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The weird watershed angle

The latest in Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez’s anti-mining crusade is the cancellation of some 75 mineral production sharing agreements or MPSAs, citing their location in watershed areas.

Needless to say, crying foul is the mining industry and its many stakeholders, especially those who are bound to be rendered jobless by an act that’s been described by the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines as “irresponsible.”

Philexport president Sergio Ortiz-Luis Jr. has likewise expressed concern about the serious impact to the extensive supply chain of mining that affects not just drilling, construction, hauling and shipping but extends to processing companies, manpower and transportation services.

Amid the flexing of the DENR secretary designate’s media propaganda might, she has presented no viable plan for more than a million bread winners, dependents and other stakeholders in mining communities who cannot just shift overnight to her silver-bullet solution of eco-tourism.

But beyond the emotionalism and sloganeering, a quick analysis of the science behind the claim will reveal its utter absurdity.

Watershed areas—or drainage or catchment basins—refer to any expanse of land to which all surface water drains at a lower elevation. It is a broad and, for any kind of development that disturbs the virgin landscape, a potentially prohibitive definition. To cite, the Mississippi River, the world’s fourth-largest watershed, some 320 million hectares, nearly 40 percent, more than a third, of continental United States. Mining has historically provided the backbone of industrial development; the whole of North America would not have achieved its optimum potential if the same absurd logic were followed.

Moreover, there is no such thing as a “functional watershed” in the Mining Act or the Forestry Code. Inventing this new concept and again without any technical explanation became an effective sound bite for her announcement of mine closures.

For perspective, in the Philippines, the total land area covered by mining tenements as of November 2014 is less than a million hectares, or less than three percent of the country’s total land area. It is also less than 10 percent of the nine million hectares with “high mineral potential,” which means the industry has barely scratched the surface. Thus, to speak so grandly of the potential damage of mining in watershed areas ignores these miniscule numbers.

Besides, geothermal and renewable energy plants, such as wind, solar, and hydro farms, are also located in watersheds. Quarries, for instance, will also have to be summarily banned for the same reason (and, by definition, quarrying is open pit mining, which Secretary Lopez has repeatedly announced she would not allow). If she succeeds, the blanket ban entails will reverse the countries accelerating construction boom into a national crisis. The supply and production of cement and aggregates, both of which come from open-pit mining, will be shut down. Even the Lopez Group’s First Balfour, one of the largest suppliers of transport infrastructure and construction projects, extracts mine aggregates in a watershed.

But isn’t Secretary Lopez just enforcing the law? The Mining Act has indeed specified areas that are closed to mining applications on environmental grounds. These include old growth or virgin forests, including bird sanctuaries and marine reserve and protected parks, and critical watershed with appropriate barangay or municipal or provincial ordinances specifying their locations and specific boundaries. The key word there is obviously “critical”, and is not meant to be applied wholesale to all watershed areas.

So why was these MPSAs issued in the first place? Under Why was this allowed under five-year watch of her most trusted consultant, former Mines and Geosciences Bureau Director Leo Jasareno? Why isn’t the former director being made accountable for what Lopez has labelled a mistake of the DENR?

Some say that mining contributes less than one percent to the country’s gross domestic product.

The number, while good for headlines, is misleading. As pointed out, only a small area of the Philippines are hosts to mining activities. What the one percent occlude are the regions—some of the country’s poorest—that benefit greatly from mining. To cite, in Caraga and Mimaropa, contributions from mining exceed 20 percent—a fifth—of the region’s revenues. Averaging these gargantuan inputs with huge swathes of areas with no mining activities is a dastardly spin because it ignores local realities.

If this weird watershed angle tells us anything, is that this war has been waged less on science and more on dangerously misguided dogma. As a purveyor of state policy, Secretary Lopez should know better. Or is there a hidden agenda that her communications experts have so cleverly masked with an environmental spin? Will the Commission on Appointments be pressured by this power play? 

Topics: Department of Environment and Natural Resources , Secretary Gina Lopez , Mining companies , MPSAs
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