The Philippine mining conundrum

Published November 21, 2018, 12:03 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



Getsy Tiglao
Getsy Tiglao

Maybe in 10 years’ time, when the Philippines has fully developed, we can consider allowing full-scale mining in clearly defined and regulated areas. But until then, the best way to save lives and protect the environment is to ban mining.

The ban can’t be done immediately. After all, there is a law (Republic Act 7942, the Philippine Mining Act of 1995) that we have to respect. But President Duterte has already declared that he wants this law rescinded next year after the mid-term elections, presumably when he has consolidated his new allies in Congress.

There will be strong resistance from the mining sector. They have some rational arguments, certainly, one of which is that mining brings in revenues for the country, jobs for thousands of workers, and livelihood for small-scale miners.

One can acknowledge as well that the minerals extracted from our piece of the earth are useful to humanity. Almost all of modern life’s conveniences, especially the electronic gadgets and appliances, contain or use metals and minerals.

But it is disingenuous to say that if you love using your cell phone you shouldn’t oppose mining. Please. These modern trappings will not disappear even if the Philippines decides to ban mining; we’re just a small player in this worldwide business.

Our country is still in the throes of political and economic development, and we have yet to reach the ultimate goal of lifting millions of Filipinos out of poverty. This takes time. China needed 30 years of constant growth at 10 percent yearly before it was able to do this — and this is considered fast by economists, considering they have over a billion population.

China had an advantage as well in that it has a strong centralized government. In comparison, we have a freewheeling democracy and adversarial press. It is hard to implement changes here. Nothing will move without agreement among the branches of government. And even if the laws are passed, they are useless if they are not enforced properly.

This is our problem with mining. We may have a slew of environmental laws and other regulations, but we have not advanced to the stage where we can actually enforce them strictly with proper sanctions, penalties, and even jail time for violators.

I’m sure the people at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources are trying their best. But they are hampered by their limited budget and manpower (and just like in any other department, they have their share of corrupt employees).

Perhaps lawmakers can look at establishing an authoritative body under the DENR similar to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has a criminal investigation arm with specially trained agents who are authorized to enforce environmental laws and to arrest those who violate them.

We badly need our very own EPA here to go after those who are destroying our environment.

During the brief shining moment of environmentalist Gina Lopez as chief of the DENR, she actually closed down 23 mining sites and cancelled 75 mining contracts for illegally operating in watershed areas. She was fearless. But the powerful mining lobby had its way and Congress rejected her appointment.

Mining actually contributes less than 1 percent to the economy, even though the country is considered a leading exporter of nickel ore and other minerals. In terms of tax revenues, the contribution is only P70 billion a year.

President Duterte said he could live without this revenue stream if it means protecting the environment and saving lives.

In the past few months, the President was especially passionate about the issue, more so after the deaths of 70 people in Benguet due to a landslide. Several gold, copper, and silver mines are located in the Benguet area, and overmining has been blamed for the softened soil and the constant landslides.

“The repairs needed after the landslide and assistance to the dead, perhaps the cost reached P70 billion times five. The environment has also been damaged. Like you, I also want a total ban on mining. The problem is there is a law (that allows mining),” Duterte said.

For now, the administration has banned any new open-pit mining, where the excavation is above ground. This type of mining strips the vegetation and bedrock from the surface and has negative effects on the soil (erosion and sinkholes), the water (contamination from chemicals from the mining process), and on biodiversity.

Pro-mining advocates like to cite the example of the US, Canada, and Australia of countries who have active mining sectors but whose environment are still heavily protected.

But these are rich nations; we are not. Our government is still weak and we don’t have the bureaucratic capacity or maturity to ensure strict enforcement of laws. Plus we have here a tiny noisy group that likes to whine: any showing of strength by the government is immediately labelled as “strongman tactics” or “martial law predisposition.”

Until we have reached the US or Canada’s level of economic and political development, we cannot put our environment at risk just because we want those extra revenues from mining. The government can always build up other industries that will not destroy our surroundings in the way mining has done.