Solve environmental problems not through force but through justice

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/02 May) –  The country’s environmental problems are best seen and resolved not through the use of force as a Manila-based large-scale company once proposed, but “through the prism of environmental and social justice” former Environment undersecretary Antonio La Viña, now Dean of the Ateneo School of Government, said in his address at the commencement rites of the Ateneo de Davao College of Law and Graduate Schools last Saturday.

“Last week, we saw what happened in Compostela Valley – once again a deadly landslide, once again calls to ban small-scale mining, once again what appears to be the incompetence and impotence of government,” he noted.

He said he had a sense of déjà vu because in 1997, while serving as Environment Undersecretary, he argued for government “to do something about Mt. Diwalwal and the small scale mining happening there which, by that time, had in fact escalated to medium scale mining using dynamite and chemicals, tools that small scale miners are not allowed to use.”

The Diwalwal small-scale mining site, like the Pantukan mine site where the landslide on April 22 struck and killed at least 14 with eight still reported missing, is located in Compostela Valley province.

La Viña said that when he started advocating government intervention then, many of his colleagues thought he was foolish, stupid. “They did praise me for my courage and idealism in taking on something that both national and local government had ignored for decades but rationalized that I was doing this because of my youth and inexperience,” he said.

“To be honest though, my hand was actually forced by the fact that arrayed against the small-scale and medium-scale miners of Diwalwal was a Manila-based large scale company who wanted the government to use force to take out the small scale miners. That was not acceptable
to me. I could foresee what that would mean in terms of human rights and social conflict, and certainly it would be socially unjust,” La Viña, who hails from Cagayan de Oro City, said.

He did not name the Manila-based company.

He said he related this Diwalwal story to make a point, that environmental problems of this country are “best seen and resolved through the prism of environmental and social justice.”

La Viña said he is “not against mining per se” but against mining that is “environmentally destructive and a mining governance system that does not distribute benefits properly which unfortunately is true for the Philippines.”

“I actually think that the latter is more important because if we solve the inequity of revenue distribution in mining, we can ensure that enough resources are set aside to minimize
its negative environmental and social impacts. Besides, there are many best practices in environmental management; the challenge always has been implementation,” he added.

But La Viña believes there are places “where mining should not be allowed, where the risk to important biological, environmental and cultural resources are too serious and cannot be mitigated,” hence his stand for an “absolute ban of mining in Palawan, given its unique
biological diversity and its potential for ecotourism.”

La Viña, however, stressed that mining, though difficult an issue it may be, “has solutions.”

“We only have to work hard to find consensus and to move forward as a people and island so our natural resources do not become a curse, a cause of conflict or injustice, but in fact a blessing which benefits are shared fairly among all relevant stakeholders, and especially with indigenous peoples and local communities who bear many of the risks but gain the least from resource extraction. Consensus on burden and benefit sharing is particularly important in the face of climate change which will have severe impacts on our beautiful island,” he said.

A good and just governance system for environmental and natural resources is achievable “but for that to be realized, we need solid, dependable and credible public institutions,” he said.

La Viña had earlier cited four “major barriers to a prosperous, sustainable, just and happy Mindanao” — violent conflict, social injustice and inequity especially in the allocation and use of land and other natural resources; corruption in all levels of government; and poverty.

He said the solutions for each barrier should be clear. “From a conflict-ridden island, we want to work for a permanent peace among our peoples. To ensure a fairer allocation of land and natural resources, we need to enact and implement reforms in such areas as land use and mining. To stamp out corruption and I would add to that incompetence in government (which is also a form of corruption), we have to improve governance. And finally, if poverty is central to all of these, then we have to prioritize wealth-creation.” (MindaNews)