SOMEONE ELSE’S WINDOWS: Can the mining industry in RP be tamed? By H. Marcos C. Mordeno

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/24 June) – Two recent events in two different provinces in Mindanao have rekindled a gut issue in this mineral-rich island – mining. Last week, the Provincial Board of South Cotabato passed an environment code that explicitly prohibits open-pit mining. In apparent deference to the overwhelming majority vote in favor of the code, MindaNews reports said outgoing Gov. Daisy Avance-Fuentes declared she was keen on approving the ordinance.

Fuentes’ pronouncement drew a quick response from supporters of Sagittarius Mines Inc., a gold and copper giant whose mining project in Tampakan, South Cotabato would be adversely affected if the governor signs the code. Composed mostly of B’laans and T’bolis, the pro-SMI group gathered 3,000 of its followers and picketed the provincial capitol as well as Fuentes’ residence. Not to be outdone, anti-mining advocates led by the Diocese of Marbel mobilized 10,000 people on Tuesday, June 23, to press the governor into signing the code.

The two contrasting mass actions were of course just the proverbial tip of the iceberg of the controversy generated by the environment code. From the time the Provincial Board approved the code and until the time Fuentes approves or vetoes the ordinance – she has until noon of June 30 to decide – expect both sides to flood her with calls, visits and other means to pressure her into bowing to their wishes. A silent war is being fought right now in an arena beyond the pale of the ordinary observer. How it will end is yet unknown.

Meanwhile, in Surigao del Norte, some 200 residents of Barangay Anislagan in Placer town went to Surigao City this week to file a case against three mining firms and some regional officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The complainants said they wanted to protect their water sources and farmlands from the negative impacts of mining. They also accused the DENR of granting exploration permits to the companies without the benefit of consultations.

Those opposed to mining – or at least to its open-pit method – cite a common reason: mining will destroy watershed areas and other resources deemed vital to the survival of host communities. This is not an unfounded fear but one based on the experiences of other areas that welcomed mining or maybe forced to accept mining regardless of widespread opposition. Marinduque, Rapu-rapu (Albay) and Siocon (Zamboanga del Norte) are some of the examples in recent memory.

Aside from causing environmental disruptions like destruction of habitat and pollution of water sources, mining has also engendered negative social impacts, including conflicts and divisions in what used to be cohesive communities bound by tradition and mutual respect.

In areas where residents are divided on whether to allow mining or not the usual approach has been to reinforce pro-mining sentiments with promises of “development programs,” token monetary rewards (mainly for the leaders) and other perks. And as expected, environment officials would act as the mouthpieces of the mining firms, instead of seriously doing their regulatory functions in order to at least mitigate the extractive activity’s environmental and social impacts given the inadequacy of existing laws to address such impacts.

In recent years, mining companies have exerted efforts in trying to give the industry a humane face by adopting a concept that has become a catchphrase – responsible mining.

Far from being just a jargon, it takes off from the principle that most negative environmental and social impacts can be avoided if companies employ the best possible standards. Proponents admit, however, that even in the best-managed mines it is impossible to expect that no disruptions would occur.

By best possible standards, the proponents of responsible mining are not simply asking the companies to strictly adhere to laws and regulations of the countries where they operate which in many cases are found wanting in both substance and implementation. As such, it would never suffice to operate with laws as the only basis, as their provisions could be full of loopholes, not to mention the corruption that inheres in the regulating agencies.

Responsible mining entails expanding the scope of compliance to include internationally accepted standards in the areas of human rights (especially those of vulnerable groups like the indigenous peoples) and environmental protection. Companies can start on the right foot by generating a wider consensus through genuine consultations, coming up with mutually agreed and equitable benefits scheme with the affected communities, implementing precautionary measures, and giving concrete commitments (e.g. just compensation) in case environmental disasters do occur. These commitments should not be an excuse however to become complacent in observing environmental safety standards.

This brings us back to the issue of open-pit mining and the dangers it poses to the environment and to the livelihoods of surrounding communities. For the indigenous peoples it could mean the destruction and desecration of their worship sites and with it the gradual death of their cultures. Will the companies sacrifice a little bit of their profits by doing away with the open-pit method? At the moment, SMI is not entertaining the idea. John B. Arnaldo, the company’s communications officer, said that a local law cannot supersede a national law (Mining Law of 1995). He said the Mining Law does not prohibit the open-pit method. Environment lawyers argued on the other hand that the environment code is based on the power of local government units under the Local Government Code, also a national law, to safeguard the environment.

Arnaldo’s position, and presumably SMI’s too, suggests an uphill battle for the proponents of responsible mining.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno is currently writing a policy paper on the environment.)