(UPDATED – 2:54 p.m.) MANILA, Philippines – Gina Lopez’s passion for environmental protection and a green-based economy and the interest of the mining sector clashed on Thursday, March 9, as the Commission on Appointments continued its hearing on the confirmation of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) chief.
Aside from oppositors to Lopez’s appointment, lawmaker-members of the CA likewise took turns in testing Lopez’s competence and fairness as head of the DENR and also quizzed her on whether due process was observed when she cancelled numerous mining permits that caused a howl of protest from the sector.
The fiercest and longest criticism of Lopez came from the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, composed of at least 40 of the country’s biggest mining companies, that claimed that Lopez was “unfit and unqualified to be the government’s lead regulator in natural resources development.”
‘We are painted as environmental rapists’
Ronald Recidoro, the chamber’s vice president for legal and policy, said the industry had been dealing with Lopez “who does not believe in the Constitution’s mandate for the state to undertake the exploration and utilization of natural resources. And as such has put mining companies, government’s partners in minerals development, at a quandary.”
“Mining is probably the most misunderstood industry in the country today. Very few people appreciate what we do and what we contribute to the economy. It does not help that our supposed champion, the DENR secretary-designate herself, paints the mining industry as environmental rapists that just takes what they want and leave nothing but suffering and destruction in their wake. But is this really the case?,” Recidoro said.
He said that contrary to being “rapists,” mining applicants follow the law and must prove that they are financially and technically qualified to handle a project. They are likewise required to secure various government clearances such as environmental compliance cerificate, free and prior informed consent from any affected indigenous peoples, and the endorsement of host local government units before they can even start mining exploration.
“And even if viable ore is found, mining applicants must still establish project feasibility. They must convince the state that the mining project is worth going into considering all environmental and social development cost,” Recidoro said.
“Clearly, mining companies can’t just go into any area and mine each way that they want. Government, through its various instrumentalities, most specially the DENR and the MGB [Mines and Geosciences Bureau], and the local government units are fully aware of the existence of these projects,” said Recidoro.
Also, the chamber accused Lopez of shortcircuiting administrative and legal processes with her orders to shut down mines and in issuing show-cause orders to mining firms holding mineral production sharing agreement (MPSA) with the government.
“In November last year, Ms. Lopez created a technical review committee to review the results of the mining audit…Even before the review committee would submit a formal report to her, she…called for a press conference on February 2 where MGB officials reportedly prevented entry. And where she announced the suspension of five mines, and the closure of 23,” Recidoro said.
“In subsequent interview, Ms. Lopez categorically said that she will not reconsider her decision, saying that she opted to close many of the mines permanently so she can access the rehabilitation funds,” he said.
“This is something she cannot do. And if she did, it could constitute technical malversation,” Recidoro added.
Also, the chamber said that on February 9, it sent a freedom of information request to Lopez, asking her to provide it copies of the audit reports as well as the findings of the technical review committee for all the pending eight mines, she had suspended or closed.
“Until today, we have not received a response to our request,” Recidoro said.
The chamber also accused Lopez of defying President Rodrigo Duterte and the entire Cabinet’s decision to observe due process by giving affected mines the opportunity to respond or dispute the DENR audit.
“But in clear defiance of the president and the entire cabinet, Ms. Lopez again on February 14 held another press conference where she announced the cancellation of 75 MPSAs for allegedly operating in or near watersheds. Subsequently, only show cause orders were sent,” said Recidoro.
“This is totally inconsistent with her pronouncements after the press conference which essentially required companies to explain how they came to secure MPSAs within watersheds,” he said.
‘Mining is allowed in watersheds’
The chamber also belied Lopez’s claim that the law does not allow mining activities in watersheds.
Recidoro said that under Section F of the Mining Act, “it is only on proclaimed watershed forest reserves that mining application is prohibited.”
“She had an uncanny difficulty defining what a watershed was yesterday. And apparently, she seems to have amended Section 19 of the Mining Act which provides that applications shall not be allowed in proclaimed watershed forest reserves.”
“The law does not leave to the secretary the discretion where and what these proclaimed watersheds are. That discretion is reserved to the President of the Republic of the Philippines.”
Moreover, Recidoro countered Lopez’s position against open-pit mining.
He said the law also does not prohibit open-pit mining “for as long as it can be done safely and in compliance with environmental and social standards.”
“She may be interested to know that all large scale quarries, cement, limestone are all actually open-pit mines that require MPSAs. So if we ban open pit, we are effectively banning all these limestone plants and quarries.”
‘Will frighten away investors’
Futhermore, the chamber said Lopez’s move to shut down mining operations would “frighten away quality investors”
“Given the number of companies she has ordered closed, we are looking at hundreds of Piatcos with possible liabilities running in the billions of dollars that every Filipino taxpayer, you me everybody here, will have to shoulder,” said Recidoro, referring to the Philippine International Air Terminal’s contract to build the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 that was voided by the Arroyo administration in 2002.
“We ask: Is she competent to lead the DENR? Does she have the experience, education and impartiality to accomplish the DENR’s objectives? To all these questions we say no, no, no and no,” concluded Recidoro.
Lopez belies chamber’s claims
Replying to the chamber’s accusations, Lopez said the DENR moved for the closure of mining operations and cancellations of MPSAs because “there were violations.”
“Even the review committee agreed that there were violations. Rivers were silted. Farmlands affected. And yes, thousands of farmers and fishermen affected. And I have the proof of that. People have suffered,” said Lopez.
The DENR also said “due process was followed at every step of the way.”
“I don’t know why I present this to the mining companies. I present this to the presscon over and over again and no matter how many times I present audit reports. I tell them please come please come. They come up with the same argument over and over again. Even after I said come and see all the papers,” said Lopez.
“You can always come to my office anytime. And yet their argument is repeatedly the same thing again. I’m beginning to wonder what this is all about. Or even if I saw you can come and see the papers. They still argue in the same way.”
People should enjoy the land’s resources
She also belied the claim that she doesn’t believe in the utilization of natural resources.
“My stand is and will always be social justice. Social justice means when the people in our land enjoy the resources of our land,” Lopez said.
“The problem with our mining company is 82 percent of the net income goes to them. And 95 percent of the revenue goes out of the local economy. So you can begin to wonder why in the areas where there’s’ mining, poverty exists,” she said.
“What I want to do in DENR as a secretary for the resources, the magnificent resources of this country, is to be able to maneuver models where our resources in fact benefit the lives of our people,” added the DENR chief.