Two aerial views from a military helicopter, hovering above the mountain terrain in Caraga region last Tuesday, remain vivid – and disturbing – in my mind. One is that of a winding river and its tributaries in Agusan del Sur whose waters are oddly thick brownish-yellow. The other, where the sea nears the edge of a vast range of verdant mountains and gullies in Surigao del Norte, is that of a carved-out area of deep-rust earth.
One immediately senses that the murky river and the scarred mountainside are aberrations – unhealthy intrusions into the otherwise wholesome environment. The eyesores are in the expansive mining area for nickel and other ores in Claver and adjacent towns of Surigao del Norte. It’s there where DENR Secretary Gina Lopez told a prominent congressman that his brother’s mining firm had “killed a big mountain.” As regards the river’s unusual hue, I was told that it was due to chemicals and mineral residues carried downstream from the largely unregulated mining areas in Compostela Valley. That combination practically renders the river unfit for human, fishery or agricultural use.
The destructive impact of large-scale and irresponsible mining was again made clear to me on that helicopter ride. Me, on a military helicopter? Well, I was one of three newspaper columnists who got invited by Secretary Lopez to join her recently as she visited two mining sites in Mindanao. These were the Philsaga Mining Corp. in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur and the Manila Mining Corp. in Placer, Surigao del Norte. Both mines principally produced gold.
We also visited a barangay in Claver (Hayanggabon) to witness the launching of the DENR’s Biochar Community Enterprise Project. This is a part of Lopez’s Area Development Initiative for the mined-over areas in Caraga. The biochar project aims to mobilize communities to rejuvenate the lands left barren by abandoned mines, rendering them tillable again and growing food crops, as well as trees and other vegetation. This allows the people to earn and be productive, and eventually create and manage ecotourism sites.
Appreciating what I wrote in this space on Feb. 18 (Refocus mining industry to domestic priorities) Secretary Lopez invited me to join her field visit “to get an actual feel of the situation on the ground.” She said it was important that the information reaching the people should not only come from her – which she acknowledged might be perceived as biased – “but from media practitioners who support our environmental causes.”
What made me accept with alacrity was what she wrote further: “We, at the DENR, present a platform to effect change and an opportunity to do what is right to make sure future generations will continue to enjoy our precious natural resources, anchored on the principle of social justice and the common good.”
She only gets involved in a project, she says, if there is a commitment to social justice. Thus, she has been enjoining the mining firms to share a bigger part of their huge profits with the communities affected by their operations. Area development plans have been drawn up to implement this objective. During that day-long trip, using a private plane, Lopez took us to a side trip in Davao City where she spent an hour meeting with a representative of the CPP-NPA to ask for the latter’s support for her social-justice-oriented projects. She received a positive response. (None of us journalists was present.)
I was also curious to find out the difference between an active mining firm that has passed an audit of its operations, such as the Philsaga Mining, and another firm that has been temporarily shut down but maintained for 15 years – the Manila Mining Corp., partly owned by Lepanto Mines. .
Based on that audit, Lopez had ordered the cancellation of the contracts/permits of 23 operating mines, the suspension for six months of five others, and the cancellation of the contracts on 75 projects that had not yet started. The reason for such orders was that the mining firms had violated environmental laws, which the DENR is mandated to enforce. The 75 new projects cancelled, Lopez avers, are all located in watersheds, which should never be allowed because they threaten further widespread environmental despoliation, as has repeatedly happened over the decades.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines has protested and blocked Lopez’s confirmation by the Commission on Appointments. (The chamber continues its opposition even as President Duterte has reappointed her.) Meantime, the affected firms have appealed to the Chief Executive to nullify her orders, complaining that their right to due process has been violated. Consequently Duterte directed the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) to review Lopez’s orders; she and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez Jr. are its co-chairs.
Controversy continues to swirl within the MICC. Finance Undersecretary Bayani Agabin, who substitutes for Dominguez, questions the validity of Lopez’s orders because the audit on which they were based didn’t comply with Executive Order 79. But Lopez asserts that the audit was done according to the DENR’s mandate and functions and not under Executive Order 79, which was issued in 2012 and never implemented. Lopez also avers that the MICC findings after a review will only be recommendatory, the final decision being that of the President.
Both at the Philsaga and the Manila Mining visits, Lopez focused concern on the conditions of the mine tailings ponds. (These are large dug-out fortified reservoirs for the waste produced in processing the ores. The waste is usually toxic, although it could be treated/detoxified at huge financial cost before being allowed to be released into rivers, streams, or into the sea.) Historically, severe disasters in mining areas have been caused mainly by tailings ponds that spill over or burst.
Although the audit team deemed Philsaga’s tailings pond to be safe, Lopez got the firm to agree to further raise the dam’s height to further protect the surrounding communities from potential disaster. As for Manila Mining, which had two cases of tailings pond problems in the 1990s, Lopez advised it to take appropriate safeguards before granting it a new permit to operate again.
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Published in The Philippine Star
April 22, 2017