“Tell your brother, he totally killed a mountain.” – Environment Secretary Regina Lopez to Commission on Appointments Chairman Rep. Ronnie Zamora
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – “I know why there’s war in Mindanao.”
After the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) audited the large mining activities in the country, Environment Secretary Gina Lopez has this realization – just one of the many — which she told the members of the powerful Commission on Appointment yesterday, March 8, at the hearing for her confirmation. She said something similar today, March 9, in connection with the Tampakan mining project also in Mindanao. She said the agreement is so lopsided, it is not an environment issue but of peace.
The reason why there’s war in the magnificent, resource-rich island of Mindanao, she concluded, is because its people are not benefiting from their resources, “because we give clearances” to large, extractive mining companies to operate.
She showed aerial photos of dug out mountains, silted rivers, mine tailings pond in danger of overflowing anytime and threatening the nearby communities downstream.
“Tell your brother, he totally killed a mountain,” she said to Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, chairman of House Committee on Appointments, as she was showing before and after photos of a mountain that has been nearly dug out. Rep. Zamora’s brother is mining in the said mountain.
Lopez is the first Environment Secretary rejected by the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines at the confirmation hearing in Congress today, March 9. She got the honor because on February 14, she began cancellation proceedings on 75 Mineral Production Sharing Agreements, ordered the closure of 23 mines, 15 of which are in watersheds, and the suspension of five other companies.
For the first time, an environment secretary is proceeding along a path long demanded by communities and people’s organizations in treating the environment and the people living on it.
Lopez said she is “not rigid on whatever” – she’s not anti-mining per se. What she’s opposed to, she repeatedly explains, is the destruction of the environment with adverse impact on the people living in it.
“My commitment is to social justice,” she said at the continuation of her confirmation hearing March 9.
Much like the years-long demands of the critics of foreign-dominated export-oriented mining, she is pushing instead for land uses that would benefit the people living in it, and the future generations, too. The environment department is tilted more toward eco-tourism and various ways in which the people could tap the environment and its biodiversity (and at the same time take care of it) for sustainable livelihood.
She told those opposing her confirmation as Environment secretary, “You people benefit, and how many have suffered?”
Similar to the fact-checking by green group Kalikasan-PNE, she belied the supposed threats to employment and government revenues that the order to close mining operations in watersheds would bring.
Why extract the country’s minerals, in the process destroy rivers and mountains and threaten the livelihood of those living near the mine site, just for a minuscule share of government revenue?
She said 82 percent of the mines’ net income is going to the mining company, 95 percent of revenues is going out of the area. Yet, the people who did not benefit from mining are left to cope with the impact of the denuded, leveled mountains and silted poisoned rivers.
One land, competing ‘beneficiaries’
Commission on Appointment Chairman Senator Manny Pacquiao kept urging the lawmakers to calm down during the confirmation hearing from March 8 to March 9. But as the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) said, “foreign large-scale miners are pulling the strings behind the long line of opposition to the confirmation of Environment Secretary Gina Lopez.”
“Greed is the name of the game as politicos in the Commission on Appointments and other objectors invited to speak have grown fat from the P1.59 trillion the industry has plundered from our mineralized lands over the past 22 years,” Leon Dulce, campaign coordinator of Kalikasan PNE, said in a statement.
The green group expressed disgust at the sight of politicians looking for the smallest of loopholes in the country’s Mining Act in their bid “to justify the status quo of the foreign-dominated mining industry.”
In the March 8 hearing, for example, these politicians were laughed at by the audience when politicians tried to shake Lopez for the appropriate legal definition of “critical watershed.” Some lawmakers said the Mining Act allows mining in watersheds, except in pronounced critical watersheds.
Kalikasan PNE said politicians connected to or supported by mining companies should recuse themselves in deliberating the DENR position.
They scored these politicians for “shamelessly” ignoring all the clear cases of environmental destruction, community displacement, human rights violations, and economic pillage involving mining plunderers. According to Dulce of Kalikasan PNE, these warrant the people’s clamor against big mines as heeded by Secretary Lopez.
The environment group noted how mining company Nickel Asia, associated with Rep. Ronnie Zamora who is the CA chair of the House of Representatives, is “a sterling example of a local mining comprador that wholesaled our minerals to foreign minerals markets while leaving our lands and environment devastated and heavily militarized.”
Nickel Asia, which serves as a local comprador or middle-man for transnational mining corporation Sumitomo of Japan, has a mining operation that was part of the 28 large-scale mining projects ordered shut down or suspended by the DENR after the regulatory agency conducted an industry-wide audit.
Its mining project in the region of CARAGA passed the audit, but it is reviled by some sectors who reported that paramilitary groups are terrorizing the anti-mining communities in the provinces. Nickel Asia is publicly known to have funded Special Civilian Armed Auxiliary (SCAA) paramilitary groups to beef up its mine site’s security.
Kalikasan PNE said Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, also a CA member, received millions of pesos in contributions from mining magnates during the 2016 national elections when he ran for the vice presidency.
The group also said Dr. Carlo Arcilla, a geologist who keeps hurling criticisms at Secretary Lopez, is a mining consultant in the payroll of mining companies Marcventures and Century Peak Metals, among others which are also among the closed or suspended mines for various violations of regulations.
Instead of letting go of Lopez as the mining lobbyist Chamber of Mines of the Philippines wants the Congress to do, various organizations supporting Lopez’s actions are pushing for her confirmation, and for her to pursue her stated passion for the environment and social justice.
In the run-up to the confirmation hearings in Congress, thousands of organized communities rallied in support of Lopez in various areas of the country.
“The Duterte administration should throw the gauntlet down on those greedy pigs and uphold the confirmation of Secretary Lopez and her mine closure and suspension orders,” Dulce said. He urged the public to push the politicians to let Lopez continue with the path of holding big mines accountable, saying these mine companies have enjoyed full impunity against people’s rights, environment, and aspirations for genuine development over the past two decades”.