Environmental groups on DENR’s reversal of open-pit mining ban: ‘A cruel gift and a step backward’

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews / 30 December) – An umbrella of environmental groups in the country was appalled by the decision of Secretary Roy Cimatu of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reversing the ban on open-pit mining, a development described as, among others, “a cruel holiday gift and a step backward” in the wake of the devastation wreaked by typhoon “Odette.”

“This is a cruel Christmas gift from DENR and a truly ironic act of cowardice and betrayal from Secretary Cimatu and President (Rodrigo) Duterte,” the Alyansa Tigil Mina (Alliance Against Mining or ATM) said in a statement.

“At this time when climate change brings devastating typhoons such as Odette, lifting the ban on open pit mining is a short-sighted and misplaced development priority of the government. Once again, the Duterte regime puts more premium to its flawed economic agenda categorizing destructive mining as an ‘essential industry’ as part of the pandemic recovery,” it added.

The late environment secretary Gina Lopez, who died in 2019, imposed the ban on open-pit mining in 2017 due to the method’s destructive nature and its potential to trigger disasters.

Duterte had backed Lopez’s order until this year when he issued Executive Order (EO) No. 130, which lifted the moratorium on mineral agreements.

“In addition to ushering significant economic benefits to the country, the mining industry can support government projects, such as Build, Build, Build Program, by providing raw materials for the construction and development of other industries; and the Balik Probinsiya, Bagong Pag-asa Program, by increasing employment opportunities in remote rural areas where there are mining activities thereby stimulating countryside development,” EO 130 stated.

Residents of South Cotabato stage a protest against mining on 10 June 2010 as they hailed the passage a day earlier of the provincial government’s Environment Code banning open-pit mining. A foreign mining firm has been eyeing to extract huge amounts of gold and copper deposits in the municipality of Tampakan and neighboring areas using open-pit mining. MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO

The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines welcomed Cimatu’s order. The miners’ group wanted Lopez’s order revoked, claiming that such policy drives away mining investments from the country.

Lawyer Mai Taqueban, executive director of the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center, described Cimatu’s lifting of the open-pit mining ban as a step backward in environmental protection.

“We’re turning a new leaf (for 2022) without learning our lessons. How many more typhoons do we need before we will learn our lessons? This (Cimatu’s order) is all for business,” she told MindaNews in a phone interview.

She cited the recent typhoon Odette that devastated Siargao Island in Surigao del Norte and Dinagat Islands province, noting that mining impacts the environment and contributes to climate change.

For pro-mining groups, Cimatu’s order was seen to augur well for the $5.9 billion Tampakan project in South Cotabato, which is touted as the largest undeveloped copper-gold minefield in Southeast Asia and among the largest in the world.

South Cotabato has imposed a ban on open-pit mining since 2010, which is contained in its environment code.

Taqueban argued that Republic Act 7160 or the Local Government Code of 1991 shall take precedence over the administrative order that Cimatu issued regarding open-pit mining.

The Local Government Code puts primacy on LGUs to safeguard their environment and the welfare of their constituents, she asserted.

In an earlier study, Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI), which is developing the Tampakan project through a financial or technical assistance agreement that was granted by the national government, said the only viable option to extract the deposits was through open-pit mining method because the deposits are found near the surface of the earth. The company asserted that the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 does not prohibit open-pit mining method.

The Tampakan project has the potential of yielding per annum an average of 375,000 tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold in concentrate within the mine’s lifetime, according to the study.

Lately, the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of South Cotabato has conducted hearings following petitions from supporters of the Tampakan project to revoke the provincial ban on open-pit mining method.

Roy Antonio, SMI corporate linkages manager, said the firm will “employ responsible mining” once the company is cleared to proceed to commercial operations.

Antonio noted that the Tampakan project will significantly contribute to the national and local economies through the taxes, employment and businesses that the project will spur.

Diocese of Marbel Bishop Cirilo Casicas said the local Catholic Church will continue to oppose the open-pit mining project in the municipality of Tampakan, South Cotabato on concerns over the environment, food security and human rights of indigenous peoples within the mining tenement.

According to the prelate, the Tampakan project “does not have social acceptability.”

The diocese launched last August a signature campaign supporting the stay of the open-pit mining ban in the province.

Casicas said that they have gathered at least 93,000 signatures so far, 40,000 of these from within the diocese. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)