Pro-, anti-mining groups clash in forum

by Judith Balea,

Posted at Mar 02 2012 05:16 PM | Updated as of Mar 03 2012 05:44 PM

MANILA, Philippines (1st UPDATE) - Mining advocates and critics on Friday faced off in a forum in Makati City about the impact of the industry on the economy and the environment.

Gina Lopez, managing director of ABS-CBN Foundation and convenor of the Save Palawan Movement, talked about the damage that mining has done in various biodiverse provinces in the country.

She zeroed in on Nickel Asia's Rio Tuba mine in Palawan, showing pictures of what she said was destruction there, while saying she has nothing personal against the company's head, Gerard Brimo.

Lopez also dismissed the alleged benefits to surrounding communities where mining companies operate, saying the poorest areas in the country are mining areas.

"I'm not against the whole mining industry. My stand is, in an island ecosystem, whether large-scale or small-scale, mining is grossly irresponsible," she told the conference.

She offered eco-tourism as an alternative to mining in these areas.

"We can get our people out of poverty if we invest in our ecosystem. Why don't we rather invest in our islands?" she said.  "The poorest areas in the country are mining areas."

But Brimo, who is also director of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, was quick to defend the mining sector. He said large-scale miners exert effort to rehabilitate the areas they mine.

The barren lands cited by Lopez were not caused by mining, he said, arguing they had been that way due to the presence of minerals that prevent the growth of trees.

"Gina, I love you, too. But you don't know what you're talking about."

Brimo also blamed some of the negative impact of mining, in the pictures shown by Lopez, to illegal small-scale mining operations.

"Let's look at face of small-scale mining. There was P43 billion worth of gold sold to the central bank. There is child labor, there are no taxes. Why the attack on large-scale? On mining and food security, there's a misconception," he said. "Poverty is misconstrued. This includes small-scale areas, these are not the legitimate large-scale mines."

Petter Wallace, president of the Wallace Business Forum, meantime, said mining should not be totally banned because it can help the country's economy.

"Mining is unavoidable. The answer I believe is to control mining, banning everything that never works," Wallace said. "Do the least possible damage, support local community, rehabilitate land during mining and at the end of it."

Businessman Manuel Pangilinan, chair of the country's biggest miner Philex Mining Corp., said mining can only make a significant impact on the economy if there are no hurdles to large-scale investments such as the nearly $6-billion Tampakan gold and copper project.

"Laws are okay, enforcement is the problem. Mistakes of a few shouldn't be blamed on all. If we keep holding back mining, we'll forever be a small-mining country," he said.

Heated arguments

After the different camps have delivered their speeches, the forum took an interesting turn in the question-and-answer segment where exchanges among speakers happened.

Brimo apologized to Lopez for what he said in his speech, but delivered another punch against the Save Palawan Movement.

"Gina, I'd like to apologize for, not the 'I love you' part, but what I said after that. That wasn't very nice of me. I have to admit it goes to show that we have to maintain a form of discourse that is civil. And since I've apologized for that, if you can kindly remove from your website those scandalous banners, that will be a very nice way to reciprocate," he said.

Lopez replied: "Gerry, I don't lie. My stand on life is truth and common good. I do know what I'm talking about. I happened to visit (the mine sites) and I'm not lying."

Later on, a heated exchange between Lopez and Pangilinan ensued.

"When you make a statement that all the areas where there's gonna be mining are ugly anyway, that's not true," Lopez said.

"I did not say that. Now you're lying!" Pangilinan said.

Govt evaluating issues

The debates came ahead of the government's release of a comprehensive mining policy.

Malacañang was supposed to release an executive order laying down new guidelines for the mining industry in February, but deferred it pending more consultations to ensure acceptability to stakeholders.

In Friday's forum, Mines and Geosciences Bureau Director Leo Jasareno said the government is very much aware of the many issues hounding the industry and is doing all it can to address them.

"This is the main reason why a mining study group was created and tasked to formulate the mining policy and address the environmental and social issues and come up with a socially acceptable mining in the country," he said.

"It should be mining that significantly contributes to economic growth in a manner that mitigates the impact to the environment and improves the quality of life of the people or no mining at all."

The government earlier assured investors that existing mining contracts will be honored and respected.