The beleaguered mining sector recently obtained some sense of direction after the inter-agency Mining Industry Coordinating Council officially voted to lift the ban on open-pit mining issued six months ago by former Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez “provided that mining laws, rules, and regulations are strictly enforced.”
Lopez’s replacement, Roy Cimatu, said DENR would follow MICC’s recommendation, in what industry has lauded as positive development for the sector. “This will improve the investment climate of mining in the Philippines and lift the uncertainties for key projects,” said Chamber of Mines of the Philippines executive director Ronald Recidoro, according to reports.
Indeed, MICC’s recommendation and Cimatu’s concurrence represent a well balanced and science based move in contrast to the drawn-out and controversial policy stance of Lopez, an avowed environmentalist, who under her brief tenure put the whole mining industry in a precarious position, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of Filipinos.
Not only that. As the Duterte administration embarks on ambitious infrastructure and industrial programs, the institution of a long overdue national resources roadmap could potentially play a crucial role not only in revenue generation but more importantly in the jumpstarting of new industries. Examples from all over the world throughout history tells us that the mining industry plays a critical role in the industrialization of an economy, which in turn is an important step in bringing about inclusive growth.
In many ways, it is thus reassuring that the voice of industry experts represented by the MICC finally prevailed over the often-emotional noise generated by staunch anti-mining groups. The blanket ban, while pleasing such groups, was by no means a result of thoughtful process. Even Lopez herself was impressed by the open pit mining operations of Nickel Asia’s Taganito mine in Palawan, raising the soundness of a wholesale ban.
Also undeniable is the fact that the mining industry is the biggest contributor to the DENR’s reforestation program. Philex Mining Corp. on its own has planted more than 10-million trees.
Internationally, open-pit mining has long been an accepted method for mining. It is also legal according to the Mining Act of the Philippines.
The lifting of the ban also represents a golden opportunity for large-scale miners to take the lead in cleansing its ranks and weeding out the non-compliant mining operations to finally set a high standard for responsible mining. Already, the Chamber of Mines has vowed to continue to police its ranks and still improve its already stringent yardsticks, including self-regulation, Recidoro said.
With a restrictive policy out of the way, the much-maligned sector can define what constitutes responsible mining once and for all, in the process transforming the sector into a self-regulating industry that enforces compliance—and over-compliance, even—to environmental and safety standards.
For instance, the Chamber has recently adopted Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining program, which singles out the protocols regarding performances but also guarantees that key mining risks are managed responsibly. President Duterte himself cited the viability of the award-winning performance system.
Recidoro explained: “[Canada’s TSM officials] will conduct intensive workshops to our members by December to teach them how to really do it. We will also sign a MOA (memorandum of agreement) to follow their standards and framework and implement it here.”
Other conversations that can start—or resume—following MICC’s decision is the inadequate cooperation among the DENR, mining firms, and local government units, which according to experts has resulted in the failure to maximize opportunities in the sector, including the production of higher-value mining products.
A productive first step can be in empowering agencies like the Mines and Geosciences Bureau and the Environmental Management Bureau, which can guard against environmentally non-viable projects from even beginning, unlike the current set-up in which the DENR performs the contradictory functions of permit-giving and policing.
Other proposed solutions from mining experts include the provision of new guidelines for permanent surface modification and potential long-term rehabilitation, the enhancement of design or performance standards for open pit mines particularly on rehabilitation and restoration of mines, and a mechanism to ensure sufficient financial resources for the rehabilitation and restoration activities of the mining areas in the event that the mining ceases or completes its operation.
These recommendations bring to fore another problem: Small-scale mining operations, which are small in name but big in consequences, notably do not set aside rehabilitation funds to restore mined-out areas, effectively abandoning their host communities to deal with the harmful effects once the minerals have been depleted.
Dealing with these, among many other issues, will finally allow the harnessing of an estimated US$1.4 trillion in mineral reserves that now lay underground, unused. While it may take a long journey, the lifting of the open pit mining ban is a significant step towards unleashing the country’s mineral potential.
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