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Mining's legacy and the lethargy

All sides must take concretes steps to make mining safer and environmentally friendly

Mining's legacy and the lethargy
Father Pedro Walpole, SJ, Manila

April 5, 2012

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On a recent front page of the Manila Times’ business section was a photograph of a Shuar warrior. He was not a new symbol for aggressive business leadership; he was protesting policies of President Rafael Correa of Ecuador which support mining in the Amazon region and resource agreements with China. What is the world coming to? The Philippines is having to reckon with the warnings of international advocacy while weighing the challenges of issuing a further mining directive for greater human development. On the second page of the newspaper was a story about a drop in Benguet Corporation’s earnings for the year, from 2.2 billion pesos (US$ 51 million) to 1.4 billion pesos. Still, mining is a tempting economic fix, yet people in the boondocks don't believe in either the strength of political will in serving the poor, or corporate social responsibility in mine development. People in the uplands are malnourished and resource developments generally compound their ill fortune. They may be threatened into submission by arms. The Philippine National Commission on Indigenous Peoples is compromised with the cessation of land titling and the people’s daily struggle to survive is compounded by abuses of their own leaders and officials. Given there is no peace agreement between the Communist Party of the Philippines (New People’s Army) and the government, more clashes are expected during the dry season, not surprisingly many will probably be in mining areas where people are used and divided by all sides. Why? There is big money in small mining. The gold purchases of the Central Bank of the Philippines from small-scale miners account for about 60 percent of the country’s gold production. But from 7,166 kg (12.3 billion pesos) in 2010, gold purchases went down to 1,722 kg (3.6 billion pesos) in 2011, indicating that gold is smuggled out of the country to avoid the 2 percent excise and 5 percent withholding taxes imposed by the Central Bank and to take advantage of gold’s high prices in overseas markets. Young workers in these small-scale mines may make a fortune but are exploited by the overpricing of basic needs on site, such that few come out with the wealth they envisioned. They are also expected to physically defend the mine from outside attacks. The government may want to seize these areas for better management for the country and local labor. This should not be done through corporate security initiatives involving the armed forces. For government to have credibility in such appropriation of land for the common good, why don't we see this power used for disaster relocation sites first? Following the Sendong (Washi) disaster in December, there are several thousand people without safe housing. Land redistribution and allocation through the government’s agrarian reform and ancestral domain certification programs are also slow and ineffective. We need the right actions for the common good but that includes caring for the integrity of the environment, otherwise profit even for government is an abuse. In any democracy today, mining will not ride easy; a price has to be paid for long-term environmental destruction, social disruption, and state taxes. The Philippines is at a stage where it's clear that there are other political strengths within society that are trying to face down the mining industry. The reality is that they have legitimacy in doing so, like in South Cotabato province which banned open-pit mining. There is a network of very dissatisfied people, from the most genuine (if not persecuted), to those with the intention to disrupt or destroy. The middle class urban society that still wants its bread buttered is easily discouraged from engaging in the matter. The basic attitude is: “We can't do anything about this anyway.” Then there are the politically, socially and economically savvy, who want to make a difference and appeal to reason. Thus, while the legacy of mines past and present casts doubts and questions on industry and government, there is also lethargy in a society where we are willing to talk about these things but not make substantial changes. There are stories of success and of future hope, of good officials and peace-loving communities. But we have been generally ripped-off -- of land, people, country, and profits. We have promises of change, but not the muscle to make the difference. We need to reach a paradigm shift beyond nice stories that make us feel safe and goodhearted. We need to address fundamentals. Canada and Australia might claim good practices, but where in Ecuador, Indonesia, Nigeria, DR Congo or Papua New Guinea do we have them? These practices are also not in the Philippines and yet we must try. Seven things we need to work with: 1. Comprehensive valuation, economic, environmental, social and generational 2. Stricter compliance with rules overseen by government and international organizations with capacity to monitor and take action 3. Disclosure of benefits, costs, investments, excise taxes and employment – nothing less than the truth 4. Increased revenue sharing by government, poverty alleviation, and trusts for communities we can trust 5. The designation of “no-go areas” set for cultures, biodiversity and water 6. Overhauling of all legal and illegal mine operations 7. Delineation of the government’s right to take over mismanaged areas In positioning ourselves anew in relation to mining in the Philippines, there is a social honesty necessary whereby we must first of all acknowledge that the indigenous peoples, since the Spanish times, have suffered at the expense of resource exploitation, whether it’s forests, water, or minerals. There is a deep social commitment to change that today. The social injustices, with history and hindsight, have resulted in grave social abuse that continues. In acknowledging this, we must go forward truthfully and take accountability. Environmentally today, we have to acknowledge that one of the significant forces where the move for change comes from is found outside of government and business. It is with social outcry that society at times faces up to the injustices that are long neglected. Aid organizations have a critical role and it is tiring to hear them constantly lambasted or tied to dysfunctionalism. They have to be acknowledged as equitable partners in society who are valued and should come to the table. Societies are responsible because of these organizations. Their mode of communication is different from bankers and policy makers, but truth and a social justice is very prominent. Whether you are a pessimist or optimist – mining will continue. It will probably take a good 10 years to build the trust needed and it will take a radical shift by the industry. Are we capable of doing this? It's unclear whether we are capable at present, but if we do not develop the capacity to respond soon, the next 10 years will indeed be terrible. Fr. Pedro Walpole, SJ is executive director of Environmental Science for Social Change in Manila.  
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