IN spite of our misgivings, and obviously, the fears of nearly every stakeholder in the Philippines’ mining sector, the method to the apparent madness of the aggressive campaign to ‘clean up’ the nation’s mining industry by Environment Secretary Regina Paz Lopez is becoming clear, and may just lead to a more sustainable and productive future.
There have been three significant developments since Lopez, who as an environmental activist has been publicly very vocal about her distaste for mining in general, took over as head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
First, as Reuters noted in a report on Wednesday, 10 major mining operations have been at least temporarily put out of business for various environmental infractions. Second, Lopez has subjected those who remain to a stringent audit, assessing the companies’ compliance with environmental laws, health and safety regulations, other local and national laws and regulations, and good corporate citizenship. And third, a bill that would require miners to invest in processing of mineral ores here in the Philippines and wind down ore exports over the next three to five years has been refiled in the House of Representatives, where it has a good chance of passage, unlike in 2014 when it was first introduced.
Sifting through all the rhetoric from both sides of the issue, it becomes clear that Lopez has actually been very consistent in her perspective. Mining is invariably environmentally harmful, but cannot be completely ignored as a source of national wealth; the Philippines is, according to various statistics, the seventh-most mineralized country on the planet, and as of now is the world’s largest nickel producer. If mining must be done – and the reality is, if the country wishes to grow its economy, it must make use of its native wealth – then Lopez is simply insisting that it be done in a manner that causes the least amount of environmental damage, mitigates what damage cannot be avoided, and reserve the greater part of the benefits for the communities who are most affected by it.
The proof of Lopez’s consistency in her objectives might be found in the positive reactions, grudging though they may be, of many mining interests. While still expressing some worry that the apparently harsh policies may dampen investment, big mining firms have described the DENR’s audit process – which is largely being handled by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau – as “tough but fair,” and lauded Lopez for faithfully following the directive of President Rodrigo Duterte to ensure that companies in the sector “do mining right or get out,” as it will, at the very least, prevent substandard players from bringing discredit on the entire business.
And now with the third development, the push to keep mineral ore in the country, where its processing will help support the goal of building the industrial sector, the whole plan becomes clear: What is being created, if the mining sector is willing to take part in it, is nothing less than a model industry, one that supports the Philippines’ self-reliance and produces wealth for the country in as sustainable a way as possible.
Much work remains to be done, however. As the mining industry correctly points out, investment in metals processing is currently unattractive without improvements in infrastructure and the country’s electricity sector. And Lopez has yet to direct her attention in a significant way to what is possibly the biggest source of environmental damage from mining: the small-scale mining sector, almost all of which operates illegally.
Those issues, while formidable, can be dealt with; what the mining sector needs to decide is whether or not what has happened in the past seven weeks is sufficient evidence that their patience with an environment that now may seem a little uncertain will eventually pay off. Provided the President and his energetic Environment Secretary stay their present course, we believe it will.