Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Let's put science in the debate on mining

WILL those hotshot economists and environmental scientists from the country's top schools please conduct a credible cost-benefit analysis of the mining industry in the Philippines?

This could be the only way we could infuse some reason into the debates between Catholic bishops calling for the closure of all big mining operations in the country; and those who derive their living by digging minerals from the bowels of the earth. Hopefully, we may yet settle the issue pestering this country since January 29 when the bishops issued their pastoral statement.

In that statement, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines said, "Mining destroys life" and called for the repeal of the Mining Act of 1995. That law, which allows greater foreign direct investments in the mining industry, had been upheld with finality by the Supreme Court in December 2004.

The CBCP's statement had also sought the closure of all large-scale mining projects in the Philippines , particularly the Rapu-rapu Project in Albay, HPP Project in Palawan, Didippio Gold-Copper Project in Nueva Vizcaya, Tampakan Gold Copper Project in South Cotabato , Canatuan Gold Project in Zamboanga del Norte and the San Antonio Copper Project in Marinduque.

What's the bishops' beef with the mining industry? One, they are wary of foreign investors putting in money into the industry. Second, the promised benefits are "outweighed" by the "dislocation" of communities especially among indigenous peoples, the risks to people's health and livelihood, and the environmental disruption. And third, the "cultural fabric" of indigenous peoples is "destroyed" by the entry of mining companies. Ergo, the government should repeal the Mining Act and close all large-scale mining companies.

Understandably, the response to the CBCP's statement was equally strong-and simplistic. Some are calling the bishops "antijobs." Some industry leaders ridiculed them for using a bully pulpit from their "palatial homes" while the people eke out a living.

"We should put ourselves where we can do better. If you are good at saving souls, we will just take care of our stomachs. Only then can we be a progressive country," said another.

These statements are equally unfair. The truth is that bishops have real issues against certain mining companies in the country. Remember the Marinduque mining disaster? It's clear Marcopper has yet to fully compensate the victims and rehabilitate Marinduque's river systems affected by a massive tailings spill. And the foreign investors, the Canada-based Placer Dome, simply ran back to where it came from when the heat from local media and environmental groups became too much to bear without doing anything substantial to clean up the mess in the Philippines . Talk about "responsible mining!"

Nevertheless, it is also apparent that the bishops went overboard in calling for the repeal of the 1995 law and the closure of all large-scale mining companies-without presenting a clear, comprehensive, not to mention scientifically well-grounded basis for making such a call. One wonders if the bishops really considered the impact on the local and national economy, and had the benefit of expert advice on how this weighed against the negatives.

Most of the new mining operations now are still in exploration and development, but currently the industry has a production value of P28 billion, contributes at least P10 billion in terms of gross value added, exports more than $500 million worth of mineral products, gives away P5 billion in wages and benefits to workers, and more than P2 billion worth of taxes to the government. So these data alone are worth reviewing, regardless of those incredible presentations of Romulo Neri in his first stint as Neda chief.

There are also computations that for each job created by mining, four to 10 jobs are created in upstream and downstream activities. Banning mining also means barring extraction of metallic and nonmetallic minerals used as inputs in other industries like manufacturing, cement and construction. Should we just import those construction materials including sand and gravel?

We suspect that the statement did not really go through intelligent discussions among the bishops. We know they are smart people, and we don't buy the simplistic argument that "they should stick to saving souls." Some of them even have PhDs in the hard sciences. And in the time of John Paul II, the Vatican convened its own expert panel of scientists and experts among the churchmen to craft a reasoned position on the "hot" issues of biotechnology and GMOs.

But the antimining statement betrays a lack of logic. If indeed, mining "destroys life," why doesn't it call for a total ban on all mining, including small-scale ones? Right now at least 2,500 small-scale mining and quarries dot the country, including the famous Diwalwal mines in Davao. Are the bishops saying we should close the large ones and let millions of "small-scale miners" with their crude machines and mercury-based technologies take over? Do we honestly wish to multiply the chaos and environmental havoc of Diwalwal several thousand times?

Trade Secretary Peter Favila has rightly called on the CBCP and the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines to a dialogue. Dialogue is nice but talk is cheap. Since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Mining Act of 1995, some militant clergymen have been doing the dialogue of the deaf with the Chamber of Mines-some of whom suffer, in turn, from diarrhea of the mouth, promising safeguards that aren't there.

The only way to solve this impasse is to conduct a genuine cost-benefit analysis by employing the services of credible, competent environmental scientists and economists in the country. And if indeed the social and environmental costs of mining far outweigh its economic benefits using the best information available, by all means let's close all the mines including the small ones. Maybe it's better to die clean than live dirty. But if the results say otherwise, let's allow the miners to do their business using the best environmentally sound techniques. And watch them.

No comments: