Kneejerk decisions
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - February 7, 2017 - 12:00am

Before Gina Lopez received her appointment from President Duterte to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, we had an opportunity to talk about one of her passions – perhaps, even her biggest – in life: the environment.

Aside from the nature projects of Bantay Kalikasan, an advocacy group that she formed, the mining industry was one of our most discussed topics. In my column, I would often talk about responsible sustainability of the mining industry, something she did not wholly agree to.

Still, she would intermittently send me information materials supporting her views, and I appreciated the openness that she continued to maintain despite our differences of views.

I had expected this from her when she was handpicked to head one of the most sensitive government posts in the midst of many apprehensions that colleagues in the business sector, including any industry dealing with natural resources, would express.

But I guess, being on the other side of the fence, changes your perspective – and decision-making process. Therefore, it was a surprise when I heard about her announced complete closure of 21 mines operating in the country, roughly half of the industry.

Perhaps, I was not really too surprised with what Gina, the staunch environmentalist, did being the new DENR boss. She had been like a tornado during the last six months, personally visiting mines and other business operations that were suspected of polluting and disrespecting the environment.

Big news

Secretary Lopez has indeed made big news globally, especially since the mine closure order has affected half of the country’s nickel output and has adversely affected about eight percent of the world’s nickel supply, a mineral integral to the stainless steel industry.

The world’s mining industry is now experiencing one of the biggest increases in nickel future prices. On the London Metal Exchange, deliveries three months from now rose as much as $250 to $10,500 per ton after the closure orders came through.

Surprise and disbelief

Locally, the surprise spawned by closure orders was eclipsed by the disbelief in the manner by which the decision had been made. Secretary Lopez said she had personally visited the mines that were found to have been operating in watersheds.

But when she was announcing the names of the mines to be closed, they came in spurts, like kneejerk impulsive decisions: initially naming 14 mines, adding one more as the briefing progressed, expanding the list to 21 towards the end, and the “final” list released in the evening.

The reasons for the closures were varied, and very much subject to debate. The operations of mines in watershed areas needs to be proven to be adversely affecting the environment, yet many of the other mines that were “guilty” of this were not given that chance.

Unverified and insufficient basis

Other “lesser” violations cited – including insufficient or inadequate rehabilitation of mine areas, absence of tree-cutting permits, and the construction of alternate haul roads – are deemed as insufficient basis for the harsh penalty of a complete closure.

Remedial action was supposedly recommended for the above “lesser” sins by the review team formed to conduct the audits, but this could not be verified since the findings that formed the basis for the DENR Secretary’s decision has not been made public.

In fact, mining industry officials are accusing the DENR Secretary of excluding the audit team members from actually participating in the press conference that the DENR organized where the announcement to close 23 mines and suspend five others were made.

Dr. Caloy Arcilla from the UP Institute of Geological Sciences pointed out that the technical audit team (composed of members of the Bureau of Mines and Geosciences) has the role of giving recommendations that would help sustain the industry and make it a responsible contributor to the country’s economy.

This is the whole point in why the country has been encouraging investments in the mining industry, and why we have several institutions in the private and public sector that have mineral mining as its field of endeavor.

Downgraded significance and changing policies

But this national position seems about to change, or at least until 2022 when the current anti-mining position of the government will be strongly supported by the popular President Duterte. There were not a few warnings of things to come.

Late last year, the National Economic Development Authority had declared that mining and quarrying contributed less than a percent of the country’s gross domestic product, which indicates the national productivity level, from 2000 to 2015.

Also deemed not too significant were the industry’s impact to total exports (5.6 percent) and employment (only 236,400 jobs). This “small contribution” was juxtaposed against the reported disadvantages: land use conflicts, environmental damage, and absence of social acceptability.

Even the President has been pooh-poohing the importance of the mining industry for the Philippines, and the mining industry should not have been surprised if the President would not entertain any appeals by the closed companies.

Of course, the government should be prepared to shift the battleground to our court system, maybe even on the international level. While this is deemed as a last-resort recourse by the mining firms that had been closed, reneging on contracts signed by the previous administration on behalf of the Philippine government send very big bad signals to all businesses currently operating in the country and to potential investors.

Unplanned consequences

For an industry that employs hundreds of thousands, even if comparatively smaller in number than most operating industries, real lives are still at stake. Will the Secretary truly be able to immediately provide jobs to those laid-off within the next few weeks?

We may have mitigated pollution or saved some trees from being cut down in some locations, but we now have a serious problem about preventing 200,000-plus families dependent on the mining industry from going hungry. Was the impact on affected people’s lives fully considered and planned for?

No doubt about it, the manner by which the industry has just been treated could have been better planned, and not marked by seemingly kneejerk decisions. Anyone in government who functions without thoroughly considering the ramification of its decisions does not deserve to serve its citizens.

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