MANILA: The Philippines’ environment secretary, Gina Lopez, comes from one of the country's wealthiest families, with business stakes in media empires, energy and manufacturing. But she had mostly stayed away from the limelight, choosing a life of travelling, spirituality and yoga.
When she returned to the Philippines, she became a passionate advocate for the environment using the charity arms of her family’s media company, ABS-CBN, to fund her projects.
That all changed when she was appointed environment secretary under the new Duterte administration and took on some of the country’s biggest businesses, despite little technical education.
Lopez has now threatened to shut down two-thirds of the country's mining sites and cancel a further 75 mining contracts that were approved by her predecessor - a pipeline of mining investments worth about 1.1 trillion Philippine pesos (US$22 million).
Her announcements shocked the mining community of the fifth-most mineral-rich country in the world for gold, nickel, copper and chromite - the Philippines has US$840 billion worth of untapped mineral wealth, according to an estimate by the country's Mines and Geosciences Bureau.
Many of the companies are now fighting back, appealing both to the president and to the courts.
Members from the pro-mining community watch Philippines' environment secretary Gina Lopez on TV, booing her. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
A nine-page complaint was filed on Mar 19 by the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP), charging Lopez with causing “undue injuries” to the mining industry.
The group lamented that as early as September last year, Lopez had already announced the suspension of about 20 mining firms even before the Department of Environment and Natural Resources' (DENR) mining audit was completed.
COMP said that most, if not all its members, have acquired International Standards Organization (ISO) 140001 certification, indicating that they have passed the highest environmental standards for mining.
There is also a lobby for a congressional committee to reject her nomination as environment secretary. Lopez was recently bypassed by the Commission on Appointments during her first round, only to be re-appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte. She will face the committee again in May when congress resumes.
But despite the enemies she has made, she said she will continue her mission with confidence, knowing she has the backing of the president, who has referred to her as a “crusader”.
In a press briefing in March, Duterte declared: "You think you can live with it (environmental degradation) because of the 70 billion (pesos) or because they contributed to campaign funds? Not me."
He was referring to the estimated 70 billion pesos mining contributes a year in revenue.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE
For Delta Dumay, who comes from a family of farmers, the mining industry has impacted her source of living.
Her family had always benefited from two good yearly harvests - until now. A river runs along the side of her house and it used to provide water for irrigation for her rice fields, but now it is killing her crops.
According to Dumay, her troubles started when a mining company set up in the mountains above the river. They began to notice heavier siltation in the river, increased flooding during the rainy season and more dust during the dry season.
“Of course it really began to affect our farmlands. And there were no fish in our river and we couldn’t catch anything,” she said.
Dumay said she used to be able to harvest 300 sacks of rice each season, but now this has been reduced to around 100 sacks.
Her town is located in Cantilan, Surigao del Sur in Mindanao, one of the country’s poorest regions, but also its most mineral-rich. There are 23 large-scale mines operating in the area.
One of the agricultural areas affected by siltation in Cantilan, Surigao del Sur, Philippines. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
According to Lopez, the massive destruction of ecosystems in mining tenements - the massive cutting of trees, blasting of mountains, the digging and hauling to extract mineral ores - are to blame for the siltation of rivers, as well as degradation of coastal environments that affect agricultural and fishery production.
She said: “It causes suffering if you are a fisherman or a farmer; it aggravates your quality of life. Only 20 per cent of the labour force are people that come from the island. The ones that benefit are the local governments.
'It’s not a viable economy where some people benefit and everyone suffers. But the most grievous thing there is the fact that the place is beautiful and the continuous mining there is killing the economic potential of the place. It’s crazy.”
Dumay said that while she knows of other communities nearby who receive money from mining companies, there are many who do not.
“They (the people from the mining company) came and did a test on the water and said there was no evidence we were affected so they didn’t offer compensation,” she said.
Around 95 per cent of large-scale mining companies practise open-pit mining and Lopez has mostly focused on these large-scale open-pit mines. Mining experts said it is the fastest, safest and most efficient way of extracting mineral ore, but according to Lopez, it causes massive destruction of forest ecosystems.
“The 15 that we closed are in watersheds and I feel that to even consider allowing them to continue mining in the watershed goes against the spirit of the mining law, which says you should not put at risk the lives of the present and future generations in a watershed,” said Lopez.
Miners dig for mineral ore inside a tunnel in Mt Diwata. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
In her presentations, Lopez repeatedly cites the Tampakan Copper-Gold Project in Mindanao. She said forests, watersheds and highly productive agricultural areas the size of 700 football fields will be devastated once proponents of potentially the biggest gold-mining project begin commercial operation.
“That area is the food basket of Mindanao,” Lopez said. “There are rivers and farms in those areas.”
She said miners use dynamite to tear down mountains or dig holes to fast-track the extraction of mineral ore.
Said Jaybee Garbganera of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement: “By the nature of the industry itself, mining is going to introduce permanent changes in the physical landscape and the topography of the Philippines.
“When you start doing mining, your operations are going to cut trees, use water from the river, use the forests which are the same resources of indigenous people.
“An introduction of a mining site in any area in the Philippines will likely impact the local environmental and cultural life of the population. This is different from any continental country like Canada or Australia where they can do mining and the next community would be 100km away.”
Gold separated from the rock, mined in the Philippines. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
According to Garbganera, the introduction of mining operations in a locality increases the already existing risks of vulnerabilities of that community.
“The Philippines’ climate change and disaster risk reduction laws were passed in 2009, while the laws governing the mining industry were passed in 1995, so all the mining contracts we have right now do not factor in climate change and disaster risk,” he said.
EMOTIONS RATHER THAN FACTS
Lopez has stoked the anger of mining companies and scientists who believe she is addressing the issue with emotions rather than facts and due process.
They include Isidro Alcantara, CEO of publicly listed Marcventure Holdings, whose mine is currently being threatened with closure despite holding an ISO certification which confirms that the mine’s environment management systems are compliant with international standards.
“Perfection cannot be made the enemy of good,” he said. “When you disturb the earth, it will never be perfect; you will restore it 70 to 80 per cent but a lot of good would have come out of disturbing the earth; a lot of jobs, a lot of livelihoods including livelihoods that would be sustainable and that can be a catalyst for development, economic and social.”
Dr Carlo Arcila of the National Institute of Geological Sciences said differentiation needs to be made between the different types of mining in the country and that responsible mining can and does exist where minimal damage is done to the environment.
It is not just the mining companies who are up in arms over her decision. Communities located near mining sites are worried about job and income losses if the mines are shut, and they have also been protesting in front of the DENR office.
Junarlo Hunahunan owns an iPhone, motorbike and flat screen TV. This may seem normal for a 22-year-old, but he is from a small indigenous community in the remote mountains of Surigao del Sur, which until recently was only accessible via a six-hour hike from the nearest town of Pantukan.
Junarlo Hunahunan's renovated house in the indigenous community of Pantukan. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
In 2007, two mining companies set up nearby. He, along with his three siblings, have been working with one of the companies for two years.
They used to live in a basic nipa or straw hut, surviving off the meagre incomes of their crops, but from the money they earned they have been able to build a two-storey house, send their siblings to school and buy all the things they enjoy.
“Before, it was really hard. We didn’t have money. We couldn’t send our siblings to school or have pocket money for them,” says Junarlo.
It is not only his household that has seen a big change. The community of around 1,000 has gone from having no roads, electricity or health centres to having a gym, school and ambulance.
Mining companies are expected to give 1 per cent of their total income to the indigenous communities whose land they are operating on. Last year, Pantukan and six other communities received almost US$60,000 from just one company alone.
According to the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, Lopez’s order puts at risk around 67,000 jobs and at least 1.2 million people who depend on mining for their livelihood.
Lopez has said mining has failed to improve the lives of the people, and that people from Surigao del Sur remain poor despite mining. But Alfred Araneta, vice mayor of Carrascal, a town in Surigao del Sur, disagrees.
He said taxes and royalties from mining companies have boosted the town's income more than 55 times over a 10-year period.
Mining companies have to pay business and royalty taxes as well as a percentage of every tonne of ore taken out of the country to the local government. With that money, they have improved government buildings such as hospitals and schools and infrastructure.
“We are really dependent on the taxes we collect from the mining industry,” Araneta said. “If they do close down, Carrascal will go back again to what we were in 2006. That is what we are afraid of.”
A hospital in Carrascal that has been built from funds giving by mining companies. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
In 2006, Carrascal was a poor provincial town made up mostly of farmers and fishermen. Now, most of the people in town work either directly or indirectly for the mining companies and the number of registered businesses has shot up from 74 to nearly 400.
Lopez insists that she can replace these jobs by creating centres of eco-tourism in place of mining sites. She asked for the communities to give her two years to get the people out of poverty from various ecotourism activities.
“I just feel that in a country that is beautiful, the better approach is to keep the country beautiful for the benefit of anyone living there. My complaint with the mining law and mining operations is that you ravage what is there and you take out the wealth and leave them poor and give them tidbit scholarships, and they’re totally dependent on you instead of developing the potential of the area to generate quality of life,” said Lopez.
But communities remain sceptical of this proposition, worried about the viability of bringing in enough tourists into these remote areas where infrastructure remains a big problem.
“If an eco-tourism project was to be implemented, it will take how many months, even a year, before it can start operations. How can we sustain those families that are eating right now and having their children studying?” said Araneta.
Dindo Manhit, managing director of Stratbase, argued that eco-tourism can’t exist in many mining areas. He cited mining in Palawan, a tourist hotspot located in the west of the Philippines as an example.
“There is mining in Palawan; there is also eco-tourism in Palawan. Why don’t we send tourists to those mining areas? Because it’s too rural and there're lots of mosquitoes, lots of malaria,” he said.
Many also question why Lopez in her crusade has ignored the small-scale miners. They make up 60 per cent of the total gold production, yet for the most part continue to flourish with little regulation from the main government.
There are around 400,000 small-scale miners operating in 40 mineral-rich provinces nationwide, building tunnels deep into mountainsides in search of their "jackpot" day.
It has provided wealth for the miners -signs of prosperity dot the gold-rush town of Diawata, where children who finish top of their class even get rewarded with a 15g pure gold medal worth around 19,500 pesos.
But the gold rush does not necessarily translate into prosperity for the government or environment.
Miners inside a small-scale mine in Diwalwal dig for gold. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
According to Dr Carlo Arcilla of the National Institute of Geological Science, most of the small-scale mining is illegal and unregulated and certain practices are detrimental to the environment. According to him, practices such as using mercury when mining for gold is not only bad for the environment but for the miners as well.
“When you mine the gold content, it’s in the parts per million, so you have to grind very fine to get the gold out,” he said. “Many miners use mercury because mercury dissolves the gold. The problem is that the river will flow to the ocean and the mercury, once it gets into the ocean, is poisonous by itself and it becomes integrated in the food chain and becomes metal mercury - one of the most poisonous substances known to humankind.”
In an attempt to stop this, in 2015, the department of environment issued new policies and guidelines for these mines to adhere to. Cooperatives were formed to allow for more regulation of mines.
Jose Anayo, the head of a mining cooperative in Compostela Valley, said small-scale mining permits were issued by the provincial government. He added that there are regular check-ups on the mines for labour and environmental safety practices, but there are still a lot of mines that remain unregulated.
“Our cooperative consists of around 70 tunnels but that’s only from the registered tunnels, which make up only a small percentage of the total network of small-scale mines,” he said.
MINING CONTRIBUTION INSUFFICIENT: LOPEZ
Lopez has also argued that mining contribution to the Philippines is not enough to cover for the economic loss to the environment. Last year, mining’s contribution in terms of GDP was a mere 0.9 per cent. Mining export receipts were pegged at US$2.8 billion, or only 4.8 per cent of total exports, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).
According to Credit Suisse, the mining ban could shave 0.2 per cent off the Philippines’ economic growth and hurt foreign investors’ sentiments. It could also reduce exports by around 2 per cent.
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia, Lopez acknowledged that she was stepping on "very big business interests and political interests".
"But at the end of the day, I’m doing what the government has mandated for me to do - which is to take care of the people and make sure the land and resources of the area can benefit the people living here."