A small seaside town located in a distant eastern province of the Philippines is home to a highly profitable and lucrative 700 million dollar a year industry: illegal gold mining. Paracale is 400 kilometres away from the capital Manila and has always been the epicenter of the legitimate, legal and regulated gold mining industry of the country. For hundreds of years, mineral trading flourished in Paracale, but many illegal gold mines have popped up over the last few decades, avoiding taxes and government red tape.
In deplorable and extreme conditions, informal miners or "players" work in mine shafts hidden in the mangrove jungles. The mine shafts are dug down with minimal support, increasing the chances of collapse. They also immediately fill up with water as deep as 20 to 30 feet. The players then search for gold using a method called "compressor mining."
They go underwater, down these makeshift mine shafts, with nothing but a pair of goggles and a plastic tube tied around their waist. The tube is connected to an air compressor so they can breathe underwater, down in the mine for the next six hours. They use no tools and chip away at the rocks with their bare hands. They also have no headlights and work in total darkness. Compressor mining is hazardous, especially since they have no safety equipment of any kind. These players risk their lives to find gold yet only earn an average of three euros a day (US$3.50/day). Many of them feel trapped and are unable to get work anywhere else.
Any gold found is sent to a network of secret processing centers where workers use liquid mercury to isolate the gold. They handle the mercury with their bare hands and inhale toxic fumes released by the heating process. Many workers end up getting respiratory diseases like TB when they get older. Gold agents will then buy the gold, quickly making twice or more the miners' money by reselling the gold to larger buyers. These buyers are aware of illegal mining but don't care how the gold was obtained. Eventually, all the gold mined in Paracale is brought to Binondo or Manila's Chinatown, one of the country's foremost black market jewelry markets.
The impact of illegal gold mining on the environment is also a significant source of concern. It has devastated the landscape even as mercury runoffs contaminate the fish population. The land is stripped of its natural resources with no thoughts about the future whatsoever. What's more alarming is that even though Paracale has always been full of gold, and its residents say they won't run out of it for a long time, many also admit that it's getting harder for them to find anything.
There are many reasons to shut down illegal gold mines permanently. Natural resources are slowly dwindling, and miners' lives continue to be at risk. So why does it continue? Because too much money is at stake.
Directed by: Justin Ong