YESTERDAY, Environment Secretary Gina Lopez paid a visit to the offices of The Manila Times, and made a favorable impression. As I have said before, there is an undeniable logic in appointing a committed environmentalist to that particular post. And even though she has stirred up a great deal of controversy with her decisions to close or suspend 28 mines and cancel 75 mineral service production agreements, I hope the Commission on Appointments sees the wisdom in keeping her in the post to give her a chance to show if she can actually finish the job she has started.
The obvious goal of the environment chief in talking to us here at the Times was to present the vision driving her comprehensive action with respect to the mining industry. While she did answer many concerns, there are, however, still some nagging questions; not enough, in my opinion, to scuttle her drive to reduce mining to only those operations that meet her stringent economic and social standards, but questions that still need to be satisfactorily addressed if her broader plan is to be successful.
One of the first points Lopez stressed in addressing our group was that she is not entirely against mining; she did, after all, allow 12 operations to continue. It was also clear that, although she does not seem inclined to entertain much dissent to her point of view, she did take the assessments of the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) into consideration, which is probably why five of the 28 mining operations were only suspended rather than being ordered shut down outright.
And as far as plans regarding the mining that will be allowed are concerned, Lopez seems to have a workable model in mind. Using the mining companies’ social management and development program (SMDP) funds – which amount to 1 percent of the mines’ gross operating revenue – she intends to carry out area development plans in mining communities that would create eco-tourism and recreation enterprises, as well as boost social services such as education and health care.
She believes this can be done based on several impressively successful small projects (which she discussed at length) carried out with much smaller amounts of seed money during her time with the ABS-CBN Foundation.
All well and good, but while her obvious passion for the environment – zealotry is probably a better word to describe her attitude – is a positive attribute in many respects, there are practical problems with her vision that she is not going to be able to simply evangelize her way past.
The first is small-scale mining, which has been a thorn in the country’s side for years. This is entirely overlooked in Lopez’ current plans, although she did acknowledge that the DENR is working on it. Her department definitely should; small-scale mining is proportionally much more damaging than large-scale mining, much of it is done illegally, and most of its production is smuggled out of the country or otherwise disposed of through unapproved channels.
The other major shortcoming of Lopez’s plan involves what is to be done with the abandoned operations and the communities where they are located once the appeal and review process runs its course and her shutdown orders become final. The area development plan funded through SMDP only works where the SMDP is being generated; in the other areas, which the Department of Finance said last week would lose a total of P821 million per year in foregone revenue, some alternatives will have to be found, and relatively soon.
In addition, these communities are going to be handicapped by having a large-scale environmental mess to clean up. Although Lopez didn’t address the subject at all, others have suggested the mining operations that have been shut down could be made to pay for environmental mitigation. That is probably optimistic; companies that are made to pull up the stakes and leave will have no incentive to pay to clean up their mess, unless they hope to do business in the Philippines again in the future, which they probably will not.
Again, none of these concerns should be considered enough to compel Lopez to keep her hands off the mining industry. But she should be obliged to address them as a condition of keeping her post. I hope it is a challenge she is willing to accept.