Wed 21 February 2024

Proletarianization of the artisanal miner and “mongoloid” capitalism: Political economy of Oro

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(Warning: This review is full of spoilers)

For twenty years, Elmer and his men freely mine 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 long been eking out a living by selling their gold to Kapitana, 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 their lives exclusively on mining, and leaving the island is not an option.

(The film erstwhile had two 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 twenty years, the tranquility of Lahuy is shattered as they forcibly evict the miners from their workplaces, seizing their minuscule tools of production while invoking bourgeois laws esoteric to the island folks (“All laws do not favor the poor,” remarked Elmer). Co-opting Kapitana’s rival Leticia Razon as their buyer, the armed men initially manned the mining site but they do not have the skill to mine. Hence, the militia went back to the homegrown miners and employed them by having them sign contracts as their workers. In this scene, the homegrown miners, once artisans, are transformed into proletarians as they now own nothing but their labor power for Patrol Kalikasan had seized Lahuy’s mine as their–or to be more precise, their boss’–private property.

Here we see how capitalism strangled Lahuy’s semi-feudal, artisanal existence, but not in capitalism’s ways in advanced economies. In the Third World, capitalism, in the words of the late Popoy Lagman, is a “mongoloid economy, afflicted by an abnormality in its fetal stage of development.” In Oro, the new private owner of Lahuy’s mines is not a corporation but a local elite (the governor) whose capital is political power and public fund, his rule enforced by his repressive apparatus (the Patrol Kalikasan) and with a middle-lady (Leticia Razon) as the forger of “consent” by magnetizing the homegrown miners for want of subsistence, in the process unseating Kapitana from her reign.

The governor’s method of capital accumulation maybe primitive in the era of globalization and increasing commercialization, but historically, capitalism takes root from the bourgeoisie’s forcible expropriation of land from the peasant toilers, with the latter eventually hired as wage-earners.

Corporatizing mining in Lahuy is not in any way more humane than the Patrol Kalikasan’s forcible seizure of the mines. Ultimately, as what happens in the Philippines, the governor had to give the mines to a corporation and as shown in pictures and the attendant disasters of large-scale mining, it only caused irreparable damage to the environment and the lives of people, as what happened in Marinduque, Compostela Valley, Rapu-Rapu, and Semirara (Oro did not delve on this, though).

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 livelihood by restoring the old artisanal way. Unfortunately, capitalism knows no sentimentality, just like how Cinema Paradiso was demolished in Giancaldo to pave way for a parking lot. Artisanal mining has to be abolished and it was enunciated in the murder of Elmer and three other miners during Patrol Kalikasan’s retreat.

In Oro, Lahuy is a late-bloomer in capitalist development, it being one of the decaying bastions of semi-feudalism in the Philippines. Tourism is the main industry of its town Caramoan, and it serves capital as some former miners turn into tourism workers. Still, if all forms of 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.

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