by B.J. Stolbov
I’ve often wanted to see where the gold in my wedding ring came from, or the gold in a bracelet and necklace, or the gold in a camera, cell phone, and computer. (Yes, there’s gold in a computer!)
Didipio Gold Mine isn’t easy to get to. It’s in an isolated corner of Quirino Province in Northern Luzon in the Philippines. It’s more than an hour’s drive from the nearest town, Didipio. The narrow, gravelly road twists and turns, up and down, through hills and valleys, untouched and unspoiled, lush and green, with stands of coconuts and groves of bananas, lots of bananas. Only a few houses can be seen from the road. The mine is out-of-the-way in one of the least populated areas in one of the least populated provinces in the Philippines.
There is, also, the matter of security. This is, after all, a mine that produces gold: a precious metal that people have spent their lives getting, stealing, killing, and dying for. Our tour was arranged by the mine’s Tourist Information Office and through the mine’s Community Development Department. A company driver in a company van drove us. For the last 20 km., from outside of Didipio, we followed a company truck with a blinking light on its roof from their Security Department. Then, finally, after an ordinary ridge top, we went down into a secluded valley.
At the fenced gate, we have to sign in, hand our ID to the Security personnel, then we are frisked by a uniformed Security guard, and we are given a security badge, a vest with reflecting tape, and a hard hat to wear at all times at the mine.
Didipio Gold Mine is both huge and surprisingly small. It is 350 hectares (about 1.5 square miles). It is an open-pit mine; the actual pit is “only” 300 meters (less than 1000 feet) deep. There is lots of heavy equipment: excavators and haul trucks, conveyor belts and rock crushers.
When I think of a mine, I think of coal mining. I was born and raised in coal mining country in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania. I grew up seeing massive, environmentally destructive scars on the hills and valleys, stripped of topsoil, plants, and trees, polluted waters, dead fish, coal dust and ash everywhere, a gray haze from burning coal over the valley, and snow that in a few days turned from white to gray to black.
Then, with the urging of our local residents, the government passed environmental laws demanding that the coal company, when it finished mining, fills in the tunnels and pits, and reforests the hillsides with trees. The coal company thought it could no longer make the kind of profits it once did, so it closed down and left, and with it most of the jobs of my little town. The economy and the population of my town plummeted; many left, including me.
Didipio Mine is the largest private, non-governmental, employer in the Province. Two thousand people work shifts of 14 days on and 7 days off. The mine is too far away from any place for the workers, even the workers who live in the near-by villages, to commute to work daily. The site is completely self-contained: dormitories, a dining hall, an emergency hospital, a fire station, training rooms, recreation rooms, basketball courts, and plants and flowers.
The mine has its own plant nursery and fish hatchery. (I have never heard of a mine with its own plant nursery and fish hatchery!) The company’s spokesperson says that they plant 100 trees for every one they cut down, and they are growing fish in their water catchment ponds. The company’s spokesperson says that the fish are not yet edible, but the mine is raising them to test the water quality and they hope that some day they will be able to eat their own fish.
Gold mining is smaller than coal mining, but its by-products are cyanide and mercury, and they are toxic. The spokesperson claims that no toxic by-products enter the environment.
Of course, mining does change the environment. An excavator weighing 79,000 kg, (174,160 lb.) with a maximum height of 12 meters (40 feet) and with a backhoe bucket capacity of 4 cubic meters (5.3 cubic yards) scooping up almost 150 cubic feet of rock, and dumping it into a haul truck weighing 72,000 kg (158,730 lb.), with a maximum height of 10 meters (33 feet), and a 91 metric ton payload capacity, then bringing it to an ore crusher is going to change the environment. Actually, any shovelful of earth scooped out is going to change the environment, just ask the ants and the worms. It’s impossible for us humans to have absolutely no effect on the environment.
As a tourist, most of my contacts with the local economy are usually at hotels or resorts, restaurants or coffee shops, retail shops or outdoor markets. But, as an inquisitive traveler to foreign places, and even to local places, I make it a point to search out its factories, manufacturers, and food processors.
As a kid, I lived next to a pretzel factory; I loved the smell and I could always get a free, broken pretzel. Some of my favorite places to visit anywhere are bakeries or bread-making factories; I always love the aroma of fresh-baked bread, plus I often get free samples.
Breweries and vineyards have made a lucrative side business of touring their facilities and plying visitors with beer and wine. (Bring along a designated driver; I still can’t remember if those wineries I visited were in Napa or Sonoma Valleys!)
Automobile, truck, or motorcycle production factories are fascinating to me. Any assembly line, especially where I can see something created from beginning to end, interests me. Almost any place that makes something probably has a tour.
Or, I love to just sit for a while next to a local artisan, a weaver, a fabric dyer, a furniture maker, a sculptor, a potter, a jeweler, or anyone. People who make things are interesting and they often like having curious people see and appreciate what they make.
Industrial or craft touring may not be the first thing that comes to mind when traveling in a foreign country. Sometimes, like Didipio Mine, the place is hidden. Often, it can be hard to find and harder to arrange. It’s rare for a tourist to get to see a gold mine.
A gold mine is, I must admit, not so glamorous up close. Most of it is mounds of gray rock that is crushed until it is a fine dust with 1% to 2% gold content, and then it is washed and cleaned and purified. Didipio Mine, the largest gold mine in the Philippines, produces 100,000 ounces of pure gold per year.
The tour, which was free, was well worth it. Even though, sigh, I didn’t get any free samples.
B.J. Stolbov lives and works in the Philippines, and travels and explores whenever and wherever. He is a writer, poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, travel writer, technical writer/editor, and an improving photographer. B.J. served in the U.S. Peace Corps, and taught English and writing in high schools and universities in Northern Luzon in the Philippines. He teaches English and writing, and is available for writing and teaching positions. Please feel free to contact him at BJStolbov@gmail.com. Photography by Sirpat Photography.