My island of Marinduque is a bleeding heart

Satellite view of the abandoned Marcopper Mining Corp. —GOOGLE MAPS

I grew up on an island whose tale begins with love and ends with death. 

Scientists would scoff and tell a completely different story. How could they believe an island would rise above the tides as a memorial to the forbidden love of a princess and a commoner, who sailed together across unforgiving seas and died—and right where they drowned would appear a mass of land shaped like a heart?

The lovers were named “Maring” and “Duke,” according to my grandfather, Lolo Oscar. He told me the tale of Marinduque when I was a child and we were sitting on his veranda overlooking the sea—I, the curious listener, and he, the old storyteller who mixed words and cigarette smoke as he spoke.

I believed everything back then, even the legends of the golden ship that cruised across the distance and mysteriously vanished into the night, and of the golden calf that grazed on the mountains and the lovely deity that protected it. I believed them all because to a six-year-old, the world had yet to lose its wonder.

My grandfather was wise, and nurtured my imagination. He could foretell bad weather coming by the sight of layang-layang in the sky, and a typhoon leaving just by the feel of torrential rain known as paragsaw. And he’d listen to the language of the winds and say from which direction they were coming and where they were heading. 

Amihan comes from the mountains,” he muttered under his smoke-filled breath. “Habagat comes from the sea.” 

His stories strengthened my connection to this island and the sea, just like the way he raised my mother.

Life by the sea

Nanay had her own share of stories. She recalled their old nipa house on the beach, the one to which they relocated—thrice, she said—to steer clear of the habagat’s fury. She was used to switching places, even if it meant moving only a few steps or just as far as to heed the waves’ command.

Living by the sea must have been a challenging experience for her, I imagine, although nothing of her childhood indicated that it was unbearable. And this brings me to that awful day when she came home crying to Lolo Oscar because her teacher had announced a toilet inspection. (They had no such thing.) He comforted her, simply saying, “The sea is big enough for us. What else do we need for a toilet?” 

I don’t recall Nanay ever finishing that story. But I remember how its missing parts were filled instead with jokes and laughter and some spilled food on the dinner table. We found the story funny, especially when Nanay recounted her toilet-free days under the big old pandan tree, when she’d sneak into a hollow space between the stilted roots. She’d take cover behind the palm-like foliage and wait for the right moment to pee or poo. 

The sea was only a sprint away, and the water never ran out. It was as convenient as having a real toilet, I thought. 

The sea was a very special place in my mother’s upbringing, as well as in mine. I remember playing by the beach with my friends in the afternoon. We collected shells and dug out sand crabs, chanting “Tipas, tipas!” and cheering for the crabs to emerge from their burrows. We chased the small waves and waited for the big ones to chase us. We made balls and built miniature igloos out of sand, and polished them with sprinkles of seawater and grit. We played hide-and-seek under the pandan tree. (It stank, but was a perfect hiding place.) And then, after sunset, when all the fun had ended, we dashed home. 

Delight and fear

My childhood in the late 1990s was delightful. But there was also fear. Word spread about the aswang, the man-eating creature that lurked at night and turned into a dog, or pig, by morning. There also came stories about the white van that roamed the town to snatch kids and kill them for their blood, to build bridges. 

There was one other frightening thing about the island that elders refused to tell children about.

“One day, Marinduque will sink,” I heard the elders talking worriedly. They kept mentioning a name: “Marcopper.” It sounded strange; I knew it was something bad by the way people spoke of it, the deadly kind of bad, more fearsome than the aswang and the white van. 

On the eve of March 23, 1996—when I was still too young to tell the time, or what day it was—a disaster awakened our island to unmitigated horror. One of Marcopper’s drainage tunnels burst open and tons of mine tailings spilled out of the dam. The toxic wastewater surged through the Boac River and down to the shallow sea, killing everything along its serpentine trail. Crops, fish, and livestock all yielded to the toxic and turbulent flood. 

At daybreak, the villagers helplessly watched and wept as their rice fields crumbled in silt and mud and tailings before turning into desolate terrain. 

Residents near the Boac River were forced to flee their homes, but the poison hunted them down. The toxic chemicals that leaked into the water system reached their bloodstreams. Cancer and other deadly diseases became prevalent and while they were grappling with mortality, the villagers took their struggle to the streets and the courtrooms, seeking justice. 

The Marcopper mining disaster of 1996 changed Marinduque from an island paradise to a living hell.

I was a child when the horror occurred. And in my little world, Marcopper did not exist. Only years later, probably when I was in high school, did I learn about Marcopper and its bloody past. I learned, too, that, unlike the aswang and the white van that had scared me, Marcopper was real. Marcopper took away lives, and its victims suffered slow and painful death. 

“NO TO MINING!” the victims cried. 

I saw those words in public places as I was growing up. I heard them said in churches and schools. I noticed them on signs along sidewalks, highways and bridges. The words followed me wherever I went, like an echo. I felt them instilled deeper and deeper into my consciousness, as if telling me that for as long as I’m in Marinduque, I should never forget about Marcopper and the great destruction it brought to the island and our people.  

‘Where exactly is Marinduque?’

I left for college 110 miles away, thinking that I could leave this narrative behind and just keep the happy memories. But the sad thoughts of home always came back. I felt like a pendulum tied to a longer string, but no matter how far the string allowed me to go, I always swung back to the same place.

“Where exactly is Marinduque?” a classmate at the university asked. “Is it in the Visayas or Mindanao?” 

“Marinduque is in Luzon. It’s an island-province three hours away from the mainland,” I told her. 

Curious, she asked: “How do you travel then?”

“From here, I ride a bus to a seaport in Quezon. Then I take a ferry. And it takes another hour and a half on a jeepney to reach my hometown.” 

“So, when do you plan to go back to, oh wait, where’s it again? Masbate? Mandaue?”


“Right. Marinduque.”

I learned that Marinduque exists in other people’s mental maps for two reasons: One is Moriones, the festival, and the other is Marcopper, the disaster. One a blessing, the other a curse. The curse hits a nerve in me every time. Here’s a mining company that made our island world-class famous after destroying it. How can I make lighthearted conversation out of that tragic story? 

Still, it’s a conversation I could not avoid, for there is so much truth in it about my island’s history and my own. And this unpleasant path toward the truth led me to Marinduque’s northeastern shore. I traveled some 58 kilometers from my hometown Buenavista to listen to the silenced stories in Calancan Bay.

Sea and sky

The coastal waters looked wonderful that day I arrived in Calancan. I could not decide whether the sea was mimicking the sky or the sky was mirroring the sea because the bright cast of blue stretched seamlessly across the horizon. I was captivated by the sight, so much so that it distracted me from the tortuous road ahead. 

I observed that cars are rare in Calancan; the narrow roads prefer much smaller vehicles, ideally with only two or three wheels. Jeepneys are somewhat an exception, for they follow a certain trip schedule. The earliest arrival is at 8 a.m., and the last trip leaves at 1 p.m. 

I arrived on a tricycle and had no problem following the schedule. I remember that along the way, as we were passing a hillside, I asked the driver to pull over for a minute so I could have a steady view of the seascape. I saw a couple of islets and a long strip of vibrant white sand covering the coast, different from the dark gray sand I used to play in on the other side of the island when I was little. The sand here is like granulated sugar. The view looked sweet and lovely from afar, with nothing in the water suggesting danger. 

It wasn’t until I spoke to Ka Jose, a village leader, that I realized that my first glimpse of Calancan Bay was an illusion. “What you saw on the way here was not white sand, or a beach, but thick piles of mine tailings and crushed rocks from Marcopper,” he said.

Ka Jose said that in the 1970s, Marcopper built open-pit mines on Mount Tapian. It hollowed out layers of earth from the mountain. It drilled boulders and pulverized rocks and ore residue, flattening the terrain and leaving massive craters on the ground. Allegedly, Marcopper’s open-pit mines, owing to their vastness and depth, were enough to sink the island. 

It was a very scary prediction, but the real tragedy happened when Marcopper built huge tunnels and drainpipes that extended 14 km from Mount Tapian to the surface water of Calancan Bay, which soon became a dumping ground for its toxic wastes. 

The villagers protested. They organized civil groups and held rallies to condemn Marcopper for the damage it caused to Calancan Bay and their livelihood. Ka Jose was at the picket line with his fellow fishers. But their protests meant nothing to Marcopper. Even the government at that time was unmoved. The mining disposal continued.

The story goes that because Marcopper had no intention of pulling out, it pressured the villagers to relocate to the mountain so that its operations could proceed unhindered. The villagers refused. They went to the Capitol and formed human barricades to show their defiance. But they failed. They lost their stake in Calancan Bay without receiving anything in exchange from Marcopper (except for the mine tailings). The villagers have a word for the tailings: tambak.

Tambak was a causeway, but the fishers liked to name it by many expletives. It clogged the mouth of the bay and blocked off the fish coming from the sea. Thus, the landlocked fishers were left with no option: Either they starved in the bay, scrimping for very little fish, or took the dangerous route through an alternative passage where the catch was bigger, but so were the waves. The latter was a wise choice on calmer days, but the days in Calancan Bay are very, very unpredictable. 


One morning before dawn, Luningning, a woman I met in Calancan, went fishing with her husband. They rented a motorboat, for they could not afford to own one, and headed to the open sea. The waves were peaceful when they left. But as they moved farther from the shore, big waves started slapping their rented motorboat. As they tried to escape the strong current, the engine stopped. 

It could have been their last time fishing together but, thankfully, they managed to return safely home, where their son was waiting.

Luningning’s life has always revolved around the sea. There have been many sacrifices, she told me, because living at sea meant forever being at the mercy of the weather and the tide. And now that she has a family of her own, with three children and a husband who is also a fisherman, she feels that there is nothing she can do to change the orbit of her fate. 

“It is hard for a mother whose basic livelihood depends on the sea,” she said. “It’s really hard, especially if the sea is our only hope. We went fishing one day and wished for a bountiful catch, but there was nothing.” 

I listened to Luningning as she talked about her suffering. It was of the visceral kind that her eyes and lips could not conceal. It pained her to see her family subsisting on tuyo (dried fish). And it pained her more to reheat the fish with more vinegar just to delay spoilage and ensure more meals, though meager. There’s nothing more painful than this: being fishers and having no fresh fish on the table. 

I reflected on Luningning’s name—which means “brilliance”—and concluded that it is the heavy irony she carries during dark days at sea.

Fishing sanctuary

In Marinduque
Fisherman cannot fish in polluted waters.

Calancan Bay was once a place of brilliance, too, just before Marcopper came. The elders remember it as a fishing sanctuary brimming with spider fish, sea clams, and yellowstripe scads, as well as seagrasses and coral reefs, blessed with clean water and smooth tides. Life was so much better in the old days, they say. 

But when mining came, the bay lost its brilliance and vitality. The spider fish, sea clams, and yellowstripe scads were contaminated with heavy metals and died. The seagrasses and coral reefs were smothered in tailings and vanished. Soon, the water was not clean anymore, and the tide became harsh and violent. The Calancan Bay of more than half a century ago became a myth. 

And perhaps the children born here in the 1990s came too late to see and remember the bay before it became a cautionary tale about Marcopper and the dangers of a mine-spilled sea.

I wish Marcopper were the myth, but the facts prove otherwise.

FVR’s report

The sender logs “20 September 1980.” And the header reads “Philippine Constabulary Integrated National Police, Camp Crame.” It is Maj. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos writing to the National Pollution Control Commission (NPCC) chair, Brig. Gen. Guillermo A. Pecache. The letter is about the state of deterioration and destruction of the coral reefs in Calancan Bay. 

In his message, Ramos tells Pecache: “Initial investigation disclosed that the mine tailings have already taken its toll in the bay and have caused continuous siltation of the reef… The marine life which was once abundant within the areas is nowhere to be found.”1 

The report from Ramos was alarming, but Pecache saw no urgency to stop Marcopper. It was only a year later, after another round of local protests flared, that the national government issued a cease-and-desist order on the mining disposal.

But Marcopper’s closure in 1981 was a short-lived victory for the people of Calancan Bay because the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. approved the resumption of Marcopper’s mining operations following the appeal of its president, Garth S. Jones.

Per documents, Jones asked Marcos to allow Marcopper’s open surface mine tailings disposal without constraints.2 It’s alleged that Marcos was a part-owner of Marcopper, sharing half of its holdings with the foreign company Placer Development Ltd. A month after the request, a court petition stated that Marcos had instructed the NPCC to issue a temporary permit to Marcopper effective from Oct. 31, 1985, to Oct. 21, 1986.3 But come termination day, the NPCC released yet another temporary permit prolonging Marcopper’s tailings disposal in Calancan Bay until Feb. 10, 1987, with the appended condition that Marcopper should soon transfer to San Antonio Pond, the new open-pit mine the company was building at the time. 

Marcopper, however, appealed again to the NPCC and requested sufficient extension for operations and an indefinite suspension of the conditions stated under the new temporary permit order.

Martial law 

I paused while reading the documents and noted the dates (between 1980 and 1986). Yes, the events took place under martial law. 

I wasn’t born yet when martial law was declared in the Philippines in September 1972, or when Marcopper started mining in Marinduque. And almost everything I know about martial law, I learned from books, films, and lectures. I say “almost” because I also learned a few (contrasting) things about it from my grandfather. He said Marinduque was a peaceful place during martial law, and that the streets were dead silent beyond midnight. He liked the imposition of curfew and praised Marcos for it.

Lolo Oscar believed Marcos was a great president. If I were still a child I would have believed him, the way I believed his tales of how Marinduque came to be. But I’m no longer a child; I have decoded the stories. Marinduque was not a peaceful place during martial law. People protested on the ground, but Marcos did not stop Marcopper from destroying our island. He allowed Marcopper’s mining disposal in Calancan Bay, which lasted for 16 years—from 1975 to 1991—partly under his dictatorship. 

And in those 16 years, Marcopper savagely used Calancan Bay as a toilet, flushing out, not piss and poop, but mine tailings dangerously high in arsenic and mercury: dirty and deadly.

In Marinduque
RUST FROM THE PAST. Man-sized pipelines are now rusting and flaking off along the causeway.

I have seen the old pipes used in flushing out the tailings—much bigger than me and so much older, too, but decaying now, with rust and brine eating at the metal tubes that carried the toxic debris from the open-pit mine down to the bay.

The pipes have been untouched since Marcopper abandoned them decades ago. But while I was walking along the bay, on its toxin-laden coast, Marcopper was still present. I felt it in the eerie reddish glow of the oxidized metal tubes, the simmering heat of the tailings beneath my feet, and the lonely stretch of the shore. I realized that this is Marcos’ deadly legacy to our island.

Malakas and Maganda 

My grandfather is dead now, and I wonder if I can retell this tale that begins with love and ends with death. (More deaths, eventually.)

Two lovers named Malakas and Maganda once ruled a country; he made himself a strongman, and she thrived on his power to become the most beautiful woman in the land. But they realized that strength and beauty were not enough to prove that their love was pure and true. And so they sailed the seas and traveled on bridges—and built one where there was none—to find the purest of stones and the truest of treasures. 

One day, Malakas found a heart-shaped island in the middle of the sea. And on this island, he found more precious stones and treasures. He summoned big miners from a faraway land to get the job done for him to please his wife. The miners worked day and night for many years to drill and dig and dump. They wanted to satisfy him with more treasures.

The residents raged at the big miners: “STOP MINING!” But the big miners were unfazed and kept drilling and digging and dumping. 

Then, a bleak prophecy: The island will sink and many people will die. The big miners from a faraway land did not believe the prophecy, nor did Malakas and Maganda. But one peaceful night while the people were asleep, a heavy flood submerged their land. Many thought the prophecy had been fulfilled. 

They were wrong. The flood was only a prelude. The real prophecy would reveal itself to them with loud, angry tremors on the ground to welcome the son of Malakas. It is said that he will fulfill the prophecy, according to his late father’s will, to awaken the sleeping mining giant that will sink the island into the sea.

1 A letter of Fidel V. Ramos to Guillermo A. Pecache signed on Sept. 20, 1980 (para. 2).

2 A letter of request from Garth S. Jones to Ferdinand Marcos Sr. signed on Dec. 22, 1981. Marcos approved it on Jan. 27, 1982.

3 Republic of the Philippines, represented by the Pollution Adjudication Board (DENR), Petitioner, v. Marcopper Mining Corporation, Respondent. G.R. No. 137174 (July 10, 2000) (Phil.),

Read more: Chopping down trees in India, then compensating for them—but at whose cost?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.