From artisanal to working-class — Oro shows violent mining struggles on Filipino island

Written & directed by Alvin Yapan
Feliz Film Productions, 2016

Oro, the Filipino film written and directed by Alvin Yapan released in December, is based on the 2014 murder of four small-scale miners in Sitio, Lahuy.

For 20 years, Elmer (Joem Bascon) and his men have freely mined in the tiny but gold-rich island of Lahuy Island in the town of Caramoan in Bicol.

As artisans in the 21st century, they have eked out a living by selling their gold to Kapitana (Irma Adlawan), the elected village chief and guild master of the miners, who trades the gold in Manila for higher rates.

The relationship of the miners and Kapitana is semi-feudal — the miners hold a seemingly communal ownership of Lahuy, provided they pay their tribute to Kapitana. And true to the semi-feudal set-up of Lahuy, the miners’ families are practically immobile. Most, if not all of them, depend exclusively on mining. Leaving the island is not an option.

The film features two clearly proletarian characters — Elmer’s wife Linda and her co-teacher who work in a rural public school. Still, their wages pale in comparison to the money generated from gold, which barely meets the island folks’ subsistence.

Enter the militia dubbed as Patrol Kalikasan — the private army of the provincial governor masquerading as eco-warriors. For the first time in 20 years, the tranquility of Lahuy is shattered as they forcibly evict the miners from their workplaces, seizing their few tools of production while invoking capitalist laws that are puzzling to the island folks.

“All laws do not favour the poor,” remarks Elmer.

Co-opting Kapitana’s rival Leticia Razon as their buyer, the armed men initially man the mining site, but do not have the skill to mine. Hence, the militia goesback to the local miners, employing them on contracts as their workers.

In this scene, the local miners, once artisans, are transformed into proletarians. They now own nothing but their labour power, since Patrol Kalikasan has seized Lahuy’s mine as their — or to be more precise, their boss’s — private property.

Here we see capitalism strangling Lahuy’s semi-feudal, artisanal existence. It doesn’t achieve this along the lines used in advanced economies. In the Third World, capitalism, in the words of the late Filipino socialist revolutionary Popoy Lagman, is “afflicted by an abnormality in its foetal stage of development”.

In Oro, the new private owner of Lahuy’s mines is not a corporation but part of the local elite (the governor), whose capital is political power and public funds. His rule is enforced by his repressive apparatus (Patrol Kalikasan) and with a middle-player as the forger of “consent” — in the process unseating Kapitana from her reign.

The governor’s method of capital accumulation may be primitive in the era of globalisation. But historically, capitalism takes root from capitalists’ forcible expropriation of land from the peasant toilers, with the displaced peasants hired as wage-earners.

Ultimately, as really happens in the Philippines, the governor ends up giving the mines over to a corporation. The attendant disasters of large-scale mining cause irreparable damage to the environment and the lives of people — as has happened in Marinduque, Compostela Valley, Rapu-Rapu, and Semirara.

Kapitana’s painstaking effort to secure a permit from the Environment Department is all but a holding action to recover her and her constituents' lost livelihoods by restoring the old artisanal way. Unfortunately, capitalism knows no sentimentality.

Artisanal mining has to be abolished and this drive leads to the murder of Elmer and three other miners during Patrol Kalikasan’s retreat. In Oro, Lahuy is a late-bloomer in capitalist development. It is one of the decaying bastions of semi-feudalism in the Philippines.

Still, if mining cannot be temporarily stopped through a national moratorium, corporations will soon plunder its land and waters. The ghosts of the felled Lahuy miners will continue to haunt the island, unless the living stand up to fight not only for social change, but also for social progress.

[Merck Maguddayao is a member of Filipino socialist party, the Party of the Labouring Masses. A version of this review was published at]