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EO conflicts with LGUs’ laws against mining

LIGHT IN THE TUNNEL Under EO 79, small-scale miners like the one above in Itogon, Benguet, will be confined to the “Minahan ng Bayan.” They are also banned from using mercury to process the mined ores. RICHARD BALONGLONG / INQUIRER NORTHERN LUZON

Declaring ordinances that ban certain types or all mining activities in a number of provinces and towns inconsistent with national laws will pose problems for local government units (LGUs) opposed to mining, officials and environmentalists said Tuesday.

The newly signed Executive Order No. 79 directs the Department of the Interior and Local Government to ensure that governors and mayors conform to  national regulations and policies.

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The EO also confines small-scale mining to areas designated as “minahang bayan,” or people’s small-scale mining areas.

South Cotabato Governor Arthur Pingoy said he was not bothered by the new mining policy that President Benigno Aquino issued.

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South Cotabato has an ordinance that bans open-pit and other mining practices deemed destructive to the province.

“Our ordinance stays unless its validity is challenged in court,” Pingoy told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

He said he was told by Environment Secretary Ramon Paje that Malacañang would respect local ordinances on mining.

“We in the local government are in the best position to know what is good for our people and the environment. I will continue to implement the law (antiopen-pit ordinance) unless it is declared  illegal by the court,” Pingoy said.

Fr. Edwin Gariguez said the EO’s provision on the consistency of ordinances with national laws would in effect suppress local officials opposed to large-scale mining.

Bigger say

“There’s a problem there. In effect, the government will have to twist the arms of the local government units for them to follow national laws. This is worrisome because this takes away their voice opposing mining,” said Gariguez, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ National Secretariat for Social Action.

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Tony La Viña, dean of the Ateneo School of Government, said local government officials should have a “bigger say” on mining.

“I don’t believe that the national government is superior over local government in mining. Mining has so much impact on the ground,” he said by phone. “That provision can still be refined. There’s a presumption that the national government is superior.”

He, however, said that while the EO was “imperfect” it was “very good” from the environmental and financial point of view.

Rowena Bolinas, national coordinator of Aksyon Klima, said the provision was “vague” and hoped it would be further explained in the implementing rules and regulations.

Persuasive powers

Responding to the criticisms, Leo Jasareno, director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, said the government would use its “persuasive powers” to convince antimining local officials to change their mind.

Under the provision, LGUs can point out the limitations of a mining activity within a municipality, but “not necessarily decide the fate” of a project.

“If there’s a pending ordinance against mining, that will stay unless it’s declared illegal by a court or withdrawn by the LGU. If the national government thinks that the ordinance is contrary to national law, it will follow a process so that the matter can be rectified,”  Jasareno said.

Asked if the national government would go to court to question the ordinances, he said: “The first option is to harmonize where there are conflicts in law. We will use persuasive powers to convince them.”

Sagittarius Mines

Under the new executive order, mining in the province is banned only  in Lake Sebu town, and did not include Tampakan town, where Xstrata’s Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI) operates.

Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez said he would ask the South Cotabato provincial board to declare the mountains of Tampakan protected areas so that there would be no reason for SMI to continue its operations there.

But Pingoy said it might not be within the powers of the provincial board to declare particular areas protected zones.

“My understanding is, the power to declare a certain area as part of the protected areas is vested in Congress,” he said.

John Arnaldo, SMI communications officer, said the company welcomed the signing of the new mining policy by the President.

“We believe this executive order is a positive step toward promoting a responsible mining industry in the Philippines and in particular, we welcome the recognition of the need for consistency between national laws and local ordinances,” he said.

Arnaldo said SMI was hoping that host communities would help the company achieve sustainable opportunities for the people in Southern Mindanao.

If approved, Arnaldo said the Tampakan project would establish a blueprint for modern, large-scale mineral development in the Philippines.

He declined to comment though on claims that SMI could not operate despite the EO as the open-pit ban remained valid. The ban is the main reason the Environmental Management Bureau continues to deny SMI’s application for an environmental compliance certificate.

Big puzzle

Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said small-scale mining was still a large-scale puzzle among local government officials in implementing the EO.

“There are many (local governments that will be affected), and the most contentious issue among them will be the awarding of small-scale mining permits,” he said in an ambush interview.

Robredo said it was important to clarify the procedures of awarding such permits, noting that small-scale mining was a largely unregulated industry, and many local executives remained clueless about the process.

“In small-scale [mining], heavy equipment are not allowed. But there are companies with small-scale mining permits that use heavy equipment,” he said, citing the case of small-scale miners in Camarines Norte who admitted to using explosives and heavy equipment in their operations.

Robredo said it was not true that the emphasis on the adverse environmental effects of small-scale mining was aimed at deflecting attention away from large-scale mining companies.

“In fact, I am one with many groups that believe mining poses serious threats to the environment,” he said.

He expressed optimism, however, that local governments would heed the provisions of the EO.

Robredo said local government officials had been consulted before the mining EO was drafted.

The EO explicitly limited the LGUs to “confine themselves only to the imposition of reasonable limitations on mining activities.”

‘Hallmark’ of dev’t policy

Paje said criticisms of the EO were expected.

“It’s a very balanced EO. It doesn’t make one totally happy, but it somehow addresses the concerns of everyone,” he said by phone, describing the EO as the “hallmark” of the administration’s  sustainable development policy.

“Even as we allow extractive industries in our national development, we can’t sacrifice our own environment,” he said. With reports from Aquiles Z. Zonio and Orlando Dinoy, Inquirer Mindanao

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