Perhaps reacting to mounting criticism from a range of quarters, Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary-designate Gina Lopez announced recently that the government body would undertake “sweeping reforms,” ostensibly geared to make DENR more effective in fulfilling its mandate. In particular, the beleaguered official said, the planned reforms are envisioned to make its programs and services “more efficient and accessible to the people,” still aligned with her avowed goal toward social justice.
In the official release, Lopez, who was notably bypassed by the Commission on Appointments, said the reforms will cover policies related to forest, land, protected area, and environmental management.
Lopez followed this with yet another announcement that she has issued DENR Administrative Order No. 2017-10 prospectively banning all “open-pit method of mining for copper, gold, silver and complex ores” with the exemption quarrying to produce building materials.
This development comes just days before the CA is set to meet on the confirmation of Lopez as DENR Secretary and on the heels of reports of “deep divisions” in the cabinet of President Rodrigo Duterte, in particular disagreements regarding the proposed review of the interagency Mining Industry Coordinating Council. Lopez had questioned the legal basis of the MICC review, which was precisely formed to clarify issues surrounding the department’s contentious suspension and closure orders, which hit several key mining operations in the country.
Department of Finance Undersecretary Bayani Agabin said the DoF was disconcerted about Lopez questioning the legality of MICC, a marked reversal considering she had already agreed to the multi-agency review. It was precisely the multilateral character of the review, Agabin noted, that differentiated it from DENR’s controversial audit.
As such, Secretary Lopez’s total open pit mining ban further demonstrates her obstinate anti-mining attitude that some observers had equated to as an across-the-board anti-development stance. The self-proclaimed advocate assumed the role on a crusader’s platform, which many in the business sector consider impetuous and anti-development.
Furthermore, Lopez’s order exempting quarrying for building materials, an open pit method, directly benefits a family owned interest, one of the biggest aggregate supplier of the country.
Lopez’s actions, runs contrary to what the economic history of some of the world’s biggest superpowers tells us: that a robust extractive industry—including the revitalization of allied industries like steel—is indispensable in carving sustainable and inclusive growth. Concretely, the ambitious seven-percent growth in Gross Domestic Product that the Duterte administration had set will be impossible to breach without this key component of the domestic economy.
Already, experts note that the lack of any long-term development agenda for the country’s natural resources has delayed the harnessing of an estimated $1.4 trillion in mineral reserves, a staggering figure could have been instrumental in uplifting generations of Filipino families; instead, the minerals remain deep underground, unutilized.
Catapulted to power on a populist platform, there is a particular sense of urgency on the part of the Duterte presidency to achieve what many administrations had failed to do. The shift might need a drastic turnaround in terms of mindset. There is a need to highlight the strategic role and potential of the mining industry in the overall structure of the Philippine economy, including the much-needed revitalization of important industries like steel and manufacturing.
Key, of course, is partnering with the legitimate mining industry instead of antagonizing it. A long-term national roadmap can and should be developed to integrate the development of mining, steel, and other downstream industries, toward achieving inclusive growth. This is where the expertise of the science and technology sector can enter the picture.
Equally important is the structure of the potential partnerships. Instead of a unilateral approach, inputs must come from experts and stakeholders alike, including the mining industry, the academe, and the environmental advocates. This condition is more than procedural; the mining industry is as complex as any, and there is always a pressing need to balance environmental protection and economic development.
An impartial approach to the issue will thus only be possible if all decisions are based on sound scientific study and data, the province of experts, whether they come from government, through its research and development arms, or the private sector. It is this kind of prudent scientific guidance that can then steer the formulation of policies.
Therefore, while reforms are needed in the DENR’s policies, there is a need to stress that any reformulation of the agency’s stance should first and foremost be grounded on this dispassionate set of information, which should be mercifully kept exempt from the drama of politics and self-interest.
The elements of a long-term road map—from extensive consultation to a deep and objective understanding of the legal and regulatory landscape—should be the basis of any meaningful reform in the DENR, not populism, not drama, not rhetoric.