Wednesday, December 7, 2022

A Call for Environmental and Social Justice

by Ivan Anthony A. Adaro | February 3, 2022

President Rodrigo Duterte assumed his presidency in 2016 and was known to have greatly opposed mining propositions in the Philippines, claiming that mining is harmful to the environment. A year after his term started, he enacted an open-pit mining ban where he, along with the support of anti-mining advocate and then  Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Gina Lopez, revoked the permits of 26 mining operations due to the violations it imposed on environmental standards. However, later in 2021, he signed Executive Order No. 130 which lifted the ban on new mining permits to revive the country’s mining industry and economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The unexpected declaration of the order, together with its escalating threats to the environment and its defenders, came off as a surprise, especially for the anti-mining and environmental groups.

A few weeks ago, the topic gained the public’s interest again as the presidentiables for the 2022 elections answered Boy Abunda’s questions in a one-on-one interview. The famed talk show host asked what the candidates’ insights are regarding President Duterte’s orders lifting the ban on open-pit mining. Each of the candidates gave their insights on the matter, but what stirred a lot of controversy from the environmentalists was Senator Panfilo Lacson’s response on the issue.

The senator agreed with President Rodrigo Duterte’s orders that lifted the bans on open-pit mining and new mining agreements, which environmentalists said might impede attempts to preserve the country’s natural resources. Lacson added that he will ensure the “responsible” extraction of minerals and eradicate the double standard in the regulation of the mining industry assuming he succeeds Duterte.

“The problem is small-scale mining. Many violations are related to it that’s why the environment is put at risk. It’s not a matter of stopping it or allowing it to continue. It should be data-driven and science-based. The bottom line is responsible mining… You cannot kill the mining industry because it is a major industry in the country,” said Lacson when his propositions were being challenged by anti-mining groups and environmentalists.

While it is true that the lifting of the ban can potentially reinvigorate the mining industry and assure revenue for the Philippines after the economic downturn brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, is it really worth it to harm the environment and its defenders in the name of economic progress? Who would be held accountable when mining companies fail to comply with their so-called “responsible” mining? Considering that most mining industries heavily rely on rich lands and indigenous areas for the extraction of minerals, what will become of those people and ethnic groups who also heavily rely on those rich lands and indigenous areas for their source of livelihood?

Over the years, the country’s rich lands have been cultivated by the indigenous people who have set foot on the island centuries ago. They formed deep cultural and spiritual ties to their natural environments, as well as traditions and expertise that contributed to biodiversity protection and sustainable resource management. More to that, they hold the responsibility of passing on these traditions to the next line of generations, along with the duty to protect their homes and riches located in the rural areas of the Philippines. As such, they have grown to become dependent on the natural environments for their livelihood and made it a duty to preserve and defend them.

Mining projects and excavations are progressively taking place on indigenous peoples’ homelands in the Philippines, putting them at risk of exploitation. Indigenous people, and even the mineworkers who do the labor, have suffered various negative environmental and social consequences as a result of mining and its harsh workplace, including the loss of ancestral sacred sites, as well as exploitation and conflict with local military and paramilitary groups. Still, in their efforts to protect the lands and riches that they have greatly preserved, all they ever got in return is abuse and violence.

On the field, various anti-mining organizations have warned that the executive order on the revival of the open-pit mining operations and permits will exacerbate threats to the environment and its defenders. What is even more alarming is that these mining permits target areas of natural forest in the province, some of them within key biodiversity areas and protected areas. 

But did the mining industry and pro-mining economic sector listen to those warnings? No. In fact, according to the NGO Global Witness, mining was the world’s deadliest sector for environmental and land defenders in 2019. That year, the Philippines topped the list of countries with the most environmental defenders killed as a result of mining. Among the 16 fatalities, that year was Datu Kaylo Bontolan, an Indigenous Manobo chief in Mindanao’s southern island, who was killed after opposing illegal mining in his community in the Pantaron mountain region. 

In 2020, another illegal mining activity threatened Indigenous land at the foot of Mount Apo located in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao with much of the area overlapping with indigenous land and rich mineral reserves. Tribal leaders occupying the land rejected requests to mine their land because of its adverse effects on the ecosystem and watershed their people depend on. Still, despite their refusal, the mining operations pushed through at a remote village home to the Obo Monuvu Indigenous people.

What was even worse was that the artisanal small-scale gold mining industry that employed about 500,000 miners at most to do the mining labors, children included, did not pay the mine workers for their labor. Children laborers were made to carry four sacks of ore, weighing about ten kilograms each per day from the tunnel to a waiting truck, passing through a river several times and navigating steep and slippery slopes on foot. And what did they get in return? Nothing, but more cruel work. Following a tipoff, the illegal business was brought to the attention of the Philippine environment secretary, Roy Cimatu, who ordered its shutdown in December 2020. However, the damage has already been done.

Recently, the resumption of open-pit mining remains to be short-sighted and dangerous, along with the devastation and risk of contamination to watersheds that many people rely on. In one of the recent cases, the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment pointed out that open-pit mining is among the top contributors to the devastation of watersheds in regions hit hard by Typhoon Odette (Rai), such as Caraga, Negros Island, and the Central Visayas. 

In Mindanao, mining activities by big mining companies and small-scale illegal miners in the upland areas of the towns of Maco have greatly affected the sorry state of the now-brownish, murky waters of Hijo River to the mouth of the Davao Gulf in Maco, Davao de Oro province – the waters in which the Kagan and Mansaka tribe heavily relies on.

Diabo, who currently heads the Council of Elders of the Kagan tribe in the town of Maco, describes mining “as the biggest disruption to their lives,” stating that it had deprived their tribes of potable drinking water and source of food and livelihood, as well as the fact that their waters have become contaminated and that the fishes they catch for food and income have become scarcer.

In reality, it is the vulnerable communities and people situated in the low-ranking levels of societal hierarchies who are greatly affected by nature’s wrath and the negative effects brought about by the exploitations of bigger companies and higher-ranking people. In many recent cases, the resumption of open-pit mining has posed many escalating threats to the environment and its defenders, all of which are said to be done in the name of economic progress and development. 

Is it really justifiable to compromise the environment for the sake of progress? Is exploiting the rich lands of the indigenous people and forcing them to concede to requests for mining the best solution and method to improve the country’s economic state? Technically, it is the indigenous people’s land and a crucial source of livelihood that has been exploited, and these people get killed protecting their own land. These people have been denied their social justice, all thanks to industrialization and the radically capitalist mindset of the elite few. At times like this, where both the environment and the lives of people who heavily rely on the environment’s natural resources are at stake, it is important to stir the need to suppress these issues in the most humane way possible. Environmental and social problems like these call for the need to make and build a progressive state that promotes both environmental and social justice. And one way for us to achieve this is to choose leaders and engage in activities that advocate the rights of Filipino communities and their people, including securing a green and just future and environment for the next generations.

Sources

Cabico, G. (2022). Lacson: Mining too big an industry to kill but can be kept ‘responsible’. Philstar. Retrieved January 31, 2022 from https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2022/01/25/2156274/lacson-mining-too-big-industry-kill-can-be-kept-responsible

Cabico, G. (2021). Resumption of open-pit mining short-sighted and dangerous, environmental groups say. Philstar. Retrieved January 31, 2022 from https://www.philstar.com/headlines/climate-and-environment/2021/12/29/2150729/resumption-open-pit-mining-short-sighted-and-dangerous-environmental-groups-say

Chavez, L. (2021). ‘Complete turnaround’: Philippines’ Duterte lifts ban on new mining permits. Mongabay. Retrieved February 1, 2022 from https://news.mongabay.com/2021/04/complete-turnaround-philippines-duterte-lifts-ban-on-new-mining-permits/

Sarmiento, B. (2021). Illegal mining threatens Indigenous land at foot of Philippines’ tallest peak. Mongabay. Rretrieved February 1, 2022 from https://news.mongabay.com/2021/11/illegal-mining-threatens-indigenous-land-at-foot-of-philippines-tallest-peak/

Sarmiento, R. (2021). Gold Does Not Always Glitter. ForumZFD. Retrieved February 1, 2022 from https://www.forumzfd.de/en/gold-does-not-always-glitter

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