“It’s criminal that the government continues to allow these corporations to take over our forests, deplete our mineral resources and destroy our forest ecosystem.” – Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA –Two environmental groups have sounded the alarm over the state of the country’s endangered forests.
The Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) and the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan-PNE) are protesting against the declaration of President Benigno Aquino III that exempts mining corporations from the log ban he laid down via Executive Order No. 23 last February.
The executive exempted the mining industry from the total log ban in exchange for obligating it to take part in the National Greening Program launched early this year. According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) national director Leo Jasareno, decisions such as this was among the government’s way of making industry regulations more efficient and mining more acceptable to the public.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines has previously demanded that the government takes decisive action to counter legal obstacles to its members’ operations, specifically provincial ordinances banning open pit and other mining operations.
The National Greening Program was created through Executive Order No. 26. Under the program, the government aims to plant 1.5 billion trees on 1.5 million hectares of land from 2011 to 2016.
According to Jasareno, the government has failed to resolve problems created by anti-mining advocates that highlight threats of environmental degradation and expose low state revenues from mining, as well as those created by conflicting regulatory policies. The study group led by the MGB is scheduled to present to Malacañang fresh options on possible mine policy reforms. Among these options are those that address the issues of the lack of baseline data on mining and mineral potentials, absence of economic valuation of mineral areas, inconsistencies in national and local rules, issues on law enforcement and governance, and low government revenues.
In the meantime, during the 58th annual Mining Safety and Environment Conference held in Baguio City recently, mining companies asserted that they have made heavy investments in various environmental protection projects. They said 98 mining proponents or companies spend around P2 billion ($46.5 million) a year for the implementation of environmental protection and enhancement programs. Among these companies are the Rapu-Rapu Minerals Inc., Atlas Consolidated Mining and Development Corp.-Carmen Copper Corp. combined, Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp., TVI Resources Development Philippines and Philex Mining Corp.
Frances Quimpo, CEC executive director, said that in exempting mining companies from the log ban, President Aquino betrayed his insincerity in protecting what remains of the country’s forest areas. She said EO 23 was nothing more than a stunt to deceive the public into thinking that the government is doing something to address the series of flash floods and landslides that struck the country early this year.
“All the while, the government has been ignoring the role that unabated logging and mining have played in destroying our remaining forests,” she said. “President Aquino has shown his true colors by exempting mining from the log ban. Considering the number of large-scale mining permits approved so far by the government, he is practically mandating the mass destruction of forests and key biodiversity areas.”
Quimpo said the current approved mining operations will speed up the total wipe out of Philippine forests “Mining projects are usually established in mountainous and forested areas. The extent of damage by mining on the country’s few remaining forests is alarming: nearly 63 percent of our remaining forests are to be affected by government-sanctioned mining projects,”she pointed out.
According to Quimpo, exempting large-scale mining from the log ban will wipe out natural forests in less than 40 years, given the current deforestation rate of 1.9 percent annually.
As of March 2011, existing large-scale mining concessions cover 1,140,136 hectares or 3.8 percent of the Philippines’ total land area—many of these operating within the country’s remaining forests and key biodiversity areas (KBA).
“Currently, the country has 228 key biodiversity areas, most of which lack formal government protection. Ninety two of these are major forest areas found in mountainous parts of the country. If you compare the areas covered by existing mining permits with the areas classified as key biodiversity areas, you will see that four Financial Technical Assistance Agreements (FTAA), 174 Mineral Processing Sharing Agreements (MPSA), and 50 Exploration Permits (EP), or a total of 228 mining permits operate within and affect 58 out of the 92 forest biodiveristy areas,” Quimpo explained.
She said more destruction of the country’s biodiversity will follow if forests are affected. “Forests and key biodiversity areas are interlinked and interrelated systems. Forest ecosystems support biodiversity; any massive interference in these ecosystems—such as mining—adversely affects not only trees, but also the balance of living and non-living species within these areas,” she warned.
The environmental activist said that instead of kowtowing to the interests of large and foreign mining firms, Aquino should stand for the genuine conservation and protection of our natural forests.
“This is a function that cannot just be relegated to the private sector,” she said.
Quimpo also expressed skeptcism about the effectiveness of the National Greening Program as a means to save the remaining forest areas.
“The precondition that obliges mining companies to reforest is not very assuring given the track record of both private companies and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the implementation of reforestation programs. It should be noted that private companies reforest much less than government agencies (294,625 hectares reforested by the government while only 74,672 hectares reforested by private sector between 1997 and 2006),” she pointed out.
She went on to say that instead of providing foreign miners easy access to plunder forest and mineral resources, the administration should ensure that proper reforestation and rehabilitation should be done in deforested areas while remaining forests should be protected.
“To effectively implement reforms, corruption within the DENR must be eliminated. National policies that have gravely affected forests such as the Mining Act of 1995 must be junked and replaced by a pro-people and pro-environment policies such as the People’s Mining Bill pending in Congress,” she said. “In the end, it will be the Filipino people and our forests who will lose if this gamble for profit is not reversed. President Aquino’s program has continuously exposed itself through its policy pronouncements on mining that it is clearly a continuation of the mining liberalization policy that his predecessor has promoted. The environmentally destructive, export–oriented and foreign capital-driven nature of the Philippine mining industry remains unchanged even under this new administration’s so-called ‘straight’ path.'”
Grave crime against the environment
For its part, Kalikasan-PNE said the log ban exemption given to mining forms was a serious offense to the environment and the Filipino people. It said given that over one million hectares of land including watersheds and protected forest areas are already covered by mining permits and applications, mining’s exclusion from the log ban is feared to contribute to the worsening of various environmental and social crises faced by Filipino communities.
“The President is committing a grave environmental crime. He deliberately forgets that most of the mining concessions are located in ecologically critical forest areas. This logging ban exemption will surely result to loss of biodiversity and also to community displacement as we have seen in the provinces of Surigao del Norte and Palawan,” said Kalikasan national corrdinator Clemente Bautista.
Bautista questioned Aquino’s refusal to ban large-scale mining practices despite the country’s bad experiences in mining disasters and ecological destruction.
“In spite of clear evidence of massive environmental destruction brought about by Taganito Mining and other corporations in Claver, Surigao del Norte which shows widespread forest denudation and polluted marine ecosystem and other protected areas, the government continues to fail in its responsibility to to conduct an investigation and penalize the mining companies in the area,” he said.
Clemente said Aquino should also be held accountable for his administration’s policy of increasing mining investments in critical ecosystems such as in Palawan and Batangas. He said exploration activities of MRL Gold is phasing toward an open-pit mining operation in the municipal of Lobo in Batangas, adjacent to the similarly biodiversity-rich Verde Island Passage.
“It’s criminal that the government continues to allow these corporations to take over our forests, deplete our mineral resources and destroy our forest ecosystem,” he said.
Clemente explained that forest cover in the Philippines is down to an estimated six percent of the original forest habitat, and is further threatened by an average of 157,400 hectares lost to deforestation per year. The national greening program bannered by the Aquino regime is criticized to be insufficient to alleviate the present deforestation rate pushed by large-scale mining and legal corporate logging.
“It takes decades for a tree to fully mature and function sufficiently in providing ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, soil stability and provision of livelihood. The mining industry’s involvement in the government’s token reforestation program cannot suffice to overcome the environmental costs presented by mining’s exemption from the logging ban,” he insisted.
Kalikasan said it will step up opposition to Aquino’s mining liberalization policies in anticipation of increased incidences of disasters related to mining and deforestation. The Philippines now yearly experiences at least 27 floods and 17 landslides, and tens of millions of pesos in agricultural and infrastructural damage costs.
“The logging ban exemption shows how indifferent and callous President Aquino and his administration are in protecting the interests of foreign investors and corporate mining at the expense of our environment and communities. The Aquino administration can expect greater opposition from mining-affected communities from Northern Luzon to Southern Mindanao if his coddling of the mining industry continues. It cannot be denied that mining-related conflicts stems from anti-people, anti-environment practices that Aquino seems determined to pursue,” he said.