Yvonne de
Japanese government’s assistance. He feels los Santos, also from the City Engineer’s
confident that if a similar flood comes, the Office.
slit dam will stop the debris, logs and silt.
His son-in-law Avelino Aguirre, who Part of their task, Bernal said, is to control
worked in the Japan International vegetation on the river, clean canals and
Cooperation Agency project, said the slit river channels, and ensure there are no
dam structure is made of thick steel with “encroachers” near the structures.
cement poured inside.
Both Bernal and de los Santos said the
Effective flood flood control measures succeeded in
mitigation measures preventing a flash flood when Typhoon
The Japan International Cooperation Gilas came in 2003, bringing the same
Agency (JICA), through a grant, built four volume and level of water as Typhoon
bridges and three slit dams between 1997 Uring did in 1991.
and 2001 to mitigate floods and landslides
in Ormoc. “The volume of water became manageable
with the widened rivers, and the debris got
It likewise facilitated the widening of the stopped from being swept by the silt and
city’s main rivers of Anilao and Malbasag,
Eleuterio Lugas, 61, broommaker, water,” de los Santos noted.
remembers stepping on bodies which
and the relocation of residents from the he mistook for banana stalks on the
Anilao riverbed after the flash flood.
riverbanks. City Planning and Development Office
Photo by Liza Macalandag
head Raoul E. Cam said his office intends
Milany L. Bernal of the City Engineer’s to transform the riverbanks into urban
Office, explained that JICA’s flood green spaces that people can enjoy as a
mitigation project widened the Anilao and park. He said he will push for barangays
Malbasag Rivers after a measurement of the to be involved in the monitoring and
water volume, flow and pressure found that maintenance of the flood mitigating
these were major factors in the flooding. structures.

There are “hydraulic drops” to make the Recovering forest in watershed

water flow gradually and three slit dams Early morning in mid-March, some 150
(Anilao, Biliboy and Malbasag) to stop or student volunteers from Ormoc Senior
control the debris and logs carried by the City High School hiked to Sitio Quarry to
rampaging waters, Bernal explained. plant seedlings of local tree species on a
steep watershed area there.
The effectiveness of the JICA structures,
she said, were tested during typhoon Gilas They were guided by some teachers and
in 2003, and typhoon Yolanda in 2013. forest guard Anthony Dionaldo to ensure
the seedlings are planted on critical parts
She noted, however, that there are of the watershed.
problems of “encroachment” near the dam
structures despite a fence placed there by One of the tasks of the city’s Environment
the City Engineer’s Office. and Natural Resources Office (ENRO)
is to ensure the recovery of the forest
The JICA Committee includes the Mayor’s in Ormoc’s watershed, like the one in
Office, the Department of Public Works Milagro, in a step-by-step process, ENRO
and Highways and the City Engineer’s head Rafael Dumalan told Vera Files.
Office whose task is to maintain and
While there is P5 million allotted for

The slit dam at Biliboy, one of
the flood mitigating structures
built with the Japanese
government’s assistance.

Photo by Liza Macalandag

reforestation, he clarified that there is no nursery in Milagro village and partners

big project for planting trees. He said they with teachers and students, as well as
cater to people who belong to organized those under the government’s drug
groups like students in schools, non- rehabilitation program.
government organizations and private
entities. Since 1991, he said municipal government
units have facilitated the planting of trees
At the time of the flash flood in 1991, of the in their watershed areas. His next project
total land area of the Ormoc watershed, only involves riparian vegetation, like planting
“3.3 percent was classified as timberland— mangroves and bamboos beside rivers.
confined to the peaks,” a 1992 study of the
Environment and Research Division of The idea, he said, is to save the rivers,
Manila Observatory said. to make them flow naturally, and
continuously ensure the river is not
The same study noted that “even the blocked by informal settlers as what
residual forest was absent.” At that time, happened in 1991.
96.7 percent of Ormoc watershed was
classified as alienable and disposable land, Forest guard Dionaldo said he and three
Rafael Dumalan, head of
open for private acquisition. colleagues work in sitio Quarry watershed, Ormoc city’s Environment
and part of their job is to maintain the and Natural Resources Office.
Photo by Liza Macalandag
There were more than 700 lot claimants reforested areas, water the seedlings if
within the watershed, cadastral records necessary, and report encroachers and tree
show, but “land ownership was held and cutters.
controlled by just a few big families.”
Mark Gerald Talle, 17, a grade 10 student
Dumalan emphasized the need to plant who planted a talisay seedling, said he sees
the appropriate endemic tree species, like the value of planting trees in the watershed
bitangkol, lawaan and talisay in watershed for the future.
areas for the recovery of denuded forests
in Ormoc. His office supports a seedling The activity is part of requirement for

A young boy holds a seedling
during a tree planting activity
that will help ensure that the
tragedy that happened in 1991
will not happen again.

Photo by Liza Macalandag

graduating students, teacher Jemo de Asis “Forests secure our soil and water The focus of Ormoc’s disaster management
said. The first batch of student volunteers resources, mitigate climate change, and office is not so much evacuations, but
numbered 300, she added. provide habitat for animals and livelihood preemptive action. The rule is to be “pro-
for human. Its importance cannot be active, not just reactive,” Solibao added.
The reforestation efforts include underestimated,” Barcelo stressed. Barangay covered courts are targeted as
awareness campaigns on the importance primary evacuation centers, while schools
of protecting the ecosystem, given the To intensify the effort, DENR is also are last priority, he said. Barangays are
undeniable changing climate pattern, implementing a biodiversity protection encouraged to have two-story halls, and
Dumalan said. system using advanced technology called covered courts must be equipped with
the LAWIN Protection System. Using a toilets, bathrooms and cooking areas.
Many believe the denudation of the forest mobile application called cybertracker, Solibao’s office is also identifying people
on the watershed hastened the flooding in users and patrollers from the DENR who may be ready to receive evacuees.
1991 since deep root anchors were absent report real-time environmental abuses At the 25th commemoration of the
to hold the water flow. from the site. Ormoc flood disaster, JICA Chief
Representative Susumu Ito observed
There is no doubt that the Anilao- Making proactive moves in disaster that Ormoc’s experiences in disaster
Malbasag watershed was the major preparedness risk reduction management “show that
drainage basin that directly influenced Ciriaco Solibao III, the head of the city’s we can get things done together by
the flooding of the city. The watershed Disaster Risk Reduction Management raising our understanding of disasters,
is drained mainly by the Anilao and Office, said his office had been organizing harnessing available resources,
Malbasag Rivers. the barangays to be prepared for disasters, and strengthening community
including leading information and preparedness.”
Protecting the education drives on disaster management
watershed ecosystem for 42 most flood-prone villages.
DENR Eastern Visayas Regional Executive
Director Crizaldy Barcelo, in a statement He said his plans include strengthening the
released on International Day of Forest, early warning and weather monitoring
underscored the importance of raising systems, as well as installing a water level
awareness on how sustainably managed system.
forests contribute to the environment.


Abandoned Building: A run-
down office building inside
the Marcopper mining area,

The Marcopper
abandoned in 1997, after Placer
Dome, Inc. left the Philippines
following the mine spill.

mine spill
Photo by Erik de Castro.

and the unending

wait for justice
By Nikko Dizon

BOAC, Marinduque—The people of this island province

have endured the brunt of the worst mining disaster in the
country, but the bigger heartbreak in their two-decade long
quest for justice might just be the wait for redress that is
not sure to come.

There is nothing more tragic than to hear stories

repeatedly told, but nothing done. It’s been 23 years since
March 24, 1996, when a badly sealed drainage tunnel in
Marcopper Mining Corporation’s Taipan pit burst, spilling
1.6 million cubic meters of toxic mine tailings that choked
Boac River, flooded villages and killed marine life.
Boac River dusk: The Boac
River, declared biologically
dead after the Marcopper mine
spill looks serene at dusk. A
dike had been built to prevent it
from overflowing where there
are heavy rains.

Photo by Erik de Castro.

One village, Barangay Hinapulan, was Representative Lord Allan Jay Velasco,
buried in six feet of muddy floodwater, together with engineers and geologists
displacing 400 families. Cows, pigs and of the Department of Environment
sheep including pets were poisoned and and Natural Resources and Mines and
died. Crops were destroyed. Boac River, Geosciences Bureau’s (MGB) regional
a source of sustenance for surrounding office.
communities, was declared unsafe.
The team discovered a leak in the Upper
Three years before that, the company’s Makulapnit Dam and heavy siltation in
Maguila-guila siltation dam also burst, the Maguila-guila spillway tunnel. That Conveyor Belt: Trees now
swallow the collapsed copper
flooding the town of Mogpog, where two prompted Velasco to ask the MGB to belt conveyor that leads to the
primary crushing area.
children drowned in the mine waste. regularly inspect structures within the
Soon after the mining disaster, the United Marcopper site, a task that’s not easy Photo by Erik de Castro.

States Geological Survey said in a study because the area is off-limits. But the
that the Makulapnit and Maguila-guila MGB and provincial officials, managed to
siltation dams were in danger of collapsing. find ways to get information.
The Velasco briefing paper listed among
In 2001, Canadian research firm Klohn MGB’s concerns:
Crippen – hired by Marcopper’s Canadian • “possible seepage” from the Tapian
mother company Placer Dome Inc. as Pit observed at the Lower Makulapnit
consultant – issued a similar warning. Dam.
• monitored seepage in Hinapulan
“They are a clear and present danger Creek from the plug installed after
to us,” said Joven Lilles of the dams. the 1996 mine spill. “The bright blue
Lilles is the provincial government’s discoloration can be attributed to the
environmental management specialist presence of heavy metal, particularly
and is part of the province’s disaster copper, in the water.” the MGB team found out water has
management council. decreased to ground level. “However,
The Makulapnit Bypass Tunnel was there is still an increased amount
Catherine Coumans, research and Asia- described as a “problematic MMC of siltation inside the facility which
Pacific program coordinator of Mining structure.” Fresh water was leaking from a may clog the hole of the down-drain
Watch Canada, told VERA Files in an busted pipe and a buildup of water inside tunnel,” the briefing paper added.
email that a lot of mine waste remains the tunnel “might lead to an eventual
at the mine site. Marcopper started flooding of downstream communities In 1990, residents of Mogpog town,
operations in Marinduque in 1969. along Boac River.” comprised of 13 villages, had opposed
the building of the Maguila-guila
“The acute danger is being swept away But what “needs the most immediate dam, but Marcopper was allowed to
by the waste and drowning in it,” said attention,” the MGB team said, is the construct it the next year. The dam
Coumans, who had lived on the island for Maguila-guila siltation dam as also was needed as another repository for
two years before the 1996 mine spill. pointed out by the USGS and Khlon the San Antonio pit’s waste which the
Crippen reports 20 years ago. Tapian pit would not be able to hold.
“The longer-term harm is from the toxicity
of the waste,” Coumans said of the highly “Since the water flowing through the Marcopper denied responsibility
acidic and metal laden tailings. “It is spillway has no viable exit point due to the when the Maguila-guila dam burst
extremely environmentally toxic and can siltation clog, there is a possibility that the in 1993. Mining officials blamed
destroy productive ecosystems that people water pressure will build up and force its an unusual rainfall brought by a
rely on.” way out through the existing structures, typhoon. But the Velasco paper noted
causing damage to the latter,” the briefing that when the dam was rebuilt, “an
The last known inspection of the paper said. overflow was added for the first time,
Marcopper property was done on Jan. in an implicit acknowledgment of
23, 2017 by the office of Marinduque After its last visit to the MMC premises, faulty engineering.”

Repairing dams, tricky ownership Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation,
issues the world’s largest gold mining company,
MGB regional director Roland de Jesus acquired Placer Dome, Inc.’s remaining
said his office plans to secure the dams and common shares.
waterways near the mining site. However,
the safety features, estimated to cost Coumans said Placer Dome divested to F
some P25 million, will be built outside the Holdings, known as the Bernardino Group,
Marcopper property because “legalities” “through its wholly-owned Cayman Islands
prevent even government officials from subsidiary—MR Holdings.”
entering the site.
The Supreme Court, in a 2012 ruling,
De Jesus said P5 million has been described MR Holdings, Ltd. as “a non-
earmarked for the safety measures’ design. resident foreign corporation, organized and
With no project bidder, the MGB initiated a existing under the laws of Cayman Island.”
negotiated one “to start the ball rolling.”
“It is a subsidiary corporation of Placer
“There’s a continuous monitoring being Dome, Inc. (Placer Dome), a foreign
done in the area. There’s sufficient time to corporation which owns 40% of respondent
install the prevention design,” De Jesus said. Marcopper Mining Corporation,” it said.
But who is really responsible for the dams’
repair? Coumans said she would have been
unaware that MR Holdings was exercising
“This question is critically important,” ownership over the Marcopper property
Coumans said. “if not for the lawsuit by the Solid Bank
to recover money it had lent Marcopper
It leads to the complicated and tricky before the Boac Spill.”
ownership of the Marcopper mining site,
the structures inside it, and everything left She said MR Holdings, possibly still the
behind by MMC and Placer Dome, Inc., legal owner of assets and mineral rights at
and Placer Dome Technical Services Inc., a the site, has not maintained the area and
subsidiary set up by Placer Dome in 1997 to neither has F Holdings.
clean up the mine spill.
“Unless Marinduqueños find a way to
Tapian primary crusher: Placer Dome, Inc. owned 40 percent of hold MR Holdings’ parent company,
This used to be Marcopper’s
busy primary crusher chute, Marcopper shares but divested from it a now presumably Barrick Gold, to
where trucks dumped the
ore to start the process of year after the mine spill. Five years later, account, the state will likely have to step
extracting copper.
it closed its Philippine office. In 2006, the in to maintain the mine structures in
Photo by Erik de Castro. order to protect Marinduqueños,” she

Ghost town
More often than not, it is difficult to
enter Marcopper’s abandoned mine site.
Provincial officers like Lilles had been
denied entry several times. Even then
Environment Secretary Gina Lopez was
said to not have been allowed to inspect
the area.

But there was no guard in sight when
VERA Files went there one afternoon in
February. The guide surmised the guards
may have skipped work that day.

The area looked like a ghost town. The

power lines had collapsed, the wires a
tangled mess on the ground. The doors
of a warehouse, a backhoe, a couple of
vehicles, even the crushing machinery
were decaying and rusty. “MR Holdings”
was painted on the primary crusher.

In its heyday, the Marcopper site was like

Mine tailings: Mine tailings
a “city within the forest” with first class remain in the Tapian pit, where
apartments and amenities, including a golf the spill originated on March
24, 1996 and caused one of the
course, the guide said. No trace of that worst environment disaster in
the Philippines.
upscale community remains.
Photo by Erik de Castro.

From a hill, Tapian and San Antonio pits

looked like serene lakes surrounded by
lush trees.

But Coumans cautioned that the bluish

green water is highly toxic. “The pit water
will be acidic and the strange color in the
shallower areas is metal leaching, likely
copper sulphate,” she said.

Heavily silted with mine tailings, Boac

and Mogpog Rivers are both considered
biologically dead. Lilles said no carabao
drinks water from Mogpog river because
of its high acidity. Even the coconut trees
along Mogpog river have been slowly
poisoned, dying one by one.

Boac river is less acidic because of the mix

of “mineral and criminal water” that it gets
from two different tributaries.
“The mineral, or clean, water comes
from its upper tributaries in the villages
of Canat, Bayote, and Tambunan. The
criminal water is from Upper Hinapulan
and Makulapnit, and the Bol river, all of
which have been contaminated by the
mine tailings,” Lilles said.

concrete jungle you live in instead of the
roar of buses and jeepneys.

It’s hard to believe that a nature’s paradise

exists in place which many associate with
poisoned land and waters because of a
mining disaster in March 1996.

It was made possible by the 2004

Presidential Proclamation No. 696 which
declared the portion of land straddling the
municipalities of Boac, Gasan, Buenavista,
Torrijos and Sta. Cruz a protected area. It
is now known as the “Marinduque Wildlife

Among the wildlife in the Sanctuary are

the Philippine duck, the green racket tail,
the Philippine deer, the cloud rat, the
Philippine warty pig, and several bird
species like the purple-throated sunbird,
Philippine scops owl, brahminy kite,

serpent eagle, and zebra dove.

Trees in the forest include molave, yakal,

rises as
narra, bagtikan, dao, mayapis, ipil, and
bagtikan to keep you cool.

a summer
Farther up the wildlife sanctuary are
homes of a handful of families who have
lived there even before the area was

hot spot
declared protected. Their community is
called Sitio Isla.

Mostly farmers, they live quiet and simple

By Nikko Dizon lives among nature. When they want to
connect to the modern world, each house
has a satellite dish providing 24 channels
for a monthly subscription of P120. They
can get National Geographic, Discovery
BOAC, Marinduque— The hike around
Channel, CNN, and local movies.
a tiny part of the nearly 9,000-hectare
Marinduque Wildlife Sanctuary is
The provincial government developed the
not easy, especially if you’re forty-
area into a tourist spot little by little, careful
something and lack exercise. But Mother
not to disturb and exploit the rare species
Nature will reward you for your effort.
living here.

You’ll see a beautiful canopy of leaves

In developing the province into a tourism
if you look up the sky while sitting on a
destination, the government had to deal
tree trunk as you catch your breath and
with the stigma of one of the worse mining
rest your knees. You’ll hear birds singing
disasters in the country. But there is much
and wish this was the symphony in the

on the island that remains unspoiled. found here,” Lilles said. speed of your ship) from Dalahican Port
in Lucena, Quezon to Balanacan Port in
“I hope they’ll start to think of Marinduque Cave assessments, he said, have recently Mogpog, Marinduque.
as a tourist destination where they will been completed by biologists and a team
see the Moriones festival, this wildlife from the provincial environment and Travel bloggers have been smitten by the
sanctuary, and many other really nice tourism offices. province’s rustic charms and affordable
places, and not just the mine spill,” said adventures—from caving, biking, taking a
Joven Lilles, the provincial supervising Lilles said that his team also accompanied dip in the hot springs and beaches, scuba
environmental management specialist and the team of Phillip Aviola, the curator diving, and trekking. The centuries-old
a bird watcher who has documented a of the Museum of Natural History of houses and churches, like the Immaculate
number of fauna in the sanctuary. the University of the Philippines Los Conception Cathedral of Boac, are also
Baños. Their cave explorations led to the tourist attractions.
At 61, Lilles has been with the provincial discovery of a new kind of frog and an
government for over two decades. He was insect bat. The high-end resort, Bellaroca, whose
among the first on the ground when mine original owner was Elizabeth Marcos-
tailings seeped from the damaged Tapian While some of the caves have been Keon, sister of the former President
pit of the Marcopper Mining Corporation recommended for ecotourism, others Marcos, was popular among the perfumed
and made its way into the Boac River. remain closed for conservation because set but it had to close a few years ago
Lilles still remembers the stench of the they have become habitat of rare species, after the only airline that flew in clients
chemicals. such as the cave-dwelling fresh water canceled its flights to Marinduque. There’s
shrimp, he said. now talk that flights would resume, and
Twenty-three years later, justice remains some hope Bellaroca could reopen.
elusive for Marinduque’s people and Tourist arrivals in Marinduque— an
environment as Marcopper and its estimated 952- square- kilometer heart- The Moriones Festival during the Holy
executives continue to evade responsibility shaped island—has been steadily climbing Week remains the province’s top crowd
for the mine spill. since 2009 with nearly 83,000 travelers drawer. The other two are the “putong/
visiting the province in 2015. (The figures, tubong”, where visitors are crowned and
But the frustration has not kept Lilles and however, are lower from 2016 to 2018 welcomed in an elaborate ceremony, and
his provincial government colleagues from after the Department of Tourism began the other is the “kalutang”, the wooden
working hard to sustain Marinduque’s counting only the number of tourists who percussion instruments made from
environmental gems while developing the checked into hotels and not those who twatingan and bayog trees that can only be
province’s tourism industry. stayed with family and friends.) found in Marinduque.

“Being an island, Marinduque was able To get to the island, you take the two -to There’s more in Marinduque than what
to preserve the endemicity of the species -four-hour RoRo (depends on the size and we know.

Logatoc: The Mogpog
river was an important A tragedy that continues Marinduque residents have been living
part in the life of Bocboc
village chief Racquel in people’s veins amid toxic elements from the mine.
Logatoc, 53. Doctors
have detected a very Heavy metal runs through Racquel
high metal content in her
Logatoc’s veins. The 52-year-old village Marcopper Mining Corp. began its mining
chief of Bocboc, Marinduque suffers from operations in the Mount Tapian ore deposit
Photo by Erik de Castro.
skin irritation, fatigue and body pains. in 1969.
Tests done in 2013 and 2017 detected
the harmful substance in her blood. In It was the first to use open pit mining
February, she was back at the Batangas in copper concentrate production,
Medical Center for further monitoring. according to a briefing paper prepared by
Marinduque Representative Lord Allan Jay
Logatoc is not alone. Like her, adults and Velasco.
children in Mogpog, Boac, and Sta. Cruz
towns of Marinduque, still live with the “Without a proper method of waste
effects of the disaster that happened 23 disposal, the mine tailings or the waste from
years ago. Mount Tapian site were discharged into the
Calancan Bay which covered around 8,000
On March 24, 1996, a fracture in the hectares of fishing ground,” it said.
drainage tunnel of Marcopper Mining
Corporation’s Tapian pit spilled more “From 1975 to 1991, the Marcopper-
than 1.6 million cubic meters of toxic mine operated mines dumped a total of 200
tailings, flooding villages and poisoning the million tons of toxic tailings into the
Boac River. shallow bay of Calancan,” the paper added.

Three years before that, the company’s After depleting Mount Tapian’s reserve,
Maguila-guila siltation dam also burst, Marcopper moved to the San Antonio
flooding the town of Mogpog, where two copper mine, three kilometers north of the
children drowned in the mine waste. It was Mount Tapian site.
a tragedy overshadowed by the Tapian
pit mine spill but the mine waste from Marcopper claimed the mine tailings that
Maguila-guila was just as toxic that it was seeped out of the Tapian pit were nontoxic.
an environmental disaster on its own, But Joven Lilles, the province’s environment
primarily killing the Mogpog river. specialist and one of the first provincial
employees to rush to the site when the
“We used to swim in the river, wash our spillage happened, recalled the stench that
clothes there, and we even caught shrimps could only come from harmful chemicals.
and fishes. The river was wide, and the
water was clear and clean,” Logatoc said, Then and now, a number of residents
sadly looking at what was left of the river. like Logatoc have suffered from various
ailments that doctors attribute to exposure
But even decades before the 1996 mine spill, to their toxic environment.

and declared Marinduque as a (health)

Janairo convened a regional interagency

committee for an environmental health
assessment in 2017. The provincial health
office, together with toxicologists from
the East Avenue Medical Center, tested
Mogpog River: The
water that runs through residents for heavy metal content. That
the Mogpog river has a
high acidity level that Doctors’ initiatives was when Bocboc village chief Logatoc
not even carabaos drink Mogpog municipal health officer Edsel learned the heavy metal in her blood
from it.
Muhi, an epidemiologist, did a study in system remains high and that she needed
Photo by Erik de Castro.
2011 under the Department of Health regular monitoring.
(DOH) that established a baseline
reference for the level of heavy metals in In 2017, DOH Marinduque’s chief Rowena
Mogpog, Boac, and Sta. Cruz, the three Garcia did a study that put together a
towns most affected by Marcopper’s mine database of residents living near the rivers
wastes. affected by the mine tailings.

Six heavy metals were found Garcia also established the “telemedicine”
contaminating the environment and system where patients from Marinduque
which humans can ingest: lead, arsenic, can consult real time with doctors from
mercury, cadmium, copper; and chromium EAMC and the Batangas Medical Center
or LAMCCC. through a camera and TV.

Muhi’s study focused on the Heavy metals irritate the skin, with most
noncarcinogenic lead and the cancer- patients complaining of itch as well as
causing arsenic. In 2011, Sta. Cruz dark spots and white patches on their legs
residents showed the highest arsenic and and feet, said Ash Semilla, a nurse at the
lead contents in their blood. Calancan Bay, DOH-Marinduque health office.
where Marcopper dumped its mine wastes
for nearly 30 years of its operation, is in Residents end up with skin diseases
Sta. Cruz. because they cross the contaminated
Children with lead in their blood end up
with anemia. The metal also targets their “That’s the only way they could go to work
central nervous system. “Lead content can and return home,” Semilla said. She sends
also result in developmental delay and photos of patients’ legs and feet to doctors
congenital problems,” Muhi, a native of in Manila or Batangas so they have a
Mogpog, said. background on patients’ cases.

Marinduque provincial health officer, With the telemedicine system, patients can
Gerry Caballes, recalled how in 2016, consult doctors, avail of laboratory tests
then DOH regional director Dr. Eduardo and get free medicines through the DOH,
Janairo, “revived the Marcopper issue the nurse added.

No rehab for health, environment
Caballes expressed hope the provincial
government will continue to support
his proposed P20 million water testing
laboratory, after years of being told there
is no money for it. A regular monitoring
of the 78 water sources in Marinduque
was one of Muhi’s recommendations in his
2011 study.

The water testing lab project needs

a second bidding after the winning
contractor was disqualified, but Caballes
had been told the documents for the
laboratory “were missing.”

He said doctors will always have their

theories on why people get sick, but they
need scientific data to back these up.

Caballes wants to investigate if the

contaminated environment is linked to the
recently monitored clustering of children
with delayed development and a number
“Caballes expressed hope the provincial of residents dying of end-stage renal
government will continue to support
his proposed P20 million water testing He said the contaminated environment
laboratory, after years of being told there is that has not been rehabilitated remains
no money for it. A regular monitoring of the a threat to residents. Even just regularly
breathing air tainted with heavy metals
78 water sources in Marinduque was one of can harm one’s health, experts said.
Muhi’s recommendations in his 2011 study.”
Law professor Antonio La Viña, an
environment undersecretary when the
1996 mine spill happened, admitted the
national government at that time was too
focused on holding Marcopper accountable
that it failed to put together a “masterplan
to rehabilitate the environment and give
livelihood to the people.”

“We didn’t have a systematic approach

to really help the affected people in the
affected communities,” Caballes said. “We
shouldn’t just have made noise. We should
also have done something using whatever
resources we had then and now.”
At the very least, Marinduque has placed a
50-year moratorium on large- and small-
scale mining in the province.

No money for rehab Twenty-three years and counting
Caballes and Lilles both pointed out In 2014, the Marinduque provincial
that the national and local governments government had refused Barrick Gold’s
have said there was not enough money $20-million settlement offer not only
to address the mine spill’s harm to the because it was not enough to compensate
environment and the people. for the environmental damage caused by
the Marcopper mine spill. The company,
While the then Ramos administration which acquired the remaining common
commissioned the U.S. Geological shares of Placer Dome, also wanted the
Survey study, government was unable government to waive its accountability
to implement the USGS’ detailed and responsibility for the disaster.
recommendations due to lack of funds,
Lilles said. Four criminal cases, a civil case, and an
administrative case have been filed by
Catherine Coumans, research and the government against Barrick Gold,
Asia-Pacific program coordinator of Marcopper Mining Corp., and Placer
Mining Watch Canada who had lived in Dome, Inc. and their officers since 1996.
Marinduque before the mine spill, said The cases remain pending in court.
the worst environmental impact from
Marcopper’s mining comes from the mine In 2015, a Nevada court ruled it had no
sites yet to be rehabilitated. jurisdiction over the class suit filed by
the Marinduque provincial office against
She said the San Antonio pit has been Placer Dome.
filled up and overtopped with toxic
water. The remaining mine wastes of both Coumans said the court provided the best
the San Antonio and Tapian mines are possible conditions for the case to succeed
“exposed and contained—in Calancan in Canada, including that Barrick accept
Bay—where more than 200 million tons the jurisdiction of Canada and for the case
of mine waste have destroyed reefs and not to be sent elsewhere.
continue to erode off the causeway in an
ongoing slow spill into the ocean.” “I believe that Barrick Gold remains
legally responsible and can be held
“The Mogpog and Boac rivers remain to account in Canada if the people of
impacted by ongoing toxic inputs from the Marinduque choose to pursue that course
.Boac River: A resident of action,” she said.
tries to catch some fish
mine site. These four ecosystems constitute
and shrimp from the Boac major harm to the small island province as
River. Some marine life
has been seen lately but it a whole,” Coumans said. On the 23rd anniversary of the Marcopper
remains biologically dead.
mine spill, MGB regional director Roland
Photo by Erik de Castro. de Jesus said the government will pursue
legal action and would stick to filing a case
using the Marcopper name, not the new
company name, MR Holdings.

Meanwhile, heavy metals continue their

poisonous track in the veins of villagers
like Logatoc and Marinduque’s future – its
children. (With contributions by Nancy

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