The mining project often described as the biggest foreign investment in the Philippines has been granted an environmental clearance certificate on the third attempt, prompting praise from the Chamber of Mines and provoking fury among environmental activists. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources carefully limited the grant by attaching “certain conditions,” but not even full compliance can guarantee that the controversy over the $5.9-billion open-pit copper-gold project in Southern Mindanao will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Last week’s accident in the Semirara coal mine on Semirara Island in Antique—another open-pit mine—has only heightened public apprehension about the true costs of mining. The tailings leak in Philex Mining’s Padcal facility last August has resulted in the payment of a whopping P1-billion fine, but it also ensured continuing coverage of the mining industry’s spotty safety record.
It is still possible to say that many Filipinos will consider an outright ban on mining counterproductive. Even though the younger generations have grown up much more conscious of environmental issues, the fate of the economy-vs-environment debate remains open-ended.
But the development of “one of the world’s largest undeveloped copper-gold deposits,” by the Swiss mining giant Xstrata and its Philippine affiliate Sagittarius Mining Inc. (SMI), will not provide a definitive answer. (The quote above is from the SMI website.) The issues surrounding the project are more complicated; they reach beyond purely economic or environmental questions. In other words, even if the project proves to be an unqualified success, it will not put paid to the controversy.
The SMI project is often referred to by the name of its main mining site, Tampakan, in South Cotabato, but in fact the project area straddles four towns in four provinces. Aside from Tampakan, the project covers Malungon, Sarangani; Columbio, Sultan Kudarat; and Kiblawan, Davao del Sur.
But it is South Cotabato where the main source of opposition is found. In 2010, the provincial board disallowed open-pit mining and just last month it issued a resolution reaffirming the ban. SMI’s first two applications for an ECC were rejected precisely because of the provincial ban; a recent Department of Justice opinion, however, emphasized that national laws take precedence over local regulations. The Mining Act of 1997 allows open-pit mining.
“The DOJ opinion was very clear to us. It was a major factor in our decision,” Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said the other day, in explaining the grant of the ECC. The DENR issued the ECC “subject to the implementation of certain conditions,” and Paje offered a summary of the conditions: “SMI should make public the feasibility of the project, ensure that the area does not cover those where mining is prohibited and ensure social acceptability through consultations with stakeholders.”
The last condition, about social acceptability, is the toughest to meet, partly because of the following factors:
Political. The South Cotabato governor who put the law into effect, Rep. Daisy Avance Fuentes, is running for the governor’s post again. The incumbent, Gov. Arthur Pingoy, is running for reelection. Both are on the record as supporting the ban; in recent weeks, however, Pingoy has come under fire from environmental activists in his province, including Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez, for entertaining the possibility of hiring German consultants to review the project’s impact.
Tribal. Some influential leaders of the B’laan tribe have opposed the SMI project since it started, essentially for desecrating areas the tribe considers sacred. Last October, a tribal leader’s wife and two of her children were killed when an Army unit raided the leader’s home; he, together with other relatives, are being pursued by the military for their role in the deaths of several SMI consultants and staff members.
Local. Some of SMI’s P10-billion initial investment has gone into “community development programs,” making an undeniable improvement in residents’ lives. As Mindanao journalist Edwin Espejo has noted, this kind of impact has led fierce political rivals in Tampakan to set aside differences and support SMI.
Legal. Pingoy and some provincial board members have said they will follow any Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the open-pit mine, but not a single party in the controversy has bothered to file a case.
Like we said: complicated.