Death toll in southern Philippine landslide rises, many still reported missing

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Tagum, Philippines
Death toll in southern Philippine landslide rises, many still reported missing A rescuer carries a young girl to an evacuation site from the landslide-hit village of Masara in Davao de Oro province in the southern Philippines, Feb. 8, 2024.
[Mark Navales/BenarNews]

Search-and-recovery personnel kept digging through the mud to recover more bodies from a landslide that struck a southern Philippine mining village last week, as the death toll reached at least 68 with 51 more people still missing, officials said Monday.

Days of heavy rains dislodged saturated slopes above the gold-mining village of Masara, which lies in Maco town in southern Davao de Oro province, causing a landslide that engulfed a section of the community on Feb. 5.

The miraculous recovery of a young girl found alive days later brought some hope but by the weekend, rescuers could not find signs that anyone was still alive under the rubble.

Leah Añora, a member of the Interior Department’s Management of the Dead and Missing cluster, said dozens of more people were still missing six days after the disaster.

“As of today, Feb. 12, 2024, we have already accounted for 68 bodies,” Añora told a press briefing. “Also, we have 51 missing individuals and we have 32 injured as of today.”

Those who perished were workers for Apex Mining Co. Inc., the firm that owns mining concessions to dig for gold in the area.

Provincial spokesperson Edward Macapili on Sunday said that at “ground zero,” the landslide of wet earth that had cascaded down onto the village buried a portion of it in mud up to 50 meters (164 feet) deep. 

Rescuers have only reached between 20-40 meters (65.6 feet to 131 feet) deep, which is where many of the bodies were recovered.

“The rescue team is doing its best, even if it’s very difficult,” he told reporters.

Police and rescue volunteers carry a corpse recovered from the landslide-hit village of Masara, in Maco town, southern Philippines, Feb. 8, 2024. [Mark Navales/BenarNews]

Two U.S. Marine Corps KC-130J Hercules aircraft stationed in Manila were to be used to fly in supplies for the affected families, the Philippine military said on Monday.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has also provided nearly U.S. $1.25 million in humanitarian aid for those affected in Davao de Oro and Davao del Norte provinces as well as Davao City.

Company can ‘voluntarily cease operations’

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources has not issued a suspension order against the company Apex Mining.

Environment Undersecretary Joselin Fragada said the landslide occurred outside Apex’s area of operations. The company could suspend its operations, he said.

“They can choose to do so, it’s their prerogative, right? If they like to, they can voluntarily cease operations first if the weather conditions are really like that,” Fragada said. 

“We always remind the mining companies of their responsibilities, and of course, [that includes] watching the post-effect on communities, as well, since most of the host communities are employed with them,” he added.

Progressive groups said Apex Mining should be held liable for the incident, citing environmental damage as the cause of the landslide.

“Apex Mining Co. can’t just stay quiet and cover up their big liability and responsibility to their local workers that became victims, especially for those who died, because of the landslide and flooding that happened in its mining site,” said Bayan Muna, vice president for Mindanao Eufemia Cullama, over the weekend.

In a stock exchange filing on Monday, Apex Mining Co. said that the incident area, which it said was 500 meters away from its gate, “is outside the mine operations area of the company.”

The area, it said, serves as a vehicle terminal for buses and jeepneys servicing its employees.

Rescuers search through rubble for survivors of the southern Philippines landslide, Feb. 8, 2024. [Mark Navales/BenarNews]

The company also said that it is now operating  with a “limited capacity” as access to its site was hampered.

“The company incident command center reported nine employees of the company were recovered dead from the landslide site, and one was injured and is currently being treated in a hospital in Davao region,” Apex said on Monday.

“[The] search-and-rescue operation continues to account/locate/search for the nine unaccounted for or missing employees,” it added.

The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where tectonic plates collide, and in the Pacific typhoon belt.

A combination of mountainous terrain and high rainfall also makes the archipelago particularly susceptible to landslides. Man-made disasters have exacerbated this problem in recent years, experts said.

From 2016 to 2021, the Davao region in the south incurred the highest losses due to floods and landslides in the Philippines, according to data from the Office of the Civil Defense. Total cost of damages in the 6-year period was nearly U.S. $200,000, averaging more than $37,00 a year.

The area is also one of the region’s illegal logging hotspots, based on Forest Management Bureau data.

Davao De Oro, which has been greatly affected by disasters in recent years, lost 8% of its forest cover from 2010 and 2020, government data showed.


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