Making mining work
Bongao, Tawi-Tawi—The controversy involving Secretary Gina Lopez of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources brings to the fore an interesting saga in the long history of the DENR.
Never has there been a DENR secretary as gritty and zealous as Lopez. An ex-yoga missionary and environmental activist from a distinguished clan, she has shown no remorse despite criticisms of her controversial decision to close/suspend 28 mining firms and cancel 75 mining contracts which, she says, is a “gift of love” for Filipinos. Of the 28 closed/suspended mining firms, 13 are in Mindanao. And most of the supposed violations have to do with siltation, environmental degradation, and destruction of functional watersheds.
While many laud Lopez for standing up to large mining firms, there are others who criticize her for her blatant disregard for the livelihood of those affected by her orders, which have led to job displacements and immediate unemployment. According to Artemio Disini, head of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, 219,000 people are directly employed by the mining industry and many of them have been affected.
Despite the loopholes, the much-criticized Republic Act No. 7942 (or the Mining Act of 1995) provides vital safeguards that are supposed to mitigate the environmental degradation that mining could bring. Under this law, one of the requirements before the issuance of an environmental compliance certificate is the conduct of an environmental impact study (EIS)—a comprehensive assessment which is supposed to identify the long-term effects of mining on the site’s environment and the proposed ways forward to rehabilitate the natural ecology after the mineral extraction.
Unfortunately, like many other government policies that are good on paper, the implementation of RA 7942 is proving to be tricky as the safeguards that are supposed to ensure accountability and adherence on the part of the local government (as the host of the mining site) and the DENR are “dysfunctional,” to say the least. The safeguards are not as foolproof as they should be, allowing some crooks to game the stringent provisions for private gains at the expense of the host communities.
In recent years, there has been an influx of investments to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. And among the investments are in the mining industry, leading to the establishment of mining sites in various areas in the ARMM.
While these investments are good, safeguards must be put in place as unregulated mining could lead us back to what happened in Surigao del Sur and other mining communities.
In many host communities, residents become fully dependent on the mining industry. And once the mining company pulls out, the community is left with no source of livelihood. In a study, the think-tank Ibon Foundation found that regions with the biggest mining activities are among the poorest.
There has been a clamor to repeal RA 7942 for its inadequacies. House Bill No. 171 or the “People’s Mining Bill” is said to make mining “more beneficial to Filipinos,” but it is languishing in Congress. However, what should be considered is the insertion of a social impact study in the environmental impact study as a requirement for mining firms to comply with. More than doles, instituting such a mechanism could provide capacity-building measures on which a host community could stand before, during, and after a mining activity.
Mining in itself is not entirely evil, but what has been existing for the longest time is an unregulated industry in cahoots with the body that is supposed to regulate it. Lopez came in at the right time. And if she makes it right, making her department loyal to its mandate could be her biggest gift to Filipinos.
Jesse Angelo L. Altez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an academic and development worker based in Mindanao.
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