IN 2020, it was estimated by planetGold Philippines, a project supported by the Global Environment Facility, and implemented by the Artisanal Gold Council in partnership with the UN Environment Program and UN Industrial Development Organization, that there were about 200,000 to 300,000 individuals in 30 provinces in the country that are involved in artisanal, or small-scale mining operations.

Data released by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau for the first quarter of 2017 revealed that artisanal mining contributed P0.5 billion to the economy, which is actually lower than the P1.1 billion earned four years before in 2013.

The most common mining technique used is dog-hole mining which consists of tunneling, ball milling and gravity concentration, cyanide leaching and smelting. In other areas, mercury is used instead of cyanide. Mercury is far more hazardous to health and the environment.

Another technique is gold panning where the miners collect earth materials and sediments from rivers, instead of inside tunnels. A third technique is compressor mining where small-scale miners dive for mineral ore inside wells dug as deep as 60 feet while breathing through a tube connected to a makeshift compressor.

While the process is male-dominated, women are also involved. The Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines Diliman has documented women who join men even in tunneling operations. Artisanal mining is also reported to involve child labor.

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A 2022 research report documented the hazards of small-scale mining in the Cordilleras. These include exposure to noise and dust from dynamite blasting, and to extreme temperature. Artisanal miners endure prolonged crouching and bending, handling tools and carrying heavy sacks filled with mineral ore. They also face the risk of machine-related accidents associated with the ball milling and gravity concentration process. While cyanide is less deadly compared to mercury, using large amounts of this substance exposes workers to cyanide fumes, not to mention exposure to heat, dust and smoke from burning ore, and other chemicals such as borax and nitric acid that are used in the smelting process.

Artisanal mining has an environmental cost, particularly cyanide and mercury contamination of waterways. In 2018, tunnel digging in Benguet was blamed as one of the causes of a deadly landslide that buried and killed dozens during a typhoon.

The process is laborious and hazardous to human health and the environment. The entire political economy could also be characterized as somewhat feudal, with the artisanal miners obtaining income not as wages, but as shares from the sale of gold particles to buyers, with the rest of the proceeds being captured by financiers who lend them money to procure the needed equipment and materials. A 2018 study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) has described the labor structure of artisanal mining in the Cordillera as a pyramid, with the base being occupied by haulers, packers and workers in the processing stage; a middle level comprising team leaders, diggers, carpenters, engineers, portal guards and administrative staff for organizations with administrative offices; and a top level composed of the financiers, landowners, contract holders or permittees, tunnel owners, and if there is an association, its officers.

What was not included in the ILO study is the linkage between artisanal mining and large-scale mining. In Benguet, small-scale mining exists in areas abandoned by large-scale mining operations. There are also allegations that some mining companies play an active role in engaging small-scale miners.

There is an overarching constitutional warrant for artisanal mining. Section 2, Article XII of 1987 Philippine Constitution has provided for small-scale utilization of the country's natural resources. There are also laws that were issued even before the passage of the 1987 Constitution.

Presidential Decree 1899, decreed by the late president Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. in 1984, provided for small-scale mining as a specific sector in the mining industry. After 1987, a series of laws and policies were promulgated to affirm this. In 1991, Republic Act (RA) 7076, or the "People's Small Scale Mining Act," was passed by Congress. The implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of this law was issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in 1992, and was contained in DENR Administrative Order (DAO) 1992-34. In 1995, Congress passed RA 7942, or the "Philippine Mining Act," and in 1997, the DENR issued DAO 1997-30, which contained the safety rules and regulations for small-scale mining. In 2012, then-president Benigno Aquino 3rd issued Executive Order (EO) 79 institutionalizing and reforming the mining sector of the country, and the DENR issued DAO 2012-07 outlining its IRR. EO 79 has decreed that small-scale mining shall henceforth be allowed only within designated areas called "Minahang Bayan." In 2015, the DENR issued a revised IRR for RA 7076.

Thus, we are not in shortage of laws, which should have brought artisanal mining to the regulatory ambit of the state, ensuring not only the optimal contribution of the sector to the economy, but more importantly protecting the welfare of artisanal mining communities and workers not only from hazardous working conditions but also from predatory interests. More importantly, it could have ensured that the adverse environmental impacts of the industry would be mitigated.

Unfortunately, the spaces opened for Minahang Bayan are closed by the stringent requirements to qualify. After years of being provided for by law, there are only six Minahang Bayan in the country at present. Thus, a vast majority of the artisanal mining operations in the country are de facto unregulated, their contributions to the economy not optimized, their working conditions remain vulnerable and hazardous, and their environmental impacts unmitigated.

Technically, while artisanal or small-scale mining persists and even is a dominant activity in some local economies, it is an unaccounted sector that is ironically engaged in the extraction of one of the most precious resources our country has.

Faced with an informal economic activity that is able to survive several decades, the challenge is to avoid state simplification, and moderate the tendency of the state to increase legibility and ease of governing by simplifying, standardizing and bureaucratizing local and indigenous practices, and by imposing requirements that close, instead of open, spaces for participation.