Small-scale mining blamed for destruction
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP) has dismissed claims its members were destroying the environment and put the blame squarely on unregulated small-scale mining and slash-and-burn farming methods.
Since the Mining Act of 1995, the government has strictly enforced adherence to responsible mining and clearly delineated mining areas to preserve the environment, the chamber said.
On the other hand, while small-scale miners are supposed to be restricted to pick-and-shovel operations, unscrupulous foreign investors were funding them to use equipment and dynamite to dig deeper for ore.
The upshot is that legitimate mining companies that adhere to strict environmental rules, among others, get the blame, chamber officials said.
The officials lauded President Benigno Aquino III for having recently asserted that the government will not drive out large-scale mining operations since these are closely monitored, unlike small-scale miners.
At the Mt. Diwalwal reservation in Compostela Valley, a local official, Tito Franco, called on the government to legalize small-scale mining and warned of fighting reminiscent of the gold rush in the “Wild Wild West” unless this was done.
“With government wanting to control everything, I fear that the wild days and the killings and fighting in Diwalwal would happen again. We don’t mind if we have to fight for our place here,” Franco said.
In a roundtable discussion at the Inquirer office on Thursday, COMP chair Artemio Disini, Nickel Asia president-CEO Gerard H. Brimo and other chamber officials stressed the need to resolve issues on small-scale mining purportedly allowed by local government units.
“Are there illegal, small-scale miners in Palawan and other parts of the country. Most likely. How many are they? We don’t know. They are unregulated, they don’t pay taxes, they use harmful practices, and they are operating against the law,” Brimo said.
The officials said LGUs were even involved in these operations while campaigning against legitimate mining operators.
They said that foreign metal traders, in an attempt to avoid rigorous mining requirements, were using Filipino “dummies” in small-scale operations that in fact extracted massive amounts using machinery and harmful chemicals.
The officials also pointed out that the Philippine government should check metal import statistics from China and other countries and compare these with exports from the Philippines in order to determine the extent of illegal mining in the country.
Replying to a campaign by civil society groups and some Church organizations in Palawan, the chamber officials said that big-business mining had been complying with stringent government requirements and rehabilitating mined-out areas in the province.
Brimo said unregulated activities such as slash-and-burn farming and illegal small-scale mining had a greater environmental impact on Palawan’s natural resources.
He also said that in legitimate mining areas, companies build communities and schools to educate natives.
“We don’t rape the land. We mine it, as others do all over the world, and after mining, we rehabilitate. That’s what we do,” Brimo told Inquirer editors and reporters.
“The mining we do is no different from the mining done in other parts of the world. But it’s very much attacked in the Philippines. I wonder why,” said Brimo, who has worked in other large-scale mining firms and has been in the industry for 30 years.
Brimo said claims of environmental abuse against the mining industry, of late by the Save Palawan Movement, were “pure misinformation” and were “meant to mislead” the public with its use of old data and photos of bad mining practices in the past.
He said such information “had no relevance to the mining debate” of today, with the industry thoroughly scrutinized by government and strictly compliant with the mining law, particularly the requirement to rehabilitate mined-out areas embodied in the Mining Act of 1995.
Brimo said big mining operations should be measured by the 1995 yardstick.
Only three large-scale nickel mining operations continue in Palawan—Berong Nickel, Rio Tuba Nickel and Citinickel—and all undergo regular monitoring by the government, he said.
He added that mining operations did not compromise primary forest and protected areas in Palawan, as mining is done in areas where the soil is rich with laterite nickel.
“One can’t make the case that Palawan is 100-percent biodiverse. That is not true. Biodiversity is in areas in northern Palawan,” Brimo said.
Debunking the argument that mining affected food security, he said areas mined were “not fit for intensive agriculture” as highly mineralized soil only allows the growth of grass and “stunted shrubs.”
Brimo said mining firms also replanted trees to reforest mined-out areas, even leaving mined-out areas with vegetation “better than the environment when we found it.”
For instance, in the town of Bataraza in Palawan, Rio Tuba mining has reforested 238 hectares of mined-out land, replanting almost 800,000 trees. Brimo said the firm also documented wildlife that reestablished habitat in the mining areas.
In a joint statement, the Philippines-Australia Business Council, the Australia-Philippines Business Council, the Australian-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce and the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry have joined calls on the government to act decisively on activities of illegal miners.
“The proliferation of small-scale mining has adversely affected the mining industry and has alarmed companies that religiously comply with health, safety and environmental rules and regulations with several doing more than compliance,” the groups said.
The business groups said the Department of Environment and Natural Resources should be in charge even of small-scale mining until local government units have attained the technical competence to deal with mining operations.
Wild West scenario
Franco, a barangay chair at the Diwalwal Mineral Reservation, said small-mining operations should be legalized and not left to the discretion of LGUs.
He said the “Wild Wild West” scenario in Diwalwal during the gold rush in the 1980s had given way to more sophisticated extraction methods as traders bought even very small amounts of gold and the small operators prospered.
Franco said miners in Diwalwal had even proposed to pay a 15-percent tax out of their gross gold production if only the government would allow them to operate legally.
“The government should just let us keep digging. We’ve been here before government came in, before the multinationals started getting interested. We know what to do,” Franco said.
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