ROMBLON, Romblon Island—This solid island of high-grade marble is like a person with split personality: it is rich, it is poor; it is promising, it is unforgiving; on one side, 15 barangays with beautiful and powdery white-sand beaches; on the other side, 16 barangays of quarry sites.
The island has a solid foundation of immaculate white marble, an inexhaustible stock of expensive stone that can make the province one of the richest in the country if local companies can harness the backyard mining into a major industry.
But Romblon is so poor the National Economic Development Authority has tagged it as a member of the infamous “Club 20,” the group of the “poorest of poor” provinces in the Philippines.
“We have a good barometer of the marble industry: beer consumption. You know the industry is not doing well when beer consumption is low,” one elderly islander said.
“For the past many years, it has been low.”
Known as “The Marble Country,” Romblon is famous for its artisans, who crack slabs of marble from the mountain and carved the stone by hand into such products as dolphins, manta rays, hearts, crosses, ashtrays and vases in various shapes.
Romblon marble is noted to be the strongest stone in the world. It comes in a spectrum of shades, ranging from white to black and in-between tints like mottled white, onyx and jade.
The marble industry flourished in the 1970s and 1980s because of high demand from the construction business. But the demand dried up when Chinese synthetic tiles became popular in the 1990s.
Romblon Mayor Gerard Montojo said no investors have shown interest but buyers, including foreigners, come in droves to buy the beatiful products made by hand by artisans, who have mastered the craft of stonework.
One American was impressed by a five-foot hand-made dolphin, he told the vendor: “I will buy it and donate it to California because the dolphin is its mascot.”
The hand-carving started with the “almires” (mortar and pestle) but it soon grew into a backyard industry and everywhere people were working on stone, including women and children, chipping away at slabs that they turn into chips.
They sell the marble chips in sacks to construction companies, which use it as gravel in cementing roads and other infrastructure projects, or decorative finish for floors and walls, Montojo said.
“In factories and industrial plants you hear the hum of machines. In Romblon, you hear the hammer and chisel non-stop like a clock: tick, tick, tick, tick,” one islander said.
Unlike minerals taken from the earth such as gold, marble offers little return to workers, who earn about P200 a day under difficult conditions and without even masks to protect the face from marble dusts.
Gidencio Villanueva, 43, of Barangay Agbaluto, a perennial winner in marble carving contests during the yearly Marble Festival, said his income is not even enough to feed his wife and 10 children.
Jocelyn Mallorca, 37, brings her two small kids to the worksite, and while they sleep in a makeshift tent of coconut fronds, she chisels marble on the roadside and sell the chips at P10 per sack.
Various groups have called the attention of the government on violations of child labor and minimum wage law and other irregularities but officials were hesitant “to act against tradition.”
“Chipping marble is a family affair in Romblon. There is no child labor, but nakahanda lang ang mga bata na pumalit sa mga nakatatanda in case na sila ay mamahinga na,” said Provincial Tourism Officer Myrna Silverio.
Gov. Eduardo Firmalo said the provincial government has been coordinating with agencies such as the labor and health departments to protect the workers, but the problem is not simple.
“The family members refuse to separate. They want to work together. This is a tradition in the quarry site and it has been going on for generations,” Firmalo said.
Cong. Eleandro Madrona said Romblon should not be included in the Club 20 poorest of the poor provinces, which is a misnomer, because they are now called 15 priority provinces that need full assistance from the national government.
“Romblon, like a few others, have graduated from the Club 20,” Madrona said.
But Romblon can join the club of the “richest of the rich,” if it can improve marble quarrying and processing and bring its product to the market where it can compete with the best.
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