MANILA — The environment department said on Wednesday it has set up rules to protect nature after it lifted a four-year ban on new open-pit mines, a move it hoped would revitalize the country's coronavirus-battered economy and slammed by activists as "short-sighted".
The move sees the Philippine government reverse a ban imposed in 2017, when the then-environment secretary, the late Gina Lopez, blamed the sector for widespread ecological damage.
Manila has since reversed course, encouraging mining investments to shore up government revenues as lockdowns and quarantine restrictions ravaged the economy.
"Pinag-aralan na natin kasi ‘yan. Tiningnan natin ‘yong mga argumento. Tiningnan natin kung anong mga kaunting kailangan nating ma-improve natin sa mining operations, methods," said Environment Undersecretary Jonas Leones.
(We have studied that. We looked into the arguments, the few things that we should improve in mining operations.)
"Ang mga issue kasi dati, mga environmental compliance, at sabi nila destructive. But sa ngayon, nakikita natin na we have already put in place mga policy that protect our environment. And then talagang naka-monitor na ‘yong compliance ng mga nagma-mining activity," he said in a public briefing.
(The previous issue was environmental compliance, and they say it's destructive. But we have put in place policies that would protect our environment, and the compliance of mining activities will be monitored.)
He said mines would be banned from expanding operations if they fail to rehabilitate the areas they “disturbed.” A technical working group will “regularly monitor” their compliance to laws, added the official.
"‘Pag nahuli natin sila na not complying strictly with our policy, environmental laws, and sa mga bago nating polisiya sa mining, talagang hindi tayo mangingimi na isarado natin ‘yan," Leones said.
(If we catch them not complying strictly with our policy, environmental laws, and our new mining policies, we will not hesitate to close them.)
In April, President Rodrigo Duterte -- who had previously threatened to shut down the sector completely -- lifted a 9-year ban on new mining deals set by his predecessor.
"We offered the mining [industry] as a potential contributor to the recovery of the economy," Wilfredo Moncano, the director of the mines and geosciences bureau (MGB), told AFP Wednesday.
"Once these are commercially producing... these are the ones that will be helping pay our loans to fight the pandemic."
Moncano said about 9 prospective mining projects stand to benefit from the order and that the government could generate up to P80 billion in taxes and royalties annually once commercial operations begin.
Open pit mining directly extracts minerals on the ground and differs from other methods that require tunneling or underground mining.
The Philippines is one of the world's biggest suppliers of nickel ore and is also rich in copper and gold, but the government estimates 95 percent of its mineral resources remain untapped.
Mining revenues contributed less than 1 percent of GDP to the economy last year, according to government data.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines welcomed the decision to lift the ban, saying it "will enable the industry to contribute more to our country's economic recovery".
But anti-mining advocates said the decision was a "short-sighted and misplaced development priority of the government".
"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 Alliance to End Mining said in a statement.
— With a report from Agence France-Presse