Home Commentary Standing up for the environment in the Philippines

Standing up for the environment in the Philippines

If there’s one sector in the Philippines that has always stood in the frontline efforts to hold big mining firms responsible for destructive operations that leave the environment in shambles, it’s the Catholic Church.

Recently, four Mindanao dioceses revived a movement against large-scale mining operations in the southern Philippines. They were joined by more than 50 environmental groups, tribal communities and ecumenical movements.

Bishop Cerilo Allan Casicas of Marbel pointed out during the revival of the “Tampakan Forum,” organized way back in 2011, that “mining projects continue to threaten us.”

The prelate explained that at least 10,000 farmers will be affected, and 20,000 hectares of prime agricultural lands will be destroyed, adding that “even God will not approve of this project.”



The Tampakan copper-gold mine in Mindanao is the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia. The project, worth US$5 billion, was granted an environmental compliance certificate by the government in February 2013, even as the South Cotabato province had banned open-pit mining in the region.

The financial and technical assistance agreement signed by the Philippine government with the mining firm would have expired on March 22, 2020 but was awarded a 12-year extension by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources last year.

And there’s the rub: It’s government decisions allowing companies engaged in irresponsible mining to continue what they are doing that makes fierce opposition to the practice inevitable — and necessary.

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It’s not just in southern Philippines that people are up in arms against large-scale mining by big local and transnational companies.

In Negros Island in the central Philippines, people are blaming large-scale mining for the massive environmental damage and economic dislocation of rural folk.

Gold mining and exploration on the island by a huge domestic mining firm engaged in gold and copper production is believed to have encroached on land cultivated by small farmers while destroying the remaining forests and polluting and draining the rivers.

In fact, 30 percent of the land in the province have mining claims, according to the anti-mining group Defend Patrimony. The province is rich in mineral resources such as gold, copper, silver, nickel and molybdenum.

In northern Luzon, mining projects are concentrated in the mountainous areas where the communities of several indigenous groups such as the Agta, Ilongot, and Igorot have been living for centuries.



The big local and foreign mining firms operate in the Cordilleras and nearby Cagayan Valley. A shocking 60 percent of the total land area of the Cordilleras is said to have already been compromised by mining operations. Many mining activities in Northern Luzon impact negatively on the region ecosystems.

The Philippines is indeed rich in mineral resources needed by various industries, such as gold, silver and nickel. It’s not surprising therefore that big mining firms both local and foreign want to tap the riches lying beneath the ground.

Mining in the Philippines is governed by the Mining Act of 1995 (or Republic Act 7942) which is touted by those who crafted it as a socially and environmentally-sensitive piece legislation.

Why?

The Mining Act is supposed to strictly adhere to the principle of sustainable development.

This means that the needs of the present should be met without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs, with the view of improving the quality of life, both now and in the future.

A mountain in the northern Philippines that used to be planted to rice by tribal people has become a wasteland after it was turned into an open-pit mine. (Photo by Romeo Mariano)

Sustainable development also means that the use of mineral wealth should be pro-people and pro-environment in sustaining wealth creation and improve quality of life.

The law also mandates that mining activities must always be guided by current best practices in environmental management committed to reducing the impacts of mining while efficiently and effectively protecting the environment.

But are these principles being upheld by the big mining firms? Obviously, those in the forefront of opposition to large-scale mining do not think so.

In fact, the late Regina Lopez, an environmental activist who was tapped by President Rodrigo Duterte to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 2016, said the Mining Act of 1995 is an “unfair” law that is “skewed towards the mining sector, and not towards our people.”

She did not stay long in the Cabinet position after lawmakers did not confirm her appointment apparently due to pressure from the country’s economic managers after she ordered the closure or suspension of 26 of the country’s 41 mines and banned open-pit mining.

Widespread opposition to irresponsible mining was graphically shown in the protest action mounted by various groups during the opening of an annual mining conference in a posh Manila hotel in September 2017.

“We are here to express our opposition to mining in our country and the failure of mining companies to rehabilitate mining areas,” said a leader of the protesters. Outside the hotel, other protesters, including those from tribal communities, chanted and held streamers saying, “Stop mining plunder” and “No to large-scale mining.”



Much earlier, in 1998, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines had already called for the repeal of the Mining Act of 1995, citing concern over the “rapid expansion of mining operations” that have had “devastating effects.”

Their statement said: “Our land is rich, yet over-exploitation threatens the future of our people. We must therefore guard our non-renewable resources, like minerals, to ensure sustainable development of our land for the sake of future generations …. The adverse social impact on the affected communities, especially on our indigenous brothers and sisters, far outweigh the gains promised by large-scale mining corporations.”

A timely warning to all, we think, now that irresponsible mining goes on unabated in various parts of the country.

Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.

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