THE utter chaos Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez has thrown the mining sector into is equal parts fascinating and embarrassing.
It is fascinating, because to my knowledge there is no precedent to an entire industry being killed by fiat by a Cabinet secretary. It is embarrassing, because the legal naïveté the well-intentioned but flighty secretary is displaying will inevitably make her boss and his government look foolish, and probably cost the people of the Philippines billions in litigation damages.
Although she has been largely supported by President Rodrigo Duterte, who over the weekend decried the environmental and economic harm done by the nation’s “extractive” industries, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Lopez applied no sort of consistent standards to her decision to close or suspend 28 mining operations and cancel 75 mineral service agreements, which were mostly for exploration projects. Her reasoning, to the extent she has tried to explain it at all, is that all of the affected operations were in “watershed areas,” and that putting a stop to them was a matter of “social justice.”
The latter is a mantra that Lopez is fond of repeating frequently; she handles the undefined term like a blunt weapon she expects will put an end to any argument.
Objectively, it is very possible that the risks and costs of mining outweigh the potential benefits to the country, although the consensus presumption is that is not the case; the Philippines happens to be sitting on a vast heap of mineral wealth, if only it could be tapped without doing serious lasting harm. Nonetheless, it is not the only way the country could conceivably grow its economy, and the country may be better off without it.
Going about that the way Gina Lopez is, however, only creates bigger, unnecessary problems. Lopez should be reminded that as Environment Secretary, it is her job to carry out the provisions of relevant laws, existing regulations derived from those laws, and, when necessary, use the process provided by those laws to develop new regulations to address new issues or issues that may have previously been overlooked. It is not her job to develop and carry out environmental policy based on her own feelings and perceptions.
Before Gina Lopez, the mining industry had a legitimate expectation that regulation would be carried out according to the terms of the 1995 Mining Act, since former President B.S. Aquino 3rd’s hare-brained EO 79 that arbitrarily revoked the law never came into effect. Once Lopez took office and announced that the entire mining industry would be subject to critical review, the industry should have been able to reasonably expect that environmental regulation would be reflected in the terms of the “strict audit” imposed on them. Instead, they have discovered there is no benchmark from them to follow, apart from whatever might be on Gina Lopez’s mind at the moment.
And because President Duterte is at least outwardly supportive of her, he has—maybe unintentionally—endorsed her frankly erratic methodology as official government process, a message that will have a sobering effect on industries far beyond mining.
That should not be the case, and it is difficult to believe that is actually the message Duterte wished to convey by sticking up for his controversial official tree-hugger. But if that is true, and he really doesn’t want to tell the business sector that major policy decisions will depend on a less consistent framework than one uses when consulting a Ouija board or the Magic 8-ball, he needs to move quickly to put a muzzle on Gina Lopez and take her pen away.
Once he does that, the comprehensive review of the very concept of mining in this country can take place. That is perhaps the one good thing to come from Lopez’s shenanigans, the revelation that the country has never really thought the matter through, and determined what place, if any, mining should have in the Philippines’ social and economic fabric.
Again, it may turn out that in the end, the most sensible choice is to end mining in the Philippines, or to restrict it to very specific areas and applications to prevent environmental damage and social inequity. But if that’s the result, at the end of a proper objective review, that result will be inarguable, and encouraging to investors (in things other than mining, obviously) that the Philippines is managed according to clear rules.