Philippines: Environmental groups decry move to lift open-pit mining ban
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Philippines: Environmental groups decry move to lift open-pit mining ban

ENVIRONMENTALISTS have expressed outrage over the recommendation to lift the controversial open-pit mining ban to extract huge mineral deposits in the Philippines, which hosts the largest known undeveloped copper and gold reserve in Southeast Asia.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Roy Cimatu has disclosed that the multi-agency Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC), in a meeting on Oct 24, approved the lifting of the ban on open-pit mining.

Former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez, Cimatu’s immediate predecessor, issued Department Administrative Order (DAO) 2017-10 that bans the open-pit mining method for its alleged destructive nature not just to the environment but also to people’s livelihood.

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Philippine Environment Secretary Regina Lopez speaks in front of a chart on mining issues during a press briefing in Manila, Philippines, on Feb 9, 2017. Source: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Cimatu, who co-chairs the MICC along with Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, said he supported the council’s recommendation to trash DAO 2017-10, even expressing hopes it can take effect before the end of the year.

The environment chief will present the recommendation to lift the ban on open-pit mining with President Rodrigo Duterte and fellow Cabinet members for approval.

Duterte earlier supported Lopez’s order prohibiting open-pit mining method in the country.

After the MICC recommended the lifting of the ban on open-pit mining, Lopez criticized the decision on social media, noting that the method poses “a great danger to an archipelagic country like the Philippines.”

“The Philippines is not a fit and proper place for open-pit mining,” said Lopez, who shut down dozens of big mining companies during her term.

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Lifting the ban on open-pit mining would favour, among other big-ticket projects, the Tampakan copper-gold project straddling four provinces in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

The Tampakan project is touted as the largest known undeveloped copper-gold deposit in Southeast Asia. It is potentially the largest single foreign direct investment to the country with an estimated capital requirement of US$5.9 billion.

Based on the proponent’s studies, the Tampakan project contains 15 million tonnes of copper and nearly 18 million ounces of gold. It has the potential to yield 370,000 metric tonnes of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold annually. The estimated mine production value for 20 years was pegged at US$37 billion.

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A man walks at the Tampakan project mining tenement in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Source: Bong S. Sarmiento

The commercial production for the Tampakan project was hampered after South Cotabato, one of the provinces straddled by the mining tenement, imposed a ban on open-pit mining in 2010.

Tampakan project operator Sagittarius Mines, Inc. had said its open-pit operation will employ “responsible mining.”

Convergence of Initiatives for Environmental Justice advocacy officer Rene Pamplona castigated the recommendation of the MICC recommending the lifting of the ban on open-pit mining.

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“We’re prepared to mobilise mass protests should the nationwide ban on open-pit mining be revoked,” he told Asian Correspondent, noting they are furious with the new recommendation of the MICC.

Pamplona said they believe that the South Cotabato provincial government will stand pat on its provincial-level open-pit mining prohibition even if Environment Secretary Cimatu will rescind the nationwide ban on open-pit mining.

The Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM), a coalition of mining-affected communities in the Philippines, also rejected the recommendation of the MICC to lift the ban on open-pit mining.

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Tribal children seen at the Tampakan project mining tenement in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Source: Bong S. Sarmiento

ATM National Coordinator Jaybee Garganera said the coalition has anticipated this recommendation from the MICC, as it reviewed the controversial order from former DENR secretary Lopez.

“This is not surprising, and we are disappointed and frustrated especially the mining-affected communities. The MICC failed to consult the communities as legitimate stakeholders,” Garganera said in a statement.

“Allowing destructive open-pit mining method is allowing the destruction of the rich Philippine biodiversity, forests, ancestral domains and other natural resources, there’s no other way to interpret it,” he added.

The long-lasting impacts of open-pit include forest clearing and extensive tree-cutting, water diversion, use of explosives, reduced access and volume of water resources by communities, and even physical displacement of families, according to him.

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Maintenance of toxic waste and acidification are also serious perpetual obligations, Garganera said.

People’s Network for the Environment coordinator Clemente Bautista urged Duterte to reject the recommendation of the MICC.

“We have seen numerous open pit mines left abandoned and unrehabilitated, leaking toxics and slowly murdering surrounding ecosystems.”

The Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines also condemned the MICC recommendation, which it said “will allow large-scale mining companies to wantonly continue the plunder of the country’s natural resources and the destruction of people’s communities and livelihoods.”

On the other hand, the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, the association of big mining companies in the country, welcomed the decision of the MICC.

The MICC recommendation is a positive development for the mining industry, the miners said, noting that open-pit mining is practised worldwide and “proven to be safe.”