Mining in the Philippines: the Gina Lopez effect.

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I am from the Philippines, a tropical country truly known for its beautiful islands, great beaches, rich biodiversity, and vast mineral resources. Undoubtedly, it is a paradise on the planet – a wonderful escape from the stressful artificial world our modern society has created. However, thou shall not be fooled, the country is not purely forests and seas; cities are everywhere, lots of them, with unprecedented population growth. And poverty has been the daily scenario for lots of my people, especially in the rural areas.

So, our population is growing tremendously; hence, the greater demand for resources, which include food, water, energy, metals, and minerals. I believe this is not an isolated case, but pretty much what the world is experiencing right now: endless demand from growing (which seems an understatement) population. And remember, our planet is just one, that makes these resources limited, very limited.

Therefore, it is high time to observe our demands, but I doubt that human beings are capable of that – limiting what they can use, consume, and purchase. Perhaps, we can pursue a more circular economy in which we can reuse and recycle most, if not all, the materials, which in turn could make the use of our resources more efficient. But still, the demand is getting higher especially that the most parts of the world is becoming more developed; and that efficiency could not cope up with that. So, if cutting demand and efficient resource management seem not the way to go, perhaps, the answer lies in population. Note, the longevity of human life is also increasing. It is a truly complex scenario, which needs the focus and strength of all nations to gather together and come up with a working solution.

Anyway, back in the Philippines, I do not think that the unconfirmed [yet (?)] Secretary Gina Lopez of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has fully grasped the complexity of the above-mentioned scenario of the present world. I bet that humans in this modern society, like those in the metros of the Philippines, cannot live without one of those resources such as metals and minerals. However, Sec. Lopez, in her persuading tone, asked the people, “Food or Mining?”

It is a false dichotomy. All industries are connected in one way or another, thus one cannot stand alone without the other. If Filipinos choose food over mining, then where will we get the other resources we need, especially the metals and minerals? Should it be from the deserts of Australia, the tropics of Central Africa or Brazil, frozen lands of Canada, etc.? And note, we only have one planet, and as much as possible, we should do our part. They are campaigning against mining for it destroys the environment, but as long as they have demands for materials, mining would not stop. If it cannot be grown, it has to be mined; however, to grow something nowadays, we need the help of materials from mines. Should we not campaign against our own greed, our own demands?

Back to Sec. Lopez, she has ordered the closure of significant number of mines in the past month, and cancelled several mining projects in study phase. She said that the recommendations of her team for those mining companies, which were penalties, were not enough to compensate the environmental effects these mines have made. She said that these mines are sitting in a watershed, which she defined as: “A watershed is a watershed because it is a watershed.” I am really not sure if these mines are really sitting in a watershed, but in the Philippine mining law, even mines can operate in a watershed as long as it is not a proclaimed watershed.

Further, photos of open pit Ni-laterite mines have then circulated the social media. It has been proclaimed that mining of lateritic soil caused the redness of the surrounding main bodies of water. Well, in my opinion, with or without mining such natural soils could cause the coloration after a rainfall. But, mining still has an effect, unless there are engineering measures like siltation ponds to control the flow of silts (from the mines) into the main waters. But, DENR showed these photos without a balanced explanation of the scenario, putting a bad label to the whole mining industry, and making Filipinos more misinformed.

To be honest, Sec. Lopez if you will read this, mining is by definition a destructive activity but it has stages, i.e. from prospecting, exploration, technical studies, design and engineering, … to exploitation … to rehabilitation. Those dots comprised of several stages, and it seems DENR only focuses on the exploitation part and not thinking of the latter stages like rehabilitation. If any project is cut in the middle, there is no way it could continue to do the last part.

The effects of such actions, the Gina Lopez effect, are not only felt locally, but internationally as well. Locally, people working in the mines are now left empty-handed. Most of those closed mines are in rural areas, which means that there are not much available jobs in one dash. Moreover, for the overnight environmentalists, the operations were stopped, hence the rehabilitation part will not be done most likely unless the department or the government will fund it. Mining investors confidence plummeted, giving a darker shade for the future of mining and mineral industry in the country. Internationally, since Philippines is one of the top producers of nickel, the price has increased which favors other previously uneconomical nickel projects, and nickel producers. Also, Philippines can now be tagged as not the place to go to do mining business especially if this continues. Geopolitically, Philippines will have much less to leverage to other powerful countries.

Well, I would say that there really exist bad mining activities in Philippines, which are mostly small-scale mines. And with these recent actions, it did not solve the greater problem; worse, it did hurt the people, the industry, the economy, and potentially worsened the scenario I have described above. It is not a black and white scenario. The growing population and its demand are still there. Mining activities only cover almost negligible portion of Philippine’s economic land as compared to taht covered by rapid urbanization like construction of roads, subdivisions, mall, etc.

DENR should focus more on the unregulated ones, and support the manageable ones. Moreover, unfortunately, with the rise of alternative facts (actually from the department) and rejecting the ideas from the engineers and experts, it seems that this government is pushing its own future geoscientists, environmental scientists, mining, and metallurgical engineers away from the country. And when the time comes that this country pushes for industrialization, I wonder where it will get all the expertise and knowledge to do so. Because for one, the backbone of industrialization is mining.

Dan Oliric Manaig, MSc

LLM Candidate in Oil, Gas and Mining Law

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