POVERTY remains a problem after more than a century of mining operations in the country, and it’s time to allow communities destroyed by mining to “breathe,” Environment Secretary Regina Paz “Gina” Lopez said on Friday.
Speaking to The Manila Times editorial team, Lopez vowed to transform mining communities that would be affected by impending closures ordered by her department, promising to generate ecotourism jobs through “area development” projects.
“We’ve been mining this country for more than 100 years, what do we have to show [for it]? All the areas where we have mining are the poorest,” the environmental activist said in a roundtable discussion.
The Philippines is the fifth most mineralized country in the world and is the planet’s top nickel producer, but firms take 82 percent of the profits, and nearly all of the money “goes out of the local economy,” Lopez said.
She dismissed claims that over 1.2 million workers would lose their jobs with the impending closure of mining firms.
“We issued the order, it goes to them, then they appeal. While it’s on appeal, they can actually still continue mining. Actually there’s no mining going on right now because mining is not every day of the year. They don’t mine talaga. They want to start mining in March. So nobody lost their jobs because they’re not earning anyway,” she explained.
Ugong Rock success
Lopez explained how ecotourism could supplant mining in environmentally vulnerable mine areas, citing the example of a project she had initiated at Ugong Rock in Puerto Princesa when she was still in the private sector.
She said the town’s earnings increased to P29 million from just P7,000 over the last decade.
“Why not give it (mine communities) a chance to breathe and create other kinds of jobs? I feel it behooves on government to make the right choice that could create the greatest common good,” Lopez said.
“Let them live in the beauty of their place…Their economy will not be dependent on mines or outside influence because that will be their money and resources,” she added.
Due process followed
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) this month ordered the cancellation of 75 mineral production sharing agreements close to watersheds all over the country.
It also ordered the closure and suspension of 28 mining companies, following a months-long mining audit that started in July 2016.
Lopez insisted due process was followed in the mining audit, and that the DENR first issued show-cause orders to the mining firms found to have numerous violations.
“All [received a show-caused order]… As far as I’m concerned I tell them the process. That took seven months. I myself went around and talked to the people and then in the end the decisions were made based on the side of the common good,” Lopez said.
She said the miners could appeal her decision to the Office of the President. If President Rodrigo Duterte upholds the closures, they can go to court but they will have to halt their operations in the meantime.
Since the department’s announcements, Duterte has repeatedly expressed his support for Lopez.
On February 2, after the announcement of the closures, the President even said he never told Lopez to “slow down a little bit” in doing her work.
Various sectors were well represented in the mining audit, which involved the different DENR bureaus, other government agencies, social action centers of parishes and civil society organizations, she said. Miners were also represented.
“Then all came up with this [mining audit report]. It says here the Clean Air Act, the Forestry Code, all the violations backed up by laws saying that you shouldn’t have violated this way. It’s all here,” she said, pointing to the mine audit findings.