No Free Lunch

Middle ground on mining?

I have always said that on the matter of mining, there is no room for extreme positions. Productive public discussion on mining requires that it be done rationally and dispassionately, freed from emotions and especially from impressions and perceptions that are not grounded on facts. Amid the large volume of arguments and assertions coming from both sides of the issue, with both even citing biblical references for support, there is a need to distill hard facts from mere claims, untruths and half-truths.

I know it’s hard not to be emotional for those who have directly witnessed and felt the ill effects certain mining activities have had on communities, lives and livelihoods. It is also hard for industry advocates not to get emotional when stonewalled by closed minds simply unwilling to listen to reason and evidence-based arguments. Even so, it’s clear to me that emotions need to be set aside in the effort to find the appropriate resolution to the raging debate. It doesn’t help to label people and groups simplistically as “promining” or “antimining”; “proponents” and “critics” may be more accurate and less divisive labels. I’ve seen how industry proponents unnecessarily alienated certain potentially effective allies in the past, after recklessly dismissing them as “antimining” for pointing out problems caused by the industry, even when done in a constructive light.


Between proponents and critics, there are actually certain points agreed to, or at least not disputed, by either side. First, I don’t see anyone disputing that mining is a necessary industry, as numerous products essential to daily living trace their basic raw material to mining. Proponents need not hammer on that argument, which critics probably find offensive and insulting when they do. There’s a difference between calling for a stop to mining in the Philippines given its bad track record over the years, and calling for an end to mining altogether. I don’t see anyone arguing for the latter, while to argue for the former is an extreme position that I’ve asserted as having no place in the national discourse toward finding satisfactory solutions.

Second, both sides agree that current laws pertaining to the sector are flawed, and have provisions that are inadequate, ambiguous, inconsistent, or unfair, thus requiring rectification by our lawmakers. To proponents, these legal weaknesses have impeded investments; to critics, these have compromised public welfare and the national interest. Either way, the situation cries out for correction, which will entail amending not just the Mining Code itself, but also other laws (e.g., the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, Local Government Code) whose provisions conflict with one another and with the Mining Code.


Third, hardly anyone will dispute that poverty remains prevalent, and in many places has worsened, around mining areas, and that the causes of this, which may not necessarily be blamed on the industry itself, must be well understood. Government, civil society and the mining industry must work in partnership to address the problem; each one working in isolation will not get far.

Fourth, environmental damages and risks associated with mining activities have been too disturbing to ignore; Environment Secretary Gina Lopez has documented these with her own photographs. Environmental risks, like poverty, must be brought down to socially acceptable levels, if impossible to avoid completely. No one calls for an end to the airline industry on the grounds of the air pollution it causes and the risk of terrible air disasters that happen every so often. Airline travel thrives, notwithstanding these, because the levels of damage and risk are deemed by society to be small enough to be acceptable. The challenge to mining, then, is to show that the level of damage and risk can be kept to a level society deems acceptable. This is not impossible; technology has advanced enough to address that side of the issue. It is in quality of governance, in both corporate and public realms, where much improvement is needed, if we are to find the happy middle ground we have long needed to make mining benefit all Filipinos.

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