Philippines Lifts 4-Year-Old Ban on Open-Pit Mining

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
2021.12.29
Cotabato, Philippines
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Philippines Lifts 4-Year-Old Ban on Open-Pit Mining An open-pit mine is seen in Claver town, Surigao del Norte province in southern Philippines, Feb. 22, 2021.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

The Tampakan copper-gold project in the southern Philippines, one of the largest mines in Southeast Asia, is expected to be among those permitted to resume operations in the country after the central government lifted a ban on open-pit mining.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu signed the order on Dec. 23, lifting the four-year-old ban on the open-pit mining for copper, gold, silver and complex ores in the country, according to a copy of the order seen by BenarNews this week.

The change is to “revitalize the mining industry and usher in significant economic benefits to the country by providing raw materials for the construction and development of other industries and by increasing employment opportunities in rural areas,” according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) administrative order no. 2021-40.

At the same time, the government established “enhanced parameters and criteria for the types of surface mining methods” to address environmental issues, the order said.

The DENR said mining permit holders will be required “to conduct baseline information gathering and evaluation and incorporate the same in the mining project feasibility study” and present the study to the government for approval.

In open-pit mines, minerals are extracted from the ground while underground mines require tunnels. Environmentalists have said open pits are particularly damaging to the environment since more ore needs to be mined even as plants and animals are virtually eliminated.

The ministry’s order is expected to open the door for big-scale mining projects to be revived, including the Sagittarius Mines Inc.’s $5.9 billion Tampakan gold-copper project, the Philippines’ largest minefield, in South Cotabato.

Apart from substantial copper and gold reserves, the Philippines is a significant nickel producer. In 2015 mined about 420,000 tons of nickel, the metal derived from nickel ore – about 20 percent of global supply.

These were mainly shipped to other countries, led by China, to make other semiconductor products.

Environmentalists link mining, typhoon

Leon Dulce, the national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, condemned the move to lift the ban. He blamed mining firms for the devastation of watersheds that contributed to the recent calamity wrought by Super Typhoon Rai, known locally as Odette, which killed nearly 400.

He also called on “all pro-environment Filipinos to unite and defeat” the pro-mining alliance.

“We must challenge all opposition forces to champion the reinstatement of the open-pit mining ban and the moratorium on new mining projects,” Dulce said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The promise that this move will bring in money for economic recovery is nothing but disinformation,” he said. “For every 10 pesos worth of minerals they will plunder, only a peso will return to the Philippines.”

Jaybee Garganera, convenor of the Green Thumb Coalition, called lifting the ban “a cruel Christmas gift from DENR and a truly ironic act of cowardice and betrayal” from President Rodrigo Duterte.

“At this time when climate change brings devastating typhoons such as Odette [Rai], lifting the ban on open-pit mining is a short-sighted and misplaced development priority of the government,” Garganera said.

“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.”

The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP), meanwhile, praised the DENR order.

“We welcome the decision to lift the ban on open-pit mining. As most mining applications propose the use of the open-pit method, this decision will enable the industry to contribute more to our country’s economic recovery, particularly from the devastating effects of this ongoing pandemic through investment promotion, job creation and poverty alleviation,” COMP said in a statement, according to Philippine media.

“Open-pit mines can be operated safely, according to globally accepted standards, and can be rehabilitated properly in a manner that provides alternative and productive land use after the life of the mine,” it said.

The order repealed the directive of the late Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, an anti-mining advocate who implemented the ban in 2017 over concerns regarding environmental destruction and displacement of locals.

Lopez became the bane of big mining companies after an audit she ordered found they allegedly severely damaged watershed areas. She called for the closure of 23 mines, suspended five others and canceled 75 contracts.

Just 10 months into her term, congressmen rejected Lopez’s appointment amid lobbying by mining firms. Duterte then let her go.

Her death in 2019 from natural causes was mourned by environmental and anti-mining groups.

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