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Digging Graves: Reopening PH’s Open-Pit Mining Industry

Words by — Rainielle Kyle Guison

“Sir, open-pit mining will really disadvantage the Filipino, our farmers and fishermen, forever, for life.” Only in a flashback can we hear former Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) secretary Gina Lopez appeal for the enforcement of the open-pit mining ban to President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.

Gina Lopez had written an open letter to the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) which listed the reasons for the ban:

  • The open pits are going to be there forever.
  • The existence of toxic open pits kills the economic potential of the area.
  • The existence of the open pits violates the constitutional rights of our people to a clean and healthy environment.
  • All open pits invariably hit a water table. 
  • There will be a severe water shortage by 2030.
  • The Philippines is a geohazard zone and we are one of the most vulnerable countries in the planet to climate change.

Although she might have been successful in 2017, times have changed along with the DENR secretary, and thus the 9-year moratorium on granting new mining permits was lifted in April 2021 and the 4-year-old ban on open-pit metal mining was reversed last December 23, 2021.

The ban was meant to protect the Philippines’ rich biodiversity and prevent past major mine tailings spills that contaminated waterway in the provinces of Marinduque (1996) and Benguet (2012). Despite these cases, the DENR argued that open-pit mining’s negative impacts can be avoided or managed through new technologies. 

From the government’s point of view, this is a move to revitalize the industry. It is expected that stalled and new mining projects will attract investments which will help the recovery of the pandemic-hit economy with an annual export revenue increase by up to $2 billion over the next five to six years.

According to the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP), through group vice president for communications Rocky Dimaculangan, the ban lift will make way for investment promotion, job creation and poverty alleviation.

In December 2017, COMP adopted the Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) program in response to President Duterte’s pronouncement shortly after he assumed office that he supports mining so long as it follows Canadian and Australian standards. COMP completed the Filipinization process for TSM in 2020 to “ensure that the program is responsive to Philippine conditions.”

TSM is a program designed to promote sustainable mining and developed by the Mining Association of Canada (MAC) in 2004, is mandatory for COMP member-companies.

This positive outlook is not a surprise since the mines bureau reported that more than a third of the Philippines’ total land area has been identified to hold high mineral deposits. Only less than 5% of the 9 million hectares have been exploited so far.

Additionally, Mongabay reports that the country is estimated to hold mineral deposits worth at least $1 trillion, including copper, gold, nickel, aluminum and chromite. Unfortunately, the country’s large copper and gold deposits could only be extracted through open-pit mining.

Because of its economic potential, the Department of Finance (DOF) has expressed its support behind the ban lift. According to the DOF, data shows that there are at least 11 pending open-pit mining projects that, if pursued, could infuse about P11 billion worth of revenues to state resources, increase annual exports by around P36 billion, and create 22,880 jobs for local mining communities.

On the other hand, in an interview of BusinessWorld with political scientist Ruth R. Lusterio-Rico, associate dean of UP Diliman’s College of Social Sciences and Philosophy who studies environmental politics, she said that there have been several studies made on the consequences of mining on people’s lives as well as on the environment.

“There are communities that have been divided because of the issue of mining, primarily because there are people who gain and there are those who lose,” she added. “In other words, even if the mining company can be a potential provider of employment, not everyone in the community can be hired by the mining company. There are also heavy consequences for communities, such as loss of livelihood, poor health conditions, etc. when accidents happen in mining areas.”

Due to the ban lift, projects of mining industry giants such as Sagittarius Mines Inc.’s $5.9-billion Tampakan copper project in South Cotabato, and St. Augustine Gold and Copper Ltd.’s $2-billion King-king copper-gold project in Compostela Valley may continue to operate again.

The Tampakan copper project is touted as the largest undeveloped copper-gold site in Southeast Asia and among the largest in the world. Advancement of this mining project will displace at least 4,000 indigenous Bla’an tribespeople and clear around 3,935 hectares of natural-growth, high-biodiverse forests and arable lands. It would also pose serious risks to the water provisioning & agriculture in central-south Mindanao since the mine is located in a critical watershed area.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, dozens of environmental and land defenders have been killed in the struggle against the mine over the past 20 years.

Recently in February, through a public consultation on the proposal to lift the ban, an informal online survey by the Office of the Vice Governor showed that there is strong resistance towards the lifting of the measure where 12,137 voted for the ban to remain, while only 499 wanted it removed. Additionally, nearly 100,000 signatures were also gathered by the local Catholic Church urging the provincial board to retain the ban on open-pit mining.

However, on May 16, the South Cotabato provincial government reversed its 12-year-old ban on open-pit mining, allowing for the continuation of the Tampakan mining project. On June 3, Gov. Reynaldo Tamayo vetoed the lifting of the said ban but emphasized that any such local ban is not able to stop large-scale mining operations in South Cotabato, especially if permitted by the national government.

‘Misplaced Priority’

Although the government sees this as a progressive step, environmental activists are dismayed with the policy reversal. Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM) called it “a cruel Christmas gift and a truly ironic act of cowardice and betrayal from Cimatu and Duterte.”

The group released a statement on December 28, shortly after the passing of the order: “At this time when climate change brings devastating typhoons such as Odette, lifting the ban on open-pit mining is a shortsighted and misplaced development priority of the government. Once again, the Duterte regime puts more premium on its flawed economic agenda categorizing destructive mining as an ‘essential industry’ as part of the pandemic recovery.”

Despite the criticisms, DENR ensures that there will be enhanced parameters and criteria for the types of surface mining methods under the Declaration of Mining Project Feasibility. The criteria include safety of the public and environmental health, “proven and acceptable” techniques of chemical containment, comprehensive stakeholders’ involvement process, and proper assessment of mining processes.

ATM remained to continue its opposition to government efforts “to plunder our remaining forests and natural resources.”

What’s Next?

In a one-on-one interview with Boy Abunda in January, presidential candidates were asked about their stance regarding the lift of the moratorium on granting new mining permits and the reversal of the open-pit mining ban. When then-candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. was interviewed, he said that he believes in responsible and sustainable mining and says that the country should take advantage of the natural resources since it is a “very valuable source of revenue for the government.” He recognizes that mining has caused disasters before but mentioned that these can be avoided through sufficient regulations and monitoring.

“We have the laws pero we are not able to implement them and fully enforce them sometimes. If we can do that, we can take care of making sure that the environmental impact is in accordance with the law then we can carefully exploit the natural resources to help the recovery of our economy,” he added.

On the other hand, he says that he is wary of open-pit mining because the pollution and chemical leaks are difficult to control and are bad for the health of the people. He proposes conducting studies on new technology to ensure safe and sustainable open-pit mining.

With the Marcos presidency, open pit mining is left to stay. The new administration is moving to ramp up the mining industry citing it as a way to improve the country’s economy amid the pandemic. According to DOF Secretary Benjamin Diokno, the economic team has already presented the medium-term fiscal framework to President Marcos during their first Cabinet meeting.

Meanwhile, a joint report in June from the National Economic and Development Authority, DENR, DOF, and the Development Academy of the Philippines backs the revival of mining in the country.

“A simple input-output analysis done as part of the phase-one review showed that mining and quarrying contributed significantly to the regional gross domestic product (GDP) in regions where there are mining operations,” the multi-agency joint report states. Furthermore, the technical paper contained the 2018 to 2020 findings of the interagency Mining Industry Coordinating Council’s (MICC) review of large-scale metallic mines.

With the current climate situation, open-pit mining would not be the best way to go about boosting the economy, and thus, the ban would be better reimposed. While DENR, claims that surface mining methods will be safer, there are still no assurances that mining giants will adhere to the parameters completely, especially with the bureaucrat capitalism in the country. This issue is not a plain win or lose, as lives are at stake if the mining methods are unsafe; one error in the process and the elite’s goldmine could suddenly be the poor’s graveyard. [P]

Graphics by Dayn Loren

UPLB Perspective is the official student publication of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, established in 1973. It is the first campus publication established under Martial Law in the Philippines.

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