By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
Last week, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu announced the lifting of the ban on quarrying imposed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) last September 21. The DENR had ordered a stop to quarrying operations following the landslide the day before in Naga City, Cebu which claimed the lives of 54 residents.
In a memorandum issued by the head of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), Wilfredo Moncano, regional directors were directed to “suspend all quarry operations . . . for 15 days, pending the conduct of safety and geo-hazard assessment of the surrounding communities to prevent similar landslides incident from happening.”
But last week, Cimatu said the DENR was lifting the ban on quarrying in Pangasinan, La Union, Zambales, Pampanga, Bulacan, Rizal, Batangas, Camarines Sur, Iligan, Misamis Oriental, Iligan City, and Davao.
Cimatu said the ban was lifted based on the recommendation of the MGB, which said the sites in these provinces were not located in residential areas. Ninety percent of the quarry sites, he added, can resume operations “provided that these areas are one kilometer away from the communities that can potentially be affected.”
When it was first announced, the quarrying ban did not sit well with local governments where quarrying provides employment and revenues.
Pampanga Governor Lilia Pineda was reported as writing Cimatu to appeal the ban. News reports said the Pampanga governor told the DENR Secretary that the quarrying ban would cause delays in infrastructure projects being undertaken by the private sector and the national government. Around 70 per cent of the gravel and sand requirements for these projects are sourced from Pampanga, she said.
Amon the major projects to be affected by the DENR ban are the Terminal 2 project of the Clark International Airport and Phase 1 of the New Clark City. These projects are considered priority projects under the administration’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.
Moreover, Pineda said the 84 quarrying firms with permits from the local government were operating in river channels and private lands, and not in upland areas or near residential communities.
The governor’s sentiments were shared by the association of major suppliers of sand, mud and pumice for construction needs. They decried the unilateral action of the DENR, saying it was arrived at without according the stakeholders due process.
The effects of the week-long ban were felt immediately by construction companies. Several construction firms, I was told, were forced to stop construction work because of the shortage in gravel and sand, displacing their workers.
Clearly, the DENR decision to impose a ban on quarrying is another example of reactive governance, a knee-jerk solution that did not factor in its wider implications. We may grant that the intention may be well-meaning, but the decision-making process lacked thoroughness and foresight.
I recall that in a previous administration, one senior official responded to the report of a passenger vessel capsizing – leaving several dead – by grounding all passenger vessels in the said area. It was clearly an exaggerated response, like the DENR responding to the Cebu landslide by banning quarrying operations in other provinces even if these sites were on flat lands and not near residential areas.
Decision-makers in government wield immense authority that needs to be exercised judiciously and responsibly. Decisions should never be made hastily or half-heartedly. It must be tempered by thorough study, especially the impact of these decisions on people and communities. In the case of the DENR ban, the decision to expand the coverage was hard to fathom, since the conditions obtaining in the other areas are not the same as in Cebu.
But there’s another story making the rounds which gives a not so well-intentioned angle to ban. Supposedly, a ranking government official -in one of his frequent provincial trips – was informed by some local officials of a province with substantive quarrying activities that quarrying had caused recent flooding in their areas. The said official, apparently trying to impress his audience, called up another ranking official and proposed expanding the scope of the ban which was originally intended only for Naga, Cebu, to include all other areas with quarrying operations.
I sincerely hope this story is not true. But the person who told me about it swears by its veracity. If it is true, it is not only an example of reactive governance, but of putting politics above the welfare of communities, national government priorities and sane policy making.