Typhoon Sendong and the Oxymoron that is Responsible mining

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We have all witnessed the wrath of Tropical storm Sendong as it wreaked havoc in Mindanao, leaving a trail of massive destruction with a total of over 1000 people dead and more than 64,000 people homeless.

“It’s unusual for Mindanao; a month’s worth of rainfall fell in only a few hours,” Philippine Red Cross (PRC) secretary general Gwendolyn Pang was quoted as saying. “People were already asleep; the storm hit pineapple plantations that don’t absorb water; it was high tide and waterways were heavily silted. It was unprecedented and overwhelming”

Mining, together with the rapid acceleration of climate change and the prevalence of illegal logging activities, were immediately pointed out as the primary reasons for the disaster. “We can really see how vulnerable we are. When you tamper with the watersheds and the forests, we become vulnerable,” said Secretary Neric Acosta, Presidential Adviser For Environmental Protection, adding that mining activities near the watershed areas in Lanao del Norte and Bukidnon have contributed to the siltation of the major rivers of Mindanao.

A history of unfortunate events

In the face of the continuously worsening effects of climate change, the last thing that the Filipino people could endure is the loss of its most precious resource and gift to future generations: rich environment and biodiversity.

Mining, as proven historically, has played a huge role in building national industries among some of the world’s biggest economies, such as Brazil, Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Mongolia. But unlike the Philippines, these nations are non-archipelagic and are part of vast continents that aren’t considered fragile, island ecosystems.

Mining operations has had direct impacts to some of the country’s worst environmental tragedies resulting to the loss and destruction of forests and wildlife. “In Palawan alone, there were two major accidents this year where coral reefs were destroyed, hectares of farmlands disadvantaged, tons of nickel spilled into the sea,” says ABS-CBN Foundation, Inc. managing director Regina Lopez, who also spearheads the Save Palawan Movement. “Up to now, there are literally hundreds of abandoned mined sites that remain unrehabilitated and the people around them continue to suffer.”

History also takes a detailed account of destruction of our upland, agricultural and coastal ecosystems, such as what happened in the Palawan Quicksilver Mines in Puerto Princesa, the nickel mines in Rio Tuba and in Colandorang Bay in Balabac; the non-rehabilitation of mined out and abandoned areas of silica mining in Roxas and the mining of nickel and chromite by Trident Mining Corporation and Olympic Mines in Narra, Palawan.

Add to this is the recurring violations of civil, political, and human rights, as well as the displacement of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands, and the stunting of the domestic agricultural and industrial economy “which has made poverty a lingering and ugly reality in our country.” Mining has spawned social conflicts. Local communities have been divided on whether or not to allow mining in their forests, ancestral domains and farmlands. Indigenous and farmer communities of Bataraza, Narra and Quezon, Palawan continue to deal with such conflicts.

An inconvenient reality about mining

Despite the concrete evidences and occurrences of environmental destruction caused by mining operations in various parts of the country, people have yet to realize that our society and our leaders still do not have the capacity to professionally manage our natural resources in a manner that will promote a more viable industry that is ecotourism. “What a few people have done is to abuse our environment, sell our assets to foreign companies who reap the rewards of such God-given resources, and earn huge sums of money out of it,” adds Lopez.

Contrary to what the mining sector claims, mining has yet to provide evidence that it can improve the lives of poor Filipino folks. Here’s a good case study: despite more than thirty years of mining operations by Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation, its host community, Bataraza, still remains to be one of the poorest municipalities in Palawan.

The mining business may be serving the interest of the country’s economy but it is absolutely not the solution to widespread poverty and hunger in the Philippines. In fact, mining profits accumulate primarily to mining corporations, most of which are owned by foreign companies based outside the country. Some go to the government, a good chunk goes to the government officials protecting the industry in the area and only trickles are allocated to the poor folks who continue to suffer from the environmental hazards of such devastating and abusive activity.

Mining, according to former Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman Atty. Christian Monsod, is one of the most contentious social justice issues in our country. “This is primarily because most mining operations are located in the rural and in the mountainous areas and its tailings can flow into rivers, farmlands and shorelines where the poorest of the poor are located—farmers, indigenous peoples, the fisherfolk,” notes Monsod, who was also a member of the Constitutional Commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution. “The development role of mining is always described as “potential” because mining has never played a major role in our sustainable development, not even during the mining boom of the seventies and early eighties. That is why when making their case, the mining industry focuses on financial benefits, but seldom on the costs, whether financial, environmental or social.”

The Ateneo School of Government (ASoG) recently came out with an independent report detailing their recommendations on the issue of the future of mining in the country. The policy brief, which was based on objective and peer-reviewed documents that summarizes the group’s extensive work in mining in the last five years, suggests that the government impose a blanket moratorium on mining that includes suspension of processing of submitted mining applications, and not only for cleansing of dormant or defective applications. “Based on our researches and analyses, supported by experts and stakeholders consulted in this study, the country is not yet capable of accurately measuring the real benefits and costs of mining,” the study reveals.

This simply highlights the fact that, whether large-scale or small-scale, there is no such thing as responsible mining in fragile island ecosystems. The very fact that mining operations are taking place in the Philippines—the seat of the world’s richest biodiversity that possesses an intricate web of ecological systems—is in itself very irresponsible.

“The government’s limitations in accounting for verifiable economic benefits versus environmental, social, cultural and economic costs are so serious that we are effectively gambling away our future. We are mindful of possible adverse economic displacement in imposing a moratorium today, which is at worst temporary,” the study adds.

The global economic outlook for the mining sector favors prudence and patience because demand for minerals will continue well into the future, thus there is no real opportunity cost in deferring decisions on utilization of our mineral resources, the study concludes.

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The Save Palawan Movement (SPM) is a non-profit, multi-sectoral volunteer organization that stands for the protection of our greatest resource which is biodiversity, the preservation of our island ecosystems, and poverty alleviation through community-based sustainable ecotourism and agriculture.