Experts: Declare protected areas ‘off-limits’ to mining

In Photo: Miners clear the entrance of a tunnel from debris in a collapsed gold mine in Mount Diwata in Compostela Valley province in southern Philippines, as they help in the recovery of blast victims in October 2005. Advocates say the mining industry has not helped provinces climb out of the shackles of poverty. At the same time, experts say it is a serious threat to the environment.

Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu last Monday vowed to uphold at least one policy pronouncement made by his predecessor, Regina Paz L. Lopez—declaring watersheds “off-limits” to mining operations.

Watersheds are home to a diverse species of plants and animals, including those that are considered as site-endemic or unique to the Philippines—some of which are situated within protected areas (PAs) under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act.

“Definitely, there will be no mining in watersheds,” Cimatu said during a news conference last Monday, where he again reiterated his commitment to promote responsible mining in line with President Duterte’s policy pronouncements.

Rich biodiversity

The Philippines is endowed with natural wealth—a beautiful environment teeming with one of the most diverse plant and animal species in the world—and rich natural resources—including gold, one of the most sought-after metals by mining companies.

The Philippines has a total of 228 key biodiversity areas (KBA) in various regions. These KBAs are home to 855 globally important species, including those that are freshly discovered, according to Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) data.

Taking cue from Duterte’s State of the Nation Address in July, Cimatu issued a directive to mining companies to integrate biodiversity protection and conservation in their operations.

Cimatu cited a recent study highlighting the discovery of new mammal species in Luzon.

The study by the Field Museum of Chicago (FMC), titled “Doubling diversity: A cautionary tale of previously unsuspected mammalian diversity on a tropical oceanic island”, involves 56 newly discovered mammal species, 93 percent, or 52, of them are found nowhere else in the world.

Conducted by a team of Filipino and American researchers, led by Dr. Lawrence Heany, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, the result of the study was published in the scientific journal Frontier of Biogeography. Heany is a curator of mammals at FMC.

“The study has arguably amplified the president’s call to mining companies to strictly comply with existing rules and regulations,” Cimatu pointed out.

The discovery backs the new mining policy direction of the Duterte administration, which puts premium on the protection and preservation of the nation’s flora and fauna species and their habitats, Cimatu said.

“Integrating biodiversity conservation into their mining project cycle would surely help mining companies restore, possibly to near-original condition, mining-affected forests in the country,” Cimatu said. The mining sector, Cimatu added, will benefit immensely in giving a positive image to the general public by protecting and conserving biodiversity.

He said such move would amplify mining companies’ efforts to reduce biodiversity loss and provide significant contributions to national and global conservation initiatives.

Driver of biodiversity loss

Mining companies claim that progressive rehabilitation addresses concerns about mining’s adverse impact on the environment as mandated by Republic Act 7942, or the Philippine Mining act of 1995.

Debunking this claim, Dr. Perry Ong, a professor in Wildlife Biology at the University of the Philippines’s Department of Biology, said mining is not only a serious threat to the environment, but a driver of biodiversity loss.

In a telephone interview last Monday, Ong said mining, particularly large-scale mining, destroys the environment and the effect could be irreversible.

Citing cases in the Philippines, he said large-scale mining means large-scale destruction.

“Mining involves removal of earth to access resources—metallic and nonmetallic. As a result, it transforms the land. When this happens, biodiversity, including genes, species, ecosystems, will be affected, temporarily or permanently,” he added in a text message to the BusinessMirror.

“Initially, the scale of mining was limited to addressing local human needs. Thus, the impact was almost negligible. When the population increased, the demand increased, the scale expanded, greed came into the picture. This is where we are now,” Ong added.

Short-term benefit

He said to minimize the effect of mining, PAs should be strictly declared “off-limits” to mining, saying the benefits of mining is temporary as against the long-term benefits of maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Ong added that PAs, which are supposed to be “protected” against destructive development projects, should be preserved.

To do that, he said mining contracts that target to extract minerals within PAs should be canceled.

At the very least, he said the government should strictly monitor the activities within the PAs, which have been declared as mining “no-go” zones by Executive Order 79.

“Ideally, MPSAs [Mineral Production Sharing Agreements] should be canceled in favor of protected areas. But lawyers will scream prior rights. In these instances, their operations should be covered by stringent measures,” he suggested.

“Mining’s benefits are short term while biodiversity’s benefits are long term. It also ensures our survival as a people, as a species, in the maintenance of life. This is where the seeming conflict lies,” he added.

According to Ong, mining companies should start mending their ways by adhering to the highest standards of responsible mining that puts premium not only to human life, but to the diverse wildlife that are being threatened with extinction by mining operations.

“The business-as-usual mode of doing mining is not acceptable. President Duterte is not against mining per se. He is asking mining to clean up their acts and incorporate biodiversity in their business plans. If greed wins, everybody loses,” Ong said.

Biodiversity assessment

Director Mundita S. Lim of Biodiversity Management Bureau of the DENR, meanwhile, said mining companies should adopt more responsible measures in their operations.

Interviewed last Monday, Lim underscored the importance of conducting a biodiversity assessment before, during and after mining operations. Such assessment, she said, should lead to the creation of a data base of plants and animal species in the areas to be affected by mining.

“This way, we will know what we really stand to lose in those areas,” she said.

She added that the Philippines is known to host unique species of plant and animal wildlife that will be forever lost in case of extinction.

Mainstreaming biodiversity

According to Lim, mining companies should start to mainstream biodiversity and make it part of their long-term development plans.

She said mainstreaming biodiversity is already a global trend and many companies have started to integrate biodiversity protection and conservation as part of their programs and projects.

Incidentally, she said, mainstreaming biodiversity in the sectors of energy and mining is a major agenda for discussion in the upcoming meeting of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Body of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UN-CBD).

Lim was elected by the Conference of the Parties of the UN-CBD in December 2016 to chair the subsidiary body meeting set in December of this year in Montreal, Canada.

“The mining sector should take into account results of scientific studies that reveal significance of wildlife species in maintaining healthy ecosystems,” she said.

She urged mining industry’s big players to take the opportunity in partnering with the DENR in striking a balance vis-à-vis mining.

“Our potentials are limitless if we can continue to conserve and sustainably manage our biodiversity and, at the same time, we are still able to pursue development of our extractive industries,” she said.


Image credits: AP

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