THE biggest challenge now facing Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu is how to balance the diverse—and often opposing—interests of the mining industry’s stakeholders: the mining companies, the local government units, indigenous peoples, environmental advocates, educators, mining engineers, people’s organizations (PO), the religious sector and other civil society actors.
But in order to find that balance, Cimatu must first reverse the portrayal of mining companies as greedy predators who strip, plunder and pillage our mountains of their natural deposits, as his predecessor, Gina Lopez, successfully, albeit inaccurately, played up in the court of public opinion.
Cimatu must also bridge the chasm between pro-mining and pro-environment groups by proving that mining and environmental protection are not irreconcilable concepts.
He has no choice, especially after President Rodrigo Roa Duterte already ruled out the closure of the mining sector. “We do not intend to close the mining industry. It’s well nigh impossible because there is a law governing the operation of mining. [If there’s a law], you allow it. Otherwise, if you want to do away with mining altogether you, abrogate the law or modify it to something else,” the president declared.
The way I see it, the merger of the mining and environmental interests can be summed up in two words: responsible mining. But there’s a slight twist to this now-popular catchword. There is no globally recognized or accepted definition of “responsible mining.”
This is why Cimatu appears to be taking his cue from his boss. In a speech during the Mining Safety Convention held in Baguio City last week, the environment secretary shared President Duterte’s viewpoint on what responsible mining entails.
First, it must be people oriented – it must provide decent jobs and benefit the host communities. Second, mining activities must protect and enhance the environment. Third, it must not trample on the rights, and instead must promote the welfare, of our indigenous peoples whose ancestral domains contain most of our mineralized resources. Fourth, it must contribute its fair share to the national income. Fifth, the mining sector must transform itself into a world-class, efficient, effective and competitive industry.
A known critic of the mining industry, President Duterte has often decried the deleterious effects of irresponsible mineral extraction on the environment. He has, on several occasions, cited the mining operations in Tubay, Agusan del Norte as an example of how the industry works in the country. “They are not into planting. They are into open-pit mining and destroy the soil along the way,” Duterte said.
It comes as no surprise then that President Duterte refused to lift the ban on open-pit mining. This despite the recommendation of the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) – the governmental inter-agency group composed of the Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation and the Economic Development Cabinet Clusters – to revoke ex-environment chief Gina Lopez’s Administrative Order 2017-10, which prohibits the use of the open-pit method of mining for the extraction of copper, gold, silver and complex ores.
Although President Duterte exercised admirable political will in rejecting the recommendations of his own cabinet members, someone should also point out the loopholes in Lopez’s administrative order that some miners are still able to exploit.
For one, the ban singles out mines extracting copper, gold, silver and complex ores. But the quarrying of cement raw materials, for instance, which technically are also extracted through open pit mining, has been excluded from Lopez’s administrative order.
Be that as it may, the president’s thumbing down of open-pit mining still leaves the majority of mining operations in the country largely intact. And from my perspective, the bigger environmental challenge for Cimatu does not come from the regulated mining sector, composed mostly of large mining outfits, but from the clandestine and illegal mines dotting the countryside.
I’m talking about the thousands of “small-scale” mining operations throughout the Philippines. These small-scale mines account for around 60 percent of the country’s total gold production. But unlike large-scale mining operations that are closely monitored by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), most small-scale mines are unregulated, untaxed and unrestrained by environmental rules.
Sometime in 2015, the DENR set up so-called “Minahang Bayan,” or processing centers for minerals extracted by small scale miners so that the government could monitor gold production better. At present, there are only three existing Minahang Bayan in the country, located in Masbate, Davao Oriental and Samar. On the other hand, there are about 300,000 to 400,000 small-scale miners operating in 40 mineral-rich provinces nationwide, majority of which operate outside the Minahang Bayan zones.
While small-scale miners are supposed to be restricted to pick-and-shovel operations, unscrupulous foreigners have also been using Filipino “dummies” for mining activities in order to circumvent rigorous permit requirements, usually in cahoots with local government officials. Using machinery, equipment and dynamite, these illegal miners have been able to dig deeper for ore and extract precious metals using harmful chemicals.
By clamping down on these illegal and unregulated “small-scale” mines, Cimatu would be sending a strong message that responsible mining is indeed a key priority of the Duterte administration.