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From a distance, you can see water rushing from big pipes and flowing into the sea, and then the sound of generators, several of them, makes you realize there’s something going on. You see shadows of men busy getting here and there, in the wooden shanties seated on top of concrete columns rising in the shallow waters of the ocean. Some men, huddled in groups, look down the columns waiting.

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If you’re bound for Calaguas taking the Paracale trip, the stilt houses on one side of the Paracale port will certainly catch your attention. When I first visited in 2013, I thought they were squatters. I later learned that these columns are deep wells that go about 20 feet deep into the earth, leading to the rich ores of gold underneath the ocean.  Deep-well mining as a method of recovering precious metal is just one of the ways known to the locals of gold-rich Paracale.

At first, I just wanted to take photos of these “houses”. But, on my trip back from Calaguas, the curiosity heightened, I got more questions that could no longer wait for answers: how is gold exactly recovered from these deep  wells, what are the pipes and generators for, what’s life like for a gold miner? To feed my hungry mind, I asked Leo, one of the locals I met in Calaguas, to accompany me to the community. He willingly obliged.

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Leo took me to a cluster of houses, a small community where neighbors seem to know each other’s stories and almost everyone has a store or a pawnshop. After a few minutes walking, I finally found myself in the action scene. Leo wasn’t talking. He just let me observe the surrounding. The men looked at me with inquisitive eyes, nobody smiled. I was careful not to send a message that I wasn’t a spy or someone who could report them to the authority (these small-scale mining operations, I’ve read are banned).

And then I got the courage to sneak into one of the shelters. I greeted the workers, men of different ages, and asked if I could join them. I told them I was just curious. I looked around. There were equipment in the room—picks, pipes, shovels, headlamps, cooking wares and ropes that are fed to the pulleys to carry some items up and down the well. The vertical tunnel is lighted by an extra bright neon bulb. When you look, you’ll see woods lining the tunnel, which at some part gets narrower and narrower you can only guess what lies beyond that.

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Copyright: Mark Saludez, Human Rights Watch

So, I threw the magic question—how is gold obtained from these mines? The men were a shy bunch of workers in their 30’s, only the plump teenager guy willingly responded to me. They have to dive into these wells, he said, and dig through the earth to extract rocks. They had to breathing oxygen from a tube with the help of a compressor, and water from the tunnel had to be pumped out continuously or they’d drown.  The ores collected are then pulverized in a mill, and from there, the precious metal is recovered. I asked, what’s in the next house. I was told it’s the same, a deep well, but richer in ores. They get more gold than us, he said.

These men understand the dangers of mining. It’s gambling, betting their life on the chance of finding wealth underground, and knowing at the same time that the ores excavated may not yield gold at all. Still, they keep it as their way of life—and death—because the prospect of finding gold is already enough to give them hope.

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ArisMape

ArisMape is a travel insider at ABS-CBN's Choose Philippines. He loves orange, halo-halo, and PowerPoint, and hates beef, slow internet, and long taxi lines. His pastime is watching people watch other people. He swears on the power of smartphone. His half-life? Thirty.