Same tale of greed, neglect and death

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2006, 12:00am

Rampant mining and past logging in a geologically unstable area led to the mudslide

Behind the horrific mudslide in southern Leyte that wiped out a village of 1,800 people is the same old story of government ineptitude, badly thought-out policies and greed.

Signs of an impending disaster in Guinsaugon were all there for anyone to see, scientists said.

The area lay near a geological fault. The volcanic soil on the mountain slopes was loose and unstable. Too much rain had fallen in the past two weeks - almost 500mm compared to the average 10mm for this time of the year.

All that residents had to do was closely watch the trees, Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology chief Rene Solidum said. 'Trees grow vertically but if they are slanted, it is a sign that the ground is moving,' he said.

But no one told them early on to watch the trees that rain-soaked Friday morning. Farmers were out planting. Around 200 children and 40 teachers were in school.

When an explosion was heard, followed by a roaring sound of mud and trees cascading down the mountain, it was too late.

Their surviving relatives knew their loved ones were buried alive in the mud by the desperate text messages they had sent seconds after the catastrophe.

'We are alive, dig us out,' one text message said. 'We're still in one room, alive,' a teacher wrote to her daughter Pamela Tiempo.

Von Hernandez, the Green-peace Southeast Asia campaign director, blamed the government for failing to put up early warning systems in landslide-prone areas.

'We never learn from previous disasters,' he said.

A mudslide had previously occurred in southern Leyte in December 2004, but that was then eclipsed by an even bigger catastrophe - a mudslide from the mountains of Quezon province in southern Luzon that killed 1,060 people and devastated 3.6 million.

After the Quezon and Leyte mudslides, President Gloria Maca-pagal-Arroyo ordered mapping of all disaster-prone areas and the setting up of early warning systems.

'Obviously, nothing happen-ed,' complained Congressman Roger Mercado who represents southern Leyte in the legislature.

And instead of declaring southern Leyte as a protected area, the lawmaker noted, the government still opened it up to mining. Clemente Bautista, of the environment group Kalikasan, said the Arroyo government gave mining firms Buena Suerte Mining Corporation and Oro Philippine Ventures Inc permits to prospect for gold and silver in 13,876 hectares of southern Leyte. Four other mining firms were already exploring the mountainous portions of southern Leyte, he said.

The bureau of mines said Oro Philippine Ventures was permitted to explore in over 7,000 hectares of southern Leyte, including the village of Guinsaugon, where the tragedy occurred.

Congressman Mercado also blamed greedy illegal loggers. Although 'it stopped around 10 years ago, this is the effect of logging in the past', he said.

The government paid scant attention to reforestation, and allowed coconuts with shallow roots to be planted on the slopes, environmentalists said.