Commentary

Protect our resources

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No one doubts that the Philippines is rich in terms of natural resources, including gold and copper. In particular, China does not doubt our natural wealth as it seeks through military threats to claim our oil resources.

The West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) is estimated to hold 213 billion barrels of oil. Assuming a very conservative estimate of $50 a barrel, more than $11 trillion in a highly valuable resource partly belongs to the Philippines. The total value is 35 times its gross domestic product in 2011. Properly managed, and avoiding the corruption of Nigeria and the arbitrariness of Venezuela, the Philippines can be an economic powerhouse just based on a modest share of the West Philippine Sea oil resources. And this does not include the natural gas reserves estimated to reach 4.4 trillion cubic feet.

Fortunately, unlike Japan, our resources are far greater and diverse. We are third in gold reserves, fourth in copper reserves, fifth in nickel reserves and overall fifth in mineral wealth in the world. China’s Zijing Mining Group is planning to spend almost $1 billion in overseas acquisitions of gold and copper reserves, and has indicated that it is considering such acquisitions in the Philippines. Any such acquisitions should be part of a broad plan to resolve the West Philippine Sea dispute and maximize the benefits to Filipino workers without harming the environment.

President Aquino is to be commended for rethinking the Philippine government’s former head-in-the-sand approach to our enormous natural resources, particularly as to our huge copper deposits and very large quantities of gold, nickel and zinc.

We have one even greater resource that must be combined with our natural resources or we will be taken advantage of by nations such as China. That resource is our entrepreneurial skills, creativity and flexibility. But how can we achieve a balance that works for our nation and our people between exploitation of our natural resources and the growing need for additional productive investments?

Productive investments could lead to millions of good paying jobs.

Today, for example, almost all of the good paying jobs available for hardworking Filipinos are overseas. That does not have to be the only way. A decade ago, Lula da Silva was elected president of Brazil almost exclusively by the workers. Lula recognized that if he followed only inflexible far-left principles, Brazil would never become a prosperous nation and the vast majority of its people would remain from poor to dirt poor.

Brazil today, as a result of Lula’s policies and the continuance of these policies by its new president, Dilma Rousseff, is no longer a Third World country. It is now among the Top 10 nations and the 40 million who were very poor have been moved to the middle class in less than a decade. That is the balance we must seek.

Another former great nation closer to the Philippines is also considering the Brazilian experiment. Burma (Myanmar) has decided, after 50 years of regressive anti-entrepreneurial policies, to revisit the modern era and invite responsible investors, including the United States.

Burma, formerly the world’s largest exporter of rice, was once a rich nation. But until its president reversed two generations of anti-entrepreneurial policies, it nearly made the mistake of agreeing to an oppressive investment agreement with China. That deal would have built a dam that would have flooded an area the size of Singapore along Burma’s Irrawaddy River, and diverted 90 percent of the hydroelectric energy to China.

In Zambia, the government has invited China to develop its copper mines. But a Human Rights Watch investigation last year found that China’s state-owned mining companies consistently subjected local workers to “abusive health, safety, and labor conditions,” and threatened to fire workers who complained or refused to work under dangerous conditions.

Inside China, many set their hopes on the recently completed Three Gorges dam to bring pollution-free energy to the country. But the project has displaced 1.4 million citizens, magnified the effects of flooding and drought along the Yangtze River, and even exacerbated the river’s pollution.

China’s mining industry is also notorious for destroying the environment and has had an unusually poor safety record. More than 51,000 have died in China’s coal mines since 2001. In contrast, 348 died in US coal mines during the same time period.

As China’s leading environmentalist, Ma Jun, recently said, China’s indifferent environmental practices have prevented 300 million Chinese from having access to safe drinking water and more than half of its urban population is exposed to persistent air pollution.

The Philippines must avoid these mistakes.

Many of the Philippines’ greatest human resources today are overseas. These resources should be tapped by the President. He should form a select blue ribbon environmental and jobs committee. Two-thirds of this committee should consist of residents of the Philippines, and one-third, Filipinos residing in other nations. The committee should be charged with developing, within the next 12 months, a comprehensive plan to quadruple responsible investments in the Philippines in exchange for creating millions of middle-class jobs.

The authors of this article are too young to remember, but only 50 years ago, just before the Marcos era, the Philippines was viewed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and most investors as the second wealthiest nation in Asia. And some of us remember that our parents and grandparents dreamed that one day we might surpass Japan in wealth and power because we have far more natural resources.

This dream of catching up with Japan has been dashed time and again. But we believe President Aquino, the son of a great and creative leader who viewed obstacles as opportunities, will be up to the task. If our President is another “Ninoy,” within less than a decade, at least half of the poor in the Philippines will be part of the middle class, as has occurred in Brazil. Then our expatriates will return to the Philippines to participate in the greatest economic and social revolution in our history.

Faith Bautista is the president and CEO of the National Asian American Coalition. Mia Martinez is the chief deputy of the National Asian American Coalition and the director of its Washington DC office. Both have been active in fighting the Chinese government’s efforts to buy a bank in the United States due to the Chinese government’s military threats to the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries that claim rights to the West Philippine Sea.

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