Folks always ask me what was my favorite place to visit and photograph, a question I’ve never been able to answer. If they ever asked me where the least favorite place I visited and photographed was, however, I have an easy answer: Mount Diwata, in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The "golden mountain," is one of the largest sources of gold in the Philippines and possibly the world, but was nicknamed "Diwalwal" in the local Cebuano slang, which means "tongues hanging out from exhaustion” mountain. Mindanao has long been plagued by civil and political strife and violence, including a decades long muslim insurgency, and amid this chaos in the 1990s the mountain was taken over by thousands of poverty-stricken, freelance prospectors, leaving a solitary army base on the mountain's peak to maintain law and order. It truly was, and still is, a wild west town.
I arrived there in April 1997 with fellow photographer Ben Davies. Heading up the mountain on the backs of motorcycles we arrived in the bottom of a valley of ramshackle huts and open mine shafts lining a street, where water and toxins spilled out from mining operations. We found a dormitory that passed for a hotel in the heart of Diwawal but within an hour of our arrival word got out and soldiers from the local military outpost came down and pulled us out, telling us know in no uncertain terms we were not allowed to stay in town. If we insisted of staying on the mountain, we had to stay in the base, sleeping in their small medical clinic. Ben and I spent less than week on the mountain, climbing down the hand dug mine shafts and witnessing the widespread use of mercury and cyanide to extract gold from the mined rocked. Men, women and children all dug and shifted for gold in a toxic stew that spilled down streams from the mountain. Our last night on the mountain a miner was stabbed to death, his body left in the street outside our original hotel; the man lay there all night and the next day before his corpse was finally taken down the mountain, strapped to the back of a motorcycle.
A month after returning to my home in Bangkok I found myself curled up on the floor with stomach cramps so bad I could barely stand; after a stomach endoscopy at BNH hospital in Bangkok I found out I’d contracted the bacteria H-pylori on the mountain and would need to take a two months of heavy antibiotics and painkillers. Oh, and I couldn’t drink coffee or alcohol for the two months. The work was later published in Sekai Magazine in Japan as part of their “Cry of the Earth” series I shot for them on environment issues in Southeast Asia.
All shot on Fuji Provia 100 slide and rescanned this week.