Making Things Count

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Radzini Oledan

IN his third State of the Nations Address (SONA), President Rodrigo Roa Duterte raised an important pronouncement regarding the protection of the environment and the policy of the government to prohibit open pit mining.   “Do not destroy the environment or compromise our resources. Repair what you have mismanaged. Try to change management radically because this time, you will have restrictive policies—a prohibition of open-pit mining is one,” he emphasized.

He also warned mining companies that he would tax them “to death.”  The President said he would use revenue from mining taxes to help host communities that were left “in agony.”….You have to come up with a substitute, either spend to restore the virginity of the source or I will tax you to death.”

Mining, when done responsibly and not solely for commercial interest, can finance social and development projects to meet the public’s need for physical and social infrastructure.  In many communities, it has provided local people with livelihood, health access and education.  Pursued at a balanced scale, in contrast to the present practice of all out mineral extraction for export and unchecked environmental risks, mining could be sustainable.

But the weak implementation of laws and the government’s mining liberalization policy has practically sell the country’s remaining mineral reserves, lands and waterways.  At the expense of grave ecological destruction,  the health of host communities and their lives are put at risk in exchange of economic gains.

Who would forget the Marcopper disaster of 1996 on Marinduque Island, when a mine tailings spill of more than four million metric tons of waste caused widespread flooding and damage to farmlands and property. Villages were evacuated and an estimated 20,000 people along the Boac River were affected. The river was subsequently declared biologically dead.  Up until now,  the residents in the island are bearing the brunt of the disaster.

Environmental protection is critical for Mindanao where half of the country’s community based managed forests and Certificates of Ancestral Domain are. A third of its total land area has been declared watershed forest reserves under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act.  The hazards are not only contained on the environment but also on the thousands of children, some as young as nine, who are working in illegal gold mines in the country.

In the 39-page report “What … if Something Went Wrong: Hazardous Child Labor in Small-Scale Gold Mining in the Philippines” released in 2015 by Human Rights Watch,  it revealed that thousands of children work in unstable 25-meter-deep pits or underwater and process gold  with mercury, a toxic metal.   The Philippine government banned the use of mercury in mining, but little has been done to enforce this regulation, the report added.

The President’s pronouncement is a shift on environmental governance as a priority. More than taking it as a warning for mining companies and investors, it also indicative for  local government units to take the lead in ensuring the protection of environment and of their people, especially children, who stand to benefit from or be at risk of any mining project. Mining companies could shape up and partner more effectively with the local communities.  Like any other businesses, it could benefit more by going beyond compliance with environmental safeguards towards taking the step to guarantee accountability and social protection.    These are the things that count. (Email comments to roledan@gmail.com)

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