Palawan: RP's last ecological frontier or mining frontier?

By Caroline J. Howard, ABS-CBN News Channel

Posted at Sep 23 2008 02:34 AM | Updated as of Oct 04 2008 08:04 AM

The mining industry is booming. And perhaps never more than today, mainly due to the Philippine government's openness to mining investments in the country both as a mode of development and as an important source of revenue.

Mining contributions to the national coffers have been steadily growing in recent years, bringing in close to 2% annually to the national economy. Figures from the National Statistical Coordinating Board show, revenue from mining operations rose from an estimated P46.3 billion or 0.9% of the Gross Domestic Product in 2005, to P59.6 billion or 1% in 2006, ballooning to P90.4B or 1.4% last year.

In 2007, three large-scale mining companies in southern Palawan paid substantial taxes and opened hundreds of jobs through mining operations. According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in Region 4 or the MIMAROPA (Mindoro Oriental, Mindoro Occidental, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan) Region, Berong Nickel Corporation paid P171.4 million in taxes, Coral Bay Nickel Corporation, P202 million, and Rio Tuba Nickel P1.16 billion, employing 838,  3,132, and 400 people, respectively.

Despite the mining industry's potential contribution to economic and social development, critics in Palawan insist, mining activities also pose a challenge to the environmental future of the province.

Atty. Gerthie Mayo-Anda, assistant executive director or the Environmental Legal Assistance Center, says mining applications are now breaking into Palawan at a disturbing pace. "The threat of mining is real. It's not just imminent; it's there," she says. "There are 16 mining permits issued to various corporations in the province mainly in southern Palawan."

Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn agrees. "You'll be surprised with the number of mining claims in the province. There's a mining application for nearly every square meter here. There's an application to mine for marble even in the Underground River."

But the Mines and Geoscience Bureau in Region 4-B insists, protected areas like the Underground River are off limits to mining. "We are not opening mining in the area nor are we going to accept applications over protected areas," says MGB-Region 4-B Regional Director, Roland De Jesus.

The government bureau argues, the country's Mining Law has strengthened environmental and social aspects of mining operations, requiring them to put up a socio-environmental management fund to help assist communities and recommission areas approved for mining. De Jesus insists, this should be reason for critics to give the mining act a chance. "This is a newly implemented law. We're trying to improve monitoring system. Done responsibly, mining operations would outweigh the impact raised by various sectors."

Responsible mining possible?

Nonetheless, the spate of mining operations and applications have sounded-off alarm bells for environmental advocates in Palawan who have been campaigning to help it live up to its name as the country's last ecological frontier.

"We don't believe that responsible mining is possible in the Philippines because we have a weak institution in place," says Ma. Cleofe Pablo-Bernardino, Executive Director for Palawan NGO Network Incorporated. "The DENR can't do its work properly. Officials can't do their work properly."

As far as Mayor Hagedorn knows, mining operations in Palawan have only ended in environmental destruction. "If you can visit the mining pit in Sta. Lourdes, the company left mine tailings in Honda Bay and left without fixing the roads," Hagedorn laments.

The threat of mining

Palawan boasts of having two World Heritage sites: the Tubbataha Reef and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. It has the most number of protected areas in the country, mangrove forests and coral reefs teeming with life.

"Palawan is such a hotspot," says Aldrin Mallari, Country Director of Flora and Fauna International. "It has the biggest number of threatened species in the world. The Peacock Pheasant in the Philippines is a lowland specialist and it's only found in Palawan. Most species in the Philippines are threatened to extinction because of massive habitat change and habitat loss."

While lush, studies show, Palawan's forests are also vulnerable to erosion due to the island province's thin top soil, what environmental advocates fear will only make Palawan more at risk to the impact of mining and logging operations.

"The problem is massive deforestation and conversion of habitats," says Mallari. "That includes government's drive to revitalize mining at all costs. In Palawan, the targets of mining sites are key biodiversity sites. So, in effect, the Philippines being a signatory to the Convention on Global Biodiversity, we are violating that convention because it's mining over our commitment to biodiversity."

Atty. Mayo-Anda says, Palawan is fortunate to have a special law, The Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) or Republic Act 7911, which serves as a framework to guide environmentally-sound development in the province. "Section 9 of that law provides that all types of natural forest are supposed to be core zones or areas of maximum protection."

She adds, after threats to the forest were identified, counting in logging, mining, slash and burn, quarrying, a zonification scheme was put in place, dividing areas into specific management uses. Sadly, this zonification is not solidly in place.

"Not all government units acknowledge that forests are core zones, so natural forests are the subject of mining operations and opened for mining," Atty Mayo-Anda says. "Coordinated efforts and vigilance are needed to make sure the S.E.P. provisions are implemented.

Puerto Princesa has further backed up this mechanism with a resolution for a mining moratorium, an expression of political will. "We can't supercede the national law," says Mayor Hagedorn. "We just passed a resolution that says we won't endorse mining operations."

He admits, he fears the time when other localities will have used up Palawan's resources, it may turn to Puerto Princesa for its needs. He, however, finds hope in the fact that Puerto Princesa locals have become aware of the impact of destructive development and know the value of preserving the island province.

Critics urge shift

Today, environmental advocates hope, authorities take efforts to keep Palawan out of the reach of mining, explore other avenues for development, rethink the bid to explore mining opportunities in the province, and work with all stakeholders to help secure Palawan's ecological future.

"Palawan has 750,000 people but 1.5 million hectares of land," says Lawrence Padilla, Executive Director for the Palawan Center for Appropriate Rural Technology. "That's more than enough land for agriculture. If Palawan's forests are protected, agriculture and tourism will thrive, and that will be enough for the province to grow."

Dr. Gerry Ortega of Bayani Juan, ABS-CBN Foundation appeals to government to review its priorities and options for development. "Puerto Princesa is still the last ecological frontier but the entire province of Palawan is being threatened by mining companies which threaten the sustainability of this province. So we hope our policy makers reconsider that decision to open Palawan as a mining frontier instead of as an ecological frontier."