Philippine groups slam ‘cruel Christmas gift’ as open-pit mining ban is lifted

  • On Dec. 23, Philippine Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu issued an order overturning a 2017 ban on open-pit mining.
  • This follows an April 2021 decision by President Rodrigo Duterte to lift a 2012 moratorium on new mining agreements.
  • The move has been welcomed by the mining industry, but slammed by environment and Indigenous rights groups as “a cruel Christmas gift” and “another blow against an already gasping state of our Philippine environment.”

MINDANAO, Philippines — For environmental groups in the Philippines, 2021 went out with a big blow: on Dec. 23, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reversed a 4-year-old ban on open-pit metal mining.

The order, issued by Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a retired military general, overturned a prohibition on open-pit mining for copper, gold, silver and complex ores imposed in 2017 by his predecessor, Gina Lopez, an environmentalist and philanthropist who died in 2019.

In a 2017 interview with Mongabay, Lopez said the ban was meant to protect the Philippines’ unique biodiversity, and to prevent a repeat of major mine tailings spills that contaminated waterways in the provinces of Marinduque in 1996 and Benguet in 2012.

According to the new order, the lifting of the ban is meant to “revitalize the mining industry and usher in significant economic benefits to the country by providing raw materials for the construction and development of other industries and by increasing employment opportunities in rural areas.”

It noted that there are methods and technologies that could help avoid or mitigate the negative impacts of open-pit mining, which DENR described as a “globally accepted method of mining” for deposits lying near the surface of the earth.

Mai Taqueban, executive director of the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), said lifting the ban is a step backward in environmental protection. “We have not learned our lessons. Secretary Cimatu’s order is all for business and sacrificing the environment,” she said.

Cimatu’s directive came eight months after President Rodrigo Duterte signed an order lifting a moratorium on new mining agreements. That moratorium was put in place in 2012 by then-President Benigno Aquino III as part of efforts to reform the mining sector.

Prior to lifting the moratorium on new mining agreements, purportedly to spur economic growth, Duterte had backed Lopez’s ban on open-pit mining.

An open pit mining project in the Philippines’ Rapu Rapu Island, pictured here in 2006. In 2005, two separate spills from the mine released cyanide into the sea. Image © Raphael Rios / Greenpeace.

‘A cruel Christmas gift’

A statement from Alyansa Tigil Mina (Alliance to Stop Mining), a coalition of mining-affected communities and NGOs, said the group is “deeply dismayed” by the lifting of the open-pit mining ban: “This is a cruel Christmas gift from the DENR and a truly ironic act of cowardice and betrayal from DENR Secretary Cimatu and President Duterte.” It added that at a time when climate change is bringing devastating storms — such as Super Typhoon Rai (known as Odette in the Philippines), which last month devastated parts of the country’s south and left 407 people dead — lifting the ban is a “short-sighted and misplaced development priority of the government.”

For the Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc. (PMPI), an advocacy network of 250 members from faith-based groups, NGOs and people’s organizations, the lifting of the ban is “another blow against an already gasping state of our Philippine environment.”

“Mining is not and can never be a strategic vehicle towards economic recovery. The mining sector’s historical performance in terms of revenue and job generation was never significant — an average of 205,000 jobs per year and less than 2% contribution of the total national revenue,” the group said.

Mineral wealth

The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines welcomed Cimatu’s order rescinding the ban. The group had lobbied for the revocation of Lopez’s order, claiming such restrictions drive away investments from the country.

In a statement, the Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines said the decision to lift the prohibition “will benefit Filipinos, particularly those in remote mining areas where poverty and unemployment rates are high.”

The Foundation for Economic Freedom, a group of Filipinos advocating for a free-market economy, also hailed the lifting on mining restrictions. With the recent reversals on both new mining permits and open-pit mines, the group said “the country will be able to realize its economic potential, being one of the five most mineralized countries in the world, without damaging its environment.”

The Philippines is estimated to hold mineral deposits worth at least $1 trillion, mostly copper, gold, nickel, aluminum and chromite. At least 9 million hectares (22 million acres) of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares (74 million acres) are known to hold high mineral deposits. As of July 2021, nearly 764,000 hectares (1.9 million acres) are covered by mining concessions.

The country exported $5.2 billion worth of metallic and non-metallic minerals in 2020, according to data from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, with copper, gold and nickel the top mineral exports. The mining industry contributed nearly 31 billion pesos ($600 million) to the Philippine economy in 2020 through taxes it paid to the national and local governments, fees and royalties, it added.

Philex open-pit mine, Benguet Province, Philippines. Image by Storm Crypt via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Local impacts

For pro-mining groups, Cimatu’s order was seen to augur well for the controversial $5.9 billion Tampakan project in South Cotabato province, touted as the largest undeveloped copper-gold site in Southeast Asia and among the largest in the world.

The Tampakan project has the potential to yield per year an average of 375,000 tons of copper and 360,000 ounces of gold in concentrate, according to a study by Sagittarius Mines Inc., which holds the permit for the project. The study also concluded that open-pit mining was the only viable way to extract the deposits, which are found near the surface of the earth.

Since 2010, the South Cotabato government has imposed its own ban on open-pit mining, embodied in its Provincial Environment Code. Recently, petitions from supporters of the Tampakan project have prompted provincial legislators to conduct hearings on the local ban.

With the nationwide ban lifted, the provincial ban — which survived a 2019 court challenge — remains the final bulwark against a project that would displace at least 4,000 Indigenous Blaan tribespeople and clear around 3,935 ha (9,726 acres) of natural-growth forests and arable lands.

Banner image: Open-pit mining in Toledo City, Cebu, Philippines. Image by P199 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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