We do not disagree with Gina Lopez’s appointment to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR); as a matter of fact, there is a certain admirable logic in President Rodrigo Duterte’s choice of an avowed champion of the environment to lead the department tasked with properly managing and protecting it.
Over the weekend, however, it was revealed that four mining companies recommended for suspension as a result of the strict environmental and regulatory compliance audit ordered by Lopez and begun on July 8 have been nominated by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) – the very agency conducting the audit – for the prestigious Presidential Mineral Industry Environmental Award (PMIEA). The timing of the nominations suggests that the vetting and selection process by the MGB was carried out while the audit process was underway, or shortly after it was completed.
Then on Monday, it was announced that Environment Undersecretary and MGB head Leo Jasareno had been removed from his position, largely due to a technicality. Jasareno had headed the MGB for the past five years before he was appointed by Environment Secretary Lopez as officer-in-charge and senior undersecretary for environment in a special order on August 3. That appointment was said to be still pending in the President’s office, the implication being that with confirmation of Lopez’s order, Jasareno was technically not authorized to act in the position he occupied.
Lopez herself appeared nonplussed at the news, and informed reporters asking about the matter that she would discuss it with the president personally.
“I cannot let that happen. I like Leo. I love Leo,” she reportedly said, adding that she needs somebody “technical and honest” like Jasareno in her office.
Mining, or more to the point, mining’s impact on the environment, is just one of the many areas of the DENR’s responsibility. Yet, it is perhaps the one that has the greatest potential benefit to the rest of the country, in spite of its environmental risks. Mining provides direct revenue and employment, and primarily benefits smaller, poorer, more remote communities – exactly the sort of places Duterte wishes to boost with his drive to spread development to the long-overlooked provinces. Mining also creates the potential for indirect economic growth, through associated industries such as mineral processing, shipping, industrial equipment, shipping, power generation, and all the smaller services and businesses that naturally grow in the wake of larger ones.
Mining potentially does impose great costs; it taps irreplaceable mineral wealth, and is environmentally invasive no matter how carefully it is done. President Duterte’s challenge to mining firms to “do it like they do in Australia or Canada, or get out,” was completely reasonable; in fact, Philippine miners should strive to be even more exemplary than those two environment-conscious countries. Mining can and should be regulated very strictly to extract the maximum benefit with the least amount of harm; responsible miners know this, and have demonstrated a willingness to work with it.
But instead of strict and consistent regulation, what they are facing is a regulatory environment that is contradictory and haphazard. That must be corrected, and quickly. No mining firm, no matter how willing to work with stringent national and local rules, is willing to invest billions of dollars and decades of sustained effort into such chaos. And when they don’t, it’s not the mining companies who lose, but those who would benefit here in the Philippines, the very people the President has vowed to uplift.