Monday, September 03, 2007

The business of Mt. Pinatubo’s sand

By Tonette Orejas - Inquirer

CITY OF SAN FERNANDO—In the daily routine of making figurines, Ernesto Gamboa does not lose sense of an irony.

Sand, which this 58-year-old craftsman blends with resin, more often than not, evokes memories of a disaster and the opportunities it opens to him.

“The blessings have been many. I have so much to thank for. What saddens me is that I still haven’t been able to go back to my place,” Gamboa says.

Hometown to him is still Bacolor, Pampanga, even if he has been away from it for 16 years.

The eruptions of Mt. Pinatubo in June 1991 forced Gamboa and other residents to leave. But returning was not possible.

The town dealt with another enemy, which was no less treacherous like the explosions. Lahar was the name they learned to call it and the only signal for its coming was strong rains.

In October 1995, intense rains washed down the lahar or volcanic debris from the slopes, burying the town further.

Geologists estimated that the volcano spewed out six cubic kilometers or about 600 million truckloads of pyroclastic materials, which is a mix of sulfur and other gasses, ash, mud, pumice stones and largely, sand.

That’s how abundant sand is in Pampanga, Zambales and Tarlac. The misfortune, or fortune, of Pampanga is that it tends to get more of that mineral.

Of the eight river systems where lahar flows during the rainy season, the most active so far is the Pasig-Potrero River. It cuts through Porac, Floridablanca, Bacolor, Sta. Rita and Lubao before it finally empties into the Manila Bay.

“Nang karakal ing balas (There’s so much sand),” Gamboa says.

This former jeepney driver found good use for it, as other enterprising Kapampangan did.

Sand is what he uses to make figurines, trophies, plaques, knick-knacks and other items clients want him to fashion out of it.


Disenyong Pinatubo Crafts, the business that Gamboa and his wife Luzviminda started in October 1991 while still at the Maimpis evacuation center, has done well.

Through it, they have sent all their seven children to college and provided capital for their children’s bakery, canteen and mini-grocery businesses.

It has employed a steady team of 15 workers, helping out their families as well. The business helps at least eight former prisoners build their lives anew by tapping them as salesmen.

Gamboa takes pride in the fact that retail giant Shoemart has been carrying their products for three years now. Less than a dozen exporters still trust their products.

These are what the couple has turned out of the P20,000 capital from the Department of Trade and Industry, P30,000 worth of equipment from the Social Action Center of Pampanga, and training from the Department of Science and Technology.


The village of Dolores in Mabalacat town, where Victor Jacob lived, was buried by Mt. Pinatubo’s sand.

Jacob, 50, also lost his job as utility man when the United States military decided to close the Clark Air Base in the same year that the Pinatubo disaster raged hard.

He began anew by going full-time in his hobby of bonsai making. He put in a local touch by carving “volcanic pots” from out of pumice stones.

Those are whitish, lightweight rocks. If pulverized, they produce fine and white sand. Jacob uses it as a layer to the mountain soil on which he grows his bonsai.

These have become his come-on to buyers who drop by his garden along the Dolores section of the MacArthur Highway.

About 20 bonsai gardens line that sand-filled stretch.

Jacob’s neighbor, Erwin Gueco, sculpts elephants, carabaos or lamps out of pumice stones.

Gueco, 27, calls his works “garden pieces.”


Zenaida Santiago, 48, likes it when it rains. The sand along the Bamban-Sacobia River is replenished, giving more reasons for haulers to come and buy.

Like some 30 other women in the village, Santiago gets more pumice stones that are sifted from the sand. When there’s not much, she goes to the river to search for stones.

She and her two helpers cut these into smaller squares. Makers of denim pants come to buy these to give the fabric a stonewash effect. A sack fetches P15 to P25. Her team produces 200 sacks of pumice stones a week.

The biggest business that has come out of the sand boom after Pinatubo’s 1991 eruptions is the quarry industry.

In Pampanga, which is some 60 km north of Metro Manila, many people make a living out of it.

Quarry operators (companies or individuals that hold permit over five to as much as 50 hectares of sand-rich public or private areas) sell the mineral by the truckloads or cubic meters straight to construction projects or to suppliers.

Sand is used for making hollow blocks, as filling materials or for cement mixes.

Private landowners, on the other hand, get royalties.

Drivers of heavy equipment, such as backhoes and loaders, also get to earn their keep. Truck owners rent out their vehicles for delivery or operate their own hauling business, employing a set of driver and helper for every truck.

Gasoline stations have their hands full supplying fuel to these trucks. Dozens of roadside canteens cater to drivers. Then, there are “hustlers” or men who guide the buyers to the source of good sand.

Industry leaders said about 30,000 people directly benefit from sand quarrying.

Local governments earn, too, from sand taxes.

The Pampanga provincial government has collected P36.6 million in sand taxes from July 2 to Aug. 21, capitol records showed.

Aside from collecting ecological taxes (ranging from P50 to P90 per truckload), towns and barangays get P45 and P60 from out of the P300-tax that the provincial government collects for every truckload.

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