Rough Cuts: Reining in the mining companies

This may be one month late. But we feel we need to bring this thought of ours to the open.

We strongly agree with one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s urgent calls during his July State of the Nation Address. And that was for the mining companies to really “shape up or ship out.”

And we are certain that responsible mining companies will have no problem with this mandate. Why, because they know that government mining regulators are well aware of the nature of their operation, where their areas are located and the men and women who are behind them. In other words these mining firms can easily be monitored. Besides, many of them are part of publicly listed corporations.

Thus, even their financial performance can be accessed by government and corporate regulators. But of course the bigger problem may not be coming from the big miners but from the supposed small ones which are actually earning big money and destroying the environment much faster and bigger in areas like the “slash-and-burn” farming of old.

In the big miners’ case, government, at any time, can peak into their operating budget to find out if they have set aside money for social practices in their host communities. Also, the government can easily monitor social programs that the mining firms will be, or are implementing because these large companies are mostly known members of organizations of corporate social responsibility (CSR) practitioners like the League of Corporate Foundations (LCF), and the Association of Foundations or AF. Most have their own Foundations, too, as well as units or departments that handle the implementation of social programs. In fact some large mining companies enter into partnership with non-government organizations (NGOs) and entrust their budget for CSR programs in the areas of their operation.

In other words, the mandate of President Duterte for legitimate mining companies to follow the law on mining and undertake their operation based on international standards can easily be complied with by the big mining establishments if they so wish. It would be different however, if these mining companies are run by people with no heart for the government and their host communities; if the owners and executives are controlled by their insatiable greed for profit.

On the other hand, we believe that DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu, and the government in general, will have a hard time imposing the mandate on illegal, or even supposedly legal, small miners who operate like the “slash and burn” farmers or “kaingeros.”

They can be found almost anywhere there are reports of mineral deposits especially gold. They have operations on nipa groove areas, on hill sides, on road sides like the ones in Barobo, Surigao del Sur, on abandoned mine areas taking over tunnels that are already part of left-overs of big mine operations, and even inside concessions of big-time mining companies that are rumored to be hefty in gold-laden ores.

And these miners are already digging tunnels in mountains the way honeycombs are made by the bees. Other than these, every Tom, Dick and Harry who has the money and “connection,” interested to have a share in the pie of the produce of illegal mines can easily “procure” permits from the local governments and from the local DENR itself, to build mineral processing plants in areas of their convenience.

So, regulating the illegally operating mining groups will surely be a difficult task for Secretary Cimatu. Yes, he has President Duterte on his back. But to effectively carry out his mandate he has to have the unconditional support of the local government units and the people in the communities where these miners are operating.

Secretary Cimatu shall also be sure of the integrity and honesty of his people in the regional and local levels. He has to weed out or “disengage” those in the DENR who are suspected to be in cahoots with miners, legal or illegal, who are not complying with mining regulations.

But there is one thing that Secretary Cimatu should be warned about. He must not be carried away by any of his personal advocacy, if at all he has, to protect the country’s environment in implementing mining industry regulations. He must consider setting up a balance between environment protection and the country’s economy as well as the livelihood of the people in the mining communities. He cannot just let communities wither like flowers denied of sunlight or rain water.

Where big miners are found wanting in their standards and in their engagement with their host communities, closing the mining companies should not be considered as the first option. The DENR must look first where and what the mining companies’ weak areas are, give them a menu of corrective measures and impose deadlines in having them implemented.

The menu of corrective measures must apply to both the deficiencies in the mining firms’ technical operation and in their participation in community undertakings that help improve the lot of the people in their concession areas.

Easily, the DENR can set a reasonable time-table for the inception of the corrective measures. And if at the deadline time there is no substantial compliance, then the retired Armed Forces Chief of Staff DENR Secretary can proceed to the ultimate option – close the erring mining companies’ operation.
But of course Secretary Cimatu must have already submitted to the government alternative livelihood programs needed to help the people in the community and the workers who will be affected by the shutdown. And he has to effectively communicate this matter to all the stakeholders in the area including the local government units.

That way Secretary Cimatu can cushion the impact of the extreme action of closing down the mining operations. He can have a strong shield from the blame game that may be heaped soon after the stoppage of the mines.

Posted in Opinion