Home Commentary Where do we begin again? 

Where do we begin again? 

Where do we begin again? Fifty-one percent of the Philippines is uplands that are vulnerable slopes when opened even for agriculture. Given our wet, tropical environment, this makes the neighboring lands and downstream areas vulnerable to landslides, mudflows, and flooding.

We are creating a “volcano” of some kind. We are going to have to abandon a large area of land for a long time. Forests, water, biodiversity, the rights, and questions on cultural continuity, are lost for a golden copper calf.

Our watersheds were crafted over millions of years and we must manage them accordingly, with respect for the characteristics of the land and water of that landscape. Basically, what happens at the top of a watershed comes out at the bottom.

Once the soil and the minerals are disturbed, including the arsenic and the sulfur, the waters are polluted. If material is destabilized, it will flow. Mayon Volcano has an 11-kilometer no-go zone because of the mudflows that will reach the circumventing rivers at the base.

These rivers can even bring the mudflows further downstream. No one is safe within this zone for periods downstream.

If managed according to cost-saving cuts of companies that rain down the disasters on so many communities in the past, such as the disaster that occurred in Marinduque, these people have nowhere to go. It will fulfill the statistics of urbanization but not the desired quality of life.

And what respect is due to peoples and cultures, present for hundreds of years on these mountains and often, in many cases, driven up from the lowlands? Indigenous Peoples are still colonized coerced and driven back down to the cities by these processes of global investment.

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This is the curse, as we know, of poor countries with rich natural resources. And this economic gain is an economics void of cultural and ecological consideration of their impacts. This might sound excessive. But the multinational mining company Xstrata in the past, or any other corporate restructured economic arrangements will not be shown to have done the social and ecological justice that we are speaking of today.

It doesn’t mean we want to go back to the Stone Age, that’s a pathetic argument. It means we need to reinvent the model of human development that has been overtaken by economic development. We need a development for the public, for the common good, and not for corporate greed, towards a truly sustainable and circular economy. The economy and ecology are the same households, the oikos, and the oiko-nomy and the oiko-logy need to be able to work together. We need the balance and the integrity of both.

In the late 1990s, I held out in a series of dialogues of the Philippine Working Group that there might be one mining operation in the Philippines that was safe and transparent and we visited nearly every site in the Philippines at that time.

We spoke with the DENR-Mining and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), mining company executives, the Chamber of Mines, the Bishops’-Businessmen’s Conference, with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

To be fair, I said that each mine must be examined and not judged all on the experiences of a few. Reality showed that there was not one in the 21 legacy mines and then existing operating mines of the country, that was managed as it should have been, with the Marinduque mining disaster as a prime example of those times.

Around 2000, when we had a vision of the new millennia, I was part of a World Bank preliminary review to prepare for better investments in mining. A top team from around the world, including MGB officials of that time, could not identify one good mining operation in the wet tropics anywhere in the world.

We had to go to the arid lands, to the temperate and high mountain lands, where waste did not move to come anywhere near the accountability needed. We visited the Canadian mountains, the Australian deserts, and the highlands of Peru where social impacts were still unresolved.

Twelve criteria emerged for a sustainable mine. Yes, granted a sustainable mine would want to be, in today’s terms, into top-level recycling in the long run, but “sustainable” mining here means it has to be restricted.

Local impact on the land, the water, and the life could be regenerated after the active period of the mine and community-driven social development has to have an adequate contribution also to the national economy, not just a percentile.

The same questions arise today as in the early 2000s. Some questions still need to be answered. Where does the rubble go? Its long-term impacts run into thousands of years and all the company has to do is change its construction, and it absolves itself of responsibility.

A major turnaround in social and environmental costing is not appearing. We spoke of this more than 20 years ago and much more difficult responses are being asked of mining operations today. And these responses have to translate to both the human development needed, as well as the environmental security.

We are back to the same lines of engagement. The dragon stirred in 2020 and we learned that corporate plans never die. As people can always be mollified, plans are modified, as they live on as myths from one generation to another. Former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez, for all the inevitable administrative limitations, slew the dragon. But given it is election time again, we can imagine a legion emerging.

Generally, in society, there is an increasing tendency to ignore science because it asks tough questions. Technology, particularly techno-economic fixes, is increasingly worshipped.
Technocracy, the one-sided techno-science, is invincible until the people say that “the emperor has no clothes.” Children understand the obviously repeated mistakes, and they ask, “Why?” Why do we do this? We’re told at school not to throw plastics around, so why do we do it? They don’t understand the ways of the world. Children don’t understand greed.

Why is the Church in this?

Shared below is a partial timeline of the Philippine Church’s actions to mining:

  • In 1995, CBCP sought the repeal of Republic Act No. 7942 (Philippine Mining Act) citing the negative impacts of mining on people and this was re-affirmed in 2006.
  • 2006, there was a call to have the Alternative Minerals Management Bill certified as urgent, hoping for a more sustainable and effective utilization of mineral resources
  • 2011, the bishops expressed alarm over government mineral development plans in southern Luzon, citing the negative impacts of mining on fishermen and farmers in Palawan. The Catholic Church and Protestant groups joined NGOs and indigenous groups in a campaign to get big mining firms to answer.
  • 2015, indigenous killings in Mindanao were linked to mining operations, resulting in about 3,000 indigenous fleeing their homes to relocate. That same year, Philippine bishops and environmental organizations appealed to Pope Francis to intervene in the human rights violations and ecological destruction brought about by large-scale mining operations.
  • 2017, CBCP opposed the proposal of the Mining Industry Coordinating Council to lift the ban on open-pit mining
  • 2019, bishops in Mindanao joined a dialogue with mining-affected communities in South Cotabato and asked for greater accountability.

And in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology and human development released in 2015, the pastoral concern for communities affected by mining was included, especially the destruction in Latin America.

And in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology and human development released in 2015, the pastoral concern for communities affected by mining was included, especially the destruction in Latin America.

Activate civil society

I finish by talking briefly about an active civil society.

The original 25-year financial and technical assistance agreement (FTAA) of the Tampakan copper project granted in 1995 was set to expire on 21 March 2020. On 20 January 2020, the FTAA was extended for 12 years or until 21 March 2032, with the option to renew for another 25 years, which if granted would mean the project’s operation until 2057.

This extension shows little process and transparency, and that applies to all of the documents previously mentioned. The real battle is in the courts. The LGU and local courts are upholding the ban before the mines open. Once the mines open, there is no going back because corporations have everything set to their advantage, and the compensations due in closing a mine once the document has been signed make it impossible.

We need corporate social responsibility that goes beyond window dressing, and greenwashing. We need to encourage our businesses in the country and business families to invest in and for the future of the Filipinos and build a sustainable circular economy together.

Civil society has to learn in the present context to stay strong and alert. Mining and the economy are only part of the equation. The oikos is what we need. For real sustainability, a much more integral questioning of impacts, rights, long-term effects in communities, shared growth, and ecological viability are needed.

Commitment and integrity are constantly challenged by an economy that goes back to the old model of exploitation that does not work and keeps us third-world. We must remember what we have learned in the mining history of the Philippines and we must seek for action.

This is a challenge to our society and our government for the better world that we can choose as we move through Covid. We need to reduce the vulnerability of communities and love our actual country, the islands, the rivers, the seas, and yes, the diversity of peoples. All are worth working for.

Civil society has no constitution of policies other than those of the country it shapes. When civil society takes up a cause, it is always the underdog in the face of the establishment. But it is the living and it is the life and the hope of so many people, usually the poor who do not have a voice. Civil society must rouse people from their comfort zones, focusing again on the public good that makes a difference in our country for a better normal.

This article is the presentation of Pedro Walpole SJ to an online forum on 30 October 2020, State of the Mindanao Environment Day (SoMEDay) in Tampakan: A Stakeholders’ Forum on the State of Mining and the Environment in Tampakan, part of a series of dialogues organized by the Ateneo de Davao University through Ecoteneo, the Ateneo Public Interest and Legal Advocacy Center, and the University Community Engagement and Advocacy Council.

Fr. Pedro Walpole, S.J. works in sustainable environment and community land management in Southeast Asia, with mainly local communities, universities, international organizations, and governments. He practices a people-focused approach to capacity building and seeks to promote more lasting partnerships through research, consultation, and policy building to support local populations and governments. He is the Global Coordinator for Ecojesuit, Research Director for the Environmental Science for Social Change, and the Coordinator for the River Above Asia Oceania Ecclesial Network. 

Pedro also directs the Apu Palamguwan Cultural Education Center, an upland basic education program and technical training for indigenous children in northern Mindanao that has its own culture-based curriculum and promotes multi-language education and the use of the mother tongue. He continues to live with the Pulangiyēn, an upland indigenous community in Mindanao.

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