THE issue is on the table now.
Through a confluence of events and developments, Filipinos are thinking what once seemed unthinkable: the government could wind down all mining operations in the country in the same way that it prohibited timber harvesting to conserve the rapidly shrinking forest cover.
Early in the new administration, President Duterte named as environment secretary Regina “Gina” Lopez, a regulator who walks her talk. She hilariously, or alarmingly, fills Winston Churchill’s description of a fanatic: “someone who talks of nothing else, and will not change the subject.”
Whenever the media shows film footage or photographs of a Philippine mountain denuded or flattened by mining, the nation’s conscience is cut to the quick. Mining deserves to be lambasted from church pulpits and cursed to the heavens.
When mining groups delivered their expected counter to Lopez, following her decision to close down 23 mining companies and cancel 75 mining contracts, by threatening to block her confirmation in Congress, she did not relent.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP) wrote lawmakers on February 13, contending that “Lopez does not have the administrative experience and competence to lead the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).”
But significantly, the President has her back in the mining crackdown. The farthest Malacañang will go is require that the affected mining firms should be given due process. There may be a deeper shade of green in Duterte than we realize.
A deeper shade of green in DU30
Back in August 2016, DU30 made a declaration that may be a clue to his thinking.
During the Mindanao Environment summit held in Davao City, President Duterte said the mining and logging industries are in decline in the country, and only oligarchs benefit from them.
He said: “Mining is a sunset industry, almost. With logging, it’s not even sunset time, it’s already too late.”
These two industries, often perceived as environmentally destructive, are sources of economic growth the country can do away with, DU30 said.
In the next few years of his administration, he promised the summit audience, he intends to bring an end to these industries even if many powerful people will try to stop him.
He said: “Many will get mad, many will get angry, many would like to maintain the status quo. They are already in power, maybe elected officials, appointed, they will hang on to that. Kaya dahan dahan kong sisirain ‘yan. (That’s why I will slowly destroy it).”
DU30’s antipathy to miners and loggers stems from what he calls the “historical injustice” of oligarchs from “imperial Manila” who have profited from Mindanao’s resources.
The slowdown of mining and logging in Mindanao will “open all opportunities to Filipinos–irrespective of tribe, race, or religion,” he said.
“It’s time to reconfigure the wealth of the nation amongst the citizens,” Duterte said.
He reiterated at the summit his instructions to the DENR to close down mining sites of companies that don’t comply with government’s environmental protection regulations and strictest standards.
Since August, concern about Lopez’s anti-mining views has not let up; controversy has dogged her days at the DENR.
But then came the new year, and her double whammy of punches against the mining industry: first, the closure of 23 mining companies following a well-publicized mining audit; and then followed by the even more sweeping cancellation of 27mining contracts.
Taken all together, these developments signal where government policy is going, and it does not look good for mining.
How mining will fight back
To forestall the official prohibition of mining in the country, the mining industry will turn to its standard brief on the mining potential of the country and its signal contribution to the economy: the thousands it employs and the families that benefit, the billions in revenues to government, and mining’s contribution to the GDP.
Mining will tout the considerable mineral reserves of the country, whose value could reach as high as US$1.4 trillion, according to the foreign business chambers.
According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), the archipelago is second in the world in gold and third in copper resources. The country is ranked top five in the world for overall mineral reserves.
Surprisingly, the mining industry also boasts that, aside from being gifted with the country’s substantial mineral resources, it operates within a regulatory framework that is favorable and attractive to investment.
After stagnating for nearly a quarter century, the Philippine mining sector is in the midst of a comeback, following a Supreme Court decision in 2005 that affirmed the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 (RA 7942).
Industry officials have good reason to be proud of RA 7942, because it is the fruit of its intensive lobby with Congress.
The Mining Act was designed to resuscitate the industry and replace a Marcos presidential decree. It opened the door to potential developers of mining projects. By providing significant social and environmental safety nets, the law is considered to be a model legal framework for sustainable development of mining and one of the best in the world. The act says that mining must respect the community and environment.
In comparison to the mining laws of other countries like the UK, US, Australia, and Canada, where mining plays a strong role, the Mining Act is deemed as being at par with them.
Metallic minerals development is a major government priority with great potential for job creation and revenue generation. Mining can support poor rural areas through creating high quality jobs and through various local taxpayments and community and social development projects. The national government receives substantial royalty and tax payments.
Mining favored over forestry
The logging ban and reforms toward sustainable forest management have moved the country closer to a better forestry sector.
Significantly, mining serves to brake immediate and lasting improvements in forestry.
As the Mining Act now stands, mining is given a higher priority over forestry. RA 7942 defines where mining exploration can be carried out. Timberlands and forestlands as defined by law are open to mineral agreements or financial or technical assistance agreements. The Act also allows the mining contractor to cut trees for use in mining operations provided that the area is covered by an existing timber concession; the volume, manner of cutting and removal of timber shall be determined by the Mines and Geoscience Bureau Regional Director in consultation with the timber concessionaire, the contractor and the Director of the Forest Management Bureau.
The Act requires the mining contractors to use appropriate technologies to protect the environment and to restore or rehabilitate mined-out areas and other areas affected by mine tailings and other forms of pollution and destruction. Despite efforts to rehabilitate mined-out second growth forests or forest plantations, experts doubt whether such efforts could restore the affected forest resources.
Mining cannot mask the physical evidence of destruction and devastation that its operations inflict on the country’s mountains and forests.
When President Duterte flew recently by helicopter over the mined mountains of Surigao del Norte, the nation saw for itself the grim handiwork of mining, not only in that province, but presumably in all mineral-rich provinces of the country.
A colossal PR problem
The Duterte administration must essentially decide whether it is more prudent to embark on a broad policy of prohibition on mining activities in the country, or allow a limited extent of mining activities in certain areas.
Mining has an ugly record to explain. Its opponents are legion, not the least of which is the Catholic Church. Various local government units (LGUs) have banned mining from their jurisdictions.
The recitation of economic benefits cannot match the overwhelming evidence of devastation that destroying mountains and excavating the earth inevitably unfurl.