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Audacity

I have to say that I am in awe at what Secretary Gina Lopez, with the full support of President Rodrigo Duterte, is doing to make the country confront hard choices over mining.

I write this as a legal and policy scholar and practitioner, with 30 years of experience dealing with mining issues in the Philippines and in the world. Lopez and Duterte have been bold; they are visionaries, taking immense political risks. They have reframed the discussion on mining in the most fundamental way—not about economics, but about sustainable development; not about profits, but about social and environmental justice.

The recent decisions of Secretary Lopez—first, to suspend and close several mining operations, and then last Tuesday, as her Valentine’s Day gift to the Filipino people, to cancel 75 mining agreements (actually she has sent them “show cause” letters, a first step towards a decision as required by due process), has changed, overnight, the landscape of mining governance in the Philippines. In my view, assuming that due process and an adherence to good science were followed in making them, these decisions bring us closer to responsible mining.

Although most environmental activists believe that is no such thing as “responsible mining”—“never has been, never will be,” I respectfully disagree. I have always believed that with decisive action by the government and hard work by all stakeholders, and especially the mining industry, responsible mining is possible.

For me, responsible mining can be defined simply as compliance with the laws on mining where existing regulations are enough to safeguard the health of the environment and human communities. We have these in the Mining Act of 1995 although there is a problem of proper implementation of these programs.

The best practices in mining are summarized well by the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines’ manual—Compliance and Beyond: A Guidebook on Corporate Social Responsibility for the Philippine Mining Industry. In this comprehensive and excellent resource book, COMP provides specific suggestions on how to adhere to responsible mining at every stage of the mining cycle.

These include the following principles: (1) Protect the environment as a paramount consideration in all stages of mining and conduct activities in a manner that will contribute to the broader goals of sustainable development; (2) Protect the rights of affected communities, including the rights of indigenous cultural communities. Engage in adequate and timely communication and consultation with them and work for the improvement of the quality of their lives during and even after the life of the mine; (3) Safeguard the health and safety of mineworkers, local population, host and impact communities, and address foreseeable health- and safety-related impacts associated with mining over its full life cycle. (4) Maintain a competent workforce that is committed to responsible mining and whose welfare is advanced. (5) Make sure that affected communities benefit from mining through employment, whenever possible. (6) Respect, protect, and promote human rights of those affected by mining and promote human rights-sensitive security arrangements; and, (7) Adopt responsible corporate governance and management principles that nurture trust and promote company integrity by developing effective self-regulatory practices and management systems and employing business practices that are ethical, transparent and accountable.

A precondition for responsible mining is the identification of no-go areas. Despite provisions in the law that identify areas closed to mining, field implementation has been beset by conflicts. There is no clear-cut policy for example, on mining in island ecosystems that are most vulnerable to environmental and social impact. The obvious rule should be that watersheds should be off limits to all extractive industries and activities that impairs and diminishes the watershed’s ability to provide water, biodiversity, climate and other ecosystem services.

But the debate has become legal, with the industry insisting that only proclaimed watersheds are no-go areas. There is even an assertion, and both Secretary Lopez and her detractors have said this, that the whole Philippines is a watershed. Such a conclusion can be justified to ban all mining in the whole country but the same can also be used to justify mining everywhere.

Most ecologists and watershed experts I know reject such a notion. We can actually look at specific places and conclude that this is a watershed and that mining should not be allowed here because of its environmental impact on such a resource. This is my understanding of the rationale for the closure and show cause orders against several mining operations and the 75 mining agreements. President Duterte has rightly confirmed that there should be no mining in watersheds and I support him and Secretary Lopez on this.

I have also proposed many times that there must be a total respect for the letter and spirit of the NIPAS law (on protected areas) and the special environmental law for Palawan that declare areas closed to mining. There must also be respect for the right of local governments to close areas within their territorial jurisdiction to mining operations as a precautionary measure, in the absence of credible information on impacts and acceptable risk, or a policy preference. Small island ecosystems should be excluded from mining as, they support small communities as special cases for environment and development, being ecologically fragile and vulnerable. Agriculture and sustainable tourism should be preferred over mining.

I have also emphasized that responsible mining has to respect the decision of local stakeholders, especially indigenous peoples. The right of IPs and local communities to Free and Prior Informed Consent, which includes the right to say “no” should be respected and not taken as a provisional decision subject to negotiation until communities finally say “yes.”

It is also important that small-scale mining should be held to the same high standards imposed on the big mining companies. In the first place, most small-scale mining activity today already employs tools and machines similar to those used by the big companies. Their financiers with deep pockets must be held accountable for compliance with environmental, social and economic laws. Artisanal and the truly poor small-scale miners must however be given preference.

Finally, the government must review and impose a better revenue-sharing policy. Mineral resources are non-renewable national economy and the benefits to the country and to local communities must be tangible and definite.

To move this forward, Congress should revisit the mining law and passed an entirely new act that take into account the new landscape that Secretary Lopez has ushered in.

In an interview with an American journalist last week, I was asked whether I thought Lopez was nuts. The journalist referred to one of the videos of Secretary Lopez where she waxed poetic about nature.

I said if she were, then President Duterte would even be crazier. The truth is both the Secretary and the President are sui generis, one of a kind. Indeed, I have always thought that the Duterte decision to appoint Lopez was a stroke of genius; her latest actions conclusively prove that this was a correct impression.

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Topics: Tony La Viña , Audacity , Secretary Gina Lopez , President Rodrigo Duterte , mining
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