It was a dramatic image: Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez on a chopper flying over and surveying a landscape seemingly ravaged by mining. The scene invoked a good-versus-evil narrative, and anyone watching would find it hard not be moved. Many automatically sided with the crusading secretary, and when she announced the closing of a number of mines all over the country—half of the operating mines according to some count—she was lauded by some quarters. Anti-mining groups declared it a victory.
The reality on the ground, however, is much more complex. While the environment is surely a critical factor in the management of a country’s natural resources, the sector is infinitely more complex and multi-faceted than any single scene can capture.
In the case of the Philippines, the implications are far-reaching, too. For too long, a lack of a long-term development agenda for the country’s natural resources has delayed the efficient harnessing of an estimated US$1.4 trillion in mineral reserves. This has led some to describe the Filipino as a poor man sitting on a pot of gold. It is thus a scenario that will hardly benefit from a crusade anchored solely on the environment.
Understandably, the sweeping closure orders sparked an uproar from legitimate mining companies and their stakeholders. And for good reason: the official notices had not been sent to the mines and any attempt by media to obtain details had been rebuffed by Lopez. This clear disregard of protocol, processes and transparency, led some to question the motivations behind the campaign, as well as the prejudiced, grandstanding manner in which it has been waged.
The slew of closure orders is also contrary to President Rodrigo Duterte’s instructions for a fair and lawful management of the mining industry early in his term. As an alter ego of the President, Lopez cannot defy the administration’s pronouncements and chart her own path when it comes to policy. A clarity and consistency of vision is crucial for such a multi-faceted sector as the mineral industry.
The inter-agency Mining Industry Coordinating Council released its Resolution No. 6 effectively giving relief to the mines subject to Lopez’s closure orders by recognizing the requirements for due process and has resolved to hold its own multi-stakeholder review. Even with this, Ms. Lopez adamantly affirms her stand to close the mines.
How do we break this decades-long stalemate? Understanding the issues surrounding mining while keeping an eye out for environmental stewardship emanates from a logical and lucid foundation: science.
To begin, the Hollywood stereotype of mining as an evil destroyer of the environment for profit is just a fictional element for an entertaining plot. History proves that in well-developed mining economies all over the world, the mineral industry is a strategic driver for industrialization and prosperity.
Aside from its obvious job-generating dimension, a well-managed sector links to auxiliary businesses that multiplies the employment opportunities. Often overlooked is how mining enhances local services and human resources. From education, health, retail, trade, and financial services to agriculture, manufacturing, and infrastructure, legitimate mining projects creates a bustling local economy by way of jobs that create a demand for all kinds of services. Where available, the economy should also make room for processing facilities that can help the industry yield higher value products.
As all these require massive capital, government must establish an investment climate that is globally competitive. A regulatory environment complemented by an efficient bureaucracy, clear and stable policy.
The best example we have is Baguio City, today a progressive regional center, used to be a remote, sleepy mountainous region just over a century ago. The Americans at the turn of the century did not build Kennon Road to enjoy the cool weather or tourism. It was the huge mining potential in rich copper and gold ores—that spurred the development of Benguet province.
Expanding this to the level of national economies, industrialization has always required a vibrant mineral industry. Countries like Canada, Australia, China, and the United States continue to massively harness their mineral potential to feed the raw materials for their manufacturing industries. Deploying the newest technologies they have effectively managed the effects to the environment to globally acceptable standards.
Thus, while the crusade being waged by Lopez is valid from a certain perspective, the success of other countries proves that it is an incomplete perspective. This ideological propaganda deceives the public with an unbalanced and even malevolent view of mining.
Sadly, the biggest casualty in this anti-mining crusade will be the very people it promises to save. If Lopez stops legitimate mining, the biggest winners are the thousands of illegal mining operators who do not pay taxes, sell to smugglers and are the real destroyers of the environment. Why not go after them?
We need a brand of environmental governance grounded on sound science and technology, not on emotional dogma. A responsible stewardship of our natural resources that is rightly passionate without being discriminatory or myopic. Science has the answers.