This is perhaps the best time to bring out in public the issues surrounding mining and its effect on the environment, and led by no less than our awesomely fearless Environment Secretary Gina Lopez.
For now, the merits of this long-standing controversial issue is being swept to the sidelines by the arbitrariness (yes, I can be equally fearless in saying this) of declarations by the administration’s eco-warrior during the last fortnight leading to the closure of half of the country’s operating mines and the cancellation of almost a third of existing mining contracts.
If there is indeed cause for the revocation of permits and contracts by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on behalf of the Philippine government, then the proper procedure for doing this should be transparent and above-board.
More importantly, if the current administration will overturn a Philippine government policy adopted in the 1980s to attract investments in the country’s mining sector, then let it be done through an acceptable process where consensus-building is an integral part.
Lopez has cited the affected mining companies’ operations in watershed areas as among the reasons for the order to stop operations or cancel permits. The basis for such reasoning has continued to be challenged to a full disclosure by the industry and other stakeholders.
In one of the better reads I have come across, although the publication is a bit dated but still valid, the paper of the World Resources Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to sustainable natural resource management based in Washington, comes in handy.
It noted that more than half of all exploratory and mining concessions in the Philippines indeed “overlap with areas of high ecological vulnerability,” including those regarded as stressed watersheds.
However, the paper continues to state that while “8 percent of approved mining contracts and exploration areas overlap with proclaimed watersheds,” there are no contracts or exploration areas have been approved in “critical watersheds.”
(Mining is prohibited in both critical and proclaimed watersheds. The former are those that support agriculture and industry, but are known to be severely degraded; while the latter include forests that are protected in order to maintain water quality and yield.)
The important conclusion to be gleaned from this is the fact that the presence of a mining company in a watershed area cannot per se be an outright reason for a mining license to be revoked – unless the Secretary was referring to all the suspended licenses and closed operations as operating to be in either critical or proclaimed watersheds.
This then begs the question: Why were these mining operations given permits, in the first place?
Gina not trusting MGB?
The DENR’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) should have a good grasp of the state of the country’s watershed areas, and should likewise be in a better position to raise a red flag on a mining operation’s impact on the local water source.
It would also know if a mining company operating in a watershed area that is not considered “critical” or “proclaimed” has not conformed with the proper procedures of dealing with its waste, which ultimately threatens the sanctity of the surrounding environment.
And for this, the guilty mining company should be responsible enough to institute better measures that will ensure that its mine tailings do not pollute the locality’s water systems and adjacent lands – and of course, pay the fines associated with its “sin.”
Unfortunately, the MGB does not seem to have earned the good Secretary’s ear – or trust – after its recommended penalties on supposed violations arising from a seven-month audit were brushed aside in favor of the more harsh orders we’ve seen in recent days.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, understandably, is up in arms against the drastic measures invoked by the DENR Secretary. Citing her recent pronouncements as a violation of due process, the chamber had earlier intimated that it would seek President Duterte’s intervention, particularly on the order to close 23 mines.
Now that the President had categorically stated that he was backing his Environment Secretary’s decisions, the remaining recourse would be the filing of a case in the courts – and yes, a hell-or-high-waters pitch to keep Lopez from getting her confirmation by Congress.
Students from the University of the Philippines’ Mining Engineering Society had also massed in protest of the DENR Secretary’s orders, seeking a more transparent approach by making public the results of the earlier MGB audit.
No alternative for lost jobs
These mining students, including mining stakeholder professionals in the academe, government service, and mining and mining-related firms, and the communities that rely on mining, are at risk of losing their jobs and sources of livelihood.
While Secretary Lopez has verbally assured that there will be alternative sources of livelihood that will be opened to those affected, nothing concrete has been bared since two weeks ago when the order for closure of 23 mining operations had been announced.
Treating investors with respect
Mining has always had its inherent threats and risks to the local environment, and the Philippine government’s decision to open its mineral resources to exploitation had come with measures to strengthen its capacity to regulate this extractive industry.
Our bureaucrats’ role is to make sure that the environment is protected while allowing mining companies to operate. However, if the risks cannot be mitigated by prudent and diligent governance, and the liabilities will far outweigh benefits, an exit plan is only decent where those that had been given the license to operate will be able to recover their investments.
Our Constitution proclaims, among its many declarations, that the state “recognizes the indispensable role of the private sector, encourages private enterprise, and provides incentives to needed investments.” Let’s respect that.