An industry on the line

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On her first day as interim Environment Secretary, Gina Lopez ordered for an audit of mines across the country. Months later, she ordered the closure of 22 and the suspension of four, after the audit showed the following violations, among others: damage to agricultural lands, abandonment of tail ponds, destruction of functional watersheds, and the siltation of bodies of water and farmlands. This was not unexpected. Upon accepting her appointment, she immediately expressed her opposition to the Philippine Mining Act. She said it was unfair and skewed towards the mining sector, not the Filipino.

The mining sector responded earnestly, invoking contracts and legalese in their defense. The Chamber of Mines filed a graft and breach of conduct complaint against the President’s anointed Environment Secretary. No less than Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, who is in the cabinet with Lopez, criticized the latter’s inability to “balance the needs of different sectors in society.” Labor, for instance, is one sector that is also on the receiving end of Lopez’s anti-mining advocacy. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that more than 1.2 million mine workers are set to lose their jobs due to the closures.

With this opposition and despite being backed by pro-environment groups, Lopez’s confirmation as secretary remains on the line.

Mine country

The mining sector rallying against Lopez has a long history behind it. The first mine in the Philippines was established in 1907 in Benguet, Mountain Province, followed by 17 other gold mines in the Baguio district. These mines were all large-scale, requiring sophisticated equipment and spurred largely by American investment. The industry would be expanded come the Japanese occupation, as metals were invaluable to the war effort. After the war until the fall of the Marcos regime, the large-scale mining industry would suffer many losses.

Former President Ferdinand Marcos signed Presidential Decree No. 1899 in 1984 to encourage small-scale mining after the closure of many major mines in the 1980s. The decree defined small scale mining as “artisanal,” eliciting the use of simple equipment, modest investment, and manual labor. According to the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM), “All these had a hand in shaping the more than 50% share of the small-scale gold mining sector in the country's total gold output.” The next administration would continue its emphasis on small-scale mining.

With the signing of Republic Act 7942 or the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, large-scale mining was once again brought to the fore and foreign investment, emphasized. Opposition claiming the law’s unconstitutionality would come in the same year but the Supreme Court would eventually see nothing fundamentally wrong with the law.

According to PRRM, with just eight big mines in operation, “big mining [in the Philippines] is but a shell of its former self.” Lopez’s rhetoric seems to be eroding the industry even more.

Stakeholders at risk

Pro-mining organizations have been clamoring for transparency on the mining audit results and the institutionalization of responsible mining.

Among these organizations is STAND Firm (Filipinos for the Institution of Responsible Mining), “a proactive, science-based, truth-anchored, action-oriented, youth-driven national coalition which aims to institutionalize the practice of responsible mining throughout the country.”

STAND Firm Co-Founder Marion Cruz maintained that responsible mining is not a myth. Firms with responsible mining practices, he said, ensure compliance to regulations, implementation of corporate social responsibility programs, and dialogue with mining communities, among others. Cruz also mentioned that communities must give their consent before mining firms conduct their operations in such areas.

“You won’t see these people protesting if they don’t practice responsible mining. And that’s the hard fact,” he said.

Due to the imminent threat of closing down operations, mining workers fear losing their livelihood. Since mining remains as their main source of income, Cruz said that workers in affected poor and far-flung communities will not realize the impact of these alternatives right away.

“What supports them is their job in mining which is a lot better than other [available] jobs [they have in their areas],” he said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has vowed to offer a livelihood and assistance package to employees who will be displaced from the closure of the mining firms. DOLE Secretary Silvestre Bello III mentioned that workers are given the option to attend training workshops organized by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, while those availing of emergency employment would still be given the regional minimum wage for working for a short period of time.

According to a report from Mindanews, local government unit (LGU) officials from the Caraga region said that mining workers will have a difficult time looking for jobs once the mining operations close. Out of the 23 operations ordered for closure, 14 firms are based in the Caraga region. Moreover, LGUs generate a significant portion of their income from mining taxes.

Bello had already ordered the different regional offices located in Central Luzon, Western Visayas, Caraga, and Cordillera Administrative Region to conduct an assessment report and spearhead preparations for the impact of the closure in their respective areas.

Prospects of the industry

While the mining closure has yet to be finalized, Cruz said that the next step for mining stakeholders is to voice out their sentiments against anti-mining groups and the government.

According to Cruz, mining stakeholders in the Caraga region have been going straight to the LGUs to raise their security concerns with regards to their jobs. However, he mentioned that the government has the final call on balancing “the protection to the environment and utilization of the natural resources.”

Aside from mining communities and firms, Cruz mentioned that mining engineering and geology students will be affected to an extent because they would be forced to search for jobs in other industries and their acquired knowledge would be rendered useless.

“Because of the lack of the relationship between the mining industry and the government, it’s not only the operating mines that are going to be affected but also exploration activities...That’s where you measure the resource,” he added.

On the other hand, anti-mining advocates have been pushing for the passage of House Bill 113, entitled Alternative Minerals Management Bill, to perform checks and balances on practices of mining firms. As an alternative solution to responsible mining, the bill would not only “regulate the rational exploration, development and utilization of mineral resources” but also ensure equitable distribution of benefits to concerned stakeholders.

In a Rappler article, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government Tony La Viña asserts that radical governance reforms are necessary to mitigate the environmental risks posed by mining and defend the interests of the nation. La Viña believes that Lopez sets the “right direction” toward achieving a better mining governance system. Even so, however, she has to recognize due process.

While the topic of mining continues to polarize, Cruz stressed the importance of conducting information campaigns about the mining industry and to combat misinformation. “The information of responsible mining need not stay in [pro-mining] people. They have to engage with the public and that is when the [public] can weigh the pros and cons of mining,” Cruz said.

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