Miners cry injustice

Our previous topic has virtually opened a Pandora’s box and generated feelings of frustration and hopelessness among the first batch of mining companies, which were cleared to operate based on their good scores on an audit done last year, but have not been allowed to operate for unknown reasons.

To recap my previous column: The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) shut down the operations of 27 mining companies in 2017 presumably because their mines sat on “functional” watersheds.

The audit was conducted by the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC), cochaired by the DENR and the Department of Finance (DOF). Its members are the Department of Justice, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, and the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines. From the first batch of miners audited, 24 were given the green light for following environmental and other government regulations. Only three failed the test, but were allowed to appeal the decision with the Office of the President.

According to DOF Undersecretary Bayani Agabin, the firms were assessed based on the criteria and the benchmarks on social, technical, legal and environmental aspects of their operations. Agabin said: “The system was such that ‘3’ is the highest score; ‘2’ [means] minor reforms [are] needed, [and] ‘1’ is for [undergoing] major reforms. Zero is not acceptable…the passing score is ‘1.5.’”

BusinessWise got hold of the list and published it on August 29 (Mining industry in limbo).

In a phone interview, Agabin confirmed the authenticity of the list. Asked why the result was not made public and the mining firms which passed the audit remained closed, he said that it is up to the DENR or the Office of the President to release the list and act on the MICC’s recommendation for the audit passers to be allowed to operate. “The audit is only recommendatory,” he replied. “The DENR and the Office of the President have the last say.”

Agabin said that the second batch of miners ordered closed will undergo the same audit, which is scheduled for completion within this year. I guess, as things have been going, the second audit’s findings will likewise remain unpublished.

At this point, what is incomprehensible for me is how the government can spend P50 million in taxpayers’ money for the mining audit, and then shell out P20 million more in the next, only to consign the results to the dustbin and continue to leave the people dependent on the industry deprived of their means of livelihood. Such a deplorable waste of time, money and opportunity!

What I also find disconcerting is the fact that the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP) of which these miners are members in good standing has not acted or lifted a finger to push government regulators to reopen the mines.

Former DENR secretary, the late Gina Lopez (may God bless her soul!) promised to abide by whatever the audit team decides. The current DENR chief has remained mum to date, two years after the first audit has been concluded. 

I interviewed some of the affected miners who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. This is what they have to say:

“After the passage of two years, why have the MICC audit results not been made public or even provided to the affected closed mines despite earlier pronouncements of transparency?

“Without the audit results, how do we address the findings or vindicate ourselves from the closure charges of DENR Secretary Gina Lopez [and prove] that [we] were wrongfully and arbitrarily closed? Has government deprived the industry of due process for the second time? Is government afraid to be sued for damages resulting from the audit, which will acquit the miners of wrongdoing? Is there an orchestrated gag order by DENR-MICC?

“Over two years ago, the Commission on Appointments rejected the appointment of then DENR Secretary Gina Lopez, and repudiated her directives and orders for being outright unconstitutional, acting beyond her authority, acting with arbitrariness, issuing orders outside the law and without legal basis, issuing closure orders without the benefit of due process, among others. Despite the repudiation by the COA, why do these illegal orders remain in place even after the appointment of a replacement at the helm of the DENR?

“Who is in charge of the development of the mining industry in this country? Why does it seem that the DENR-MGB is more concerned with regulating and penalizing the industry for violations and infractions but cannot seem to behave in partnership and consonance with the miners that have risked their capital, and brought employment and development and education and health services to the rural countryside where government is very much absent? Nowadays, it seems that government initiatives and pronouncements are directed toward more taxes and higher revenue-sharing from an industry that is already gasping for breath [although] there is no assistance initiative coming from government.

“The failure to release the audit results has caused delay in the lifting of Gina Lopez’s closure orders for those miners who have passed the audit. Isn’t it about time that these miners be allowed to finally operate? It is unfair to all the stakeholders, communities and employees involved who have been left hanging and whose futures remain uncertain. This unwarranted delay has resulted in the creation of a new industry of influence peddlers…Corruption 101.

“Why hasn’t the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines placed an official statement reacting to the findings and even questioning the MICC-DENR regarding the authenticity of the findings? Does the COMP care at all about the results of the first Audit and its continuing adverse effects on its mining members, or is it each member for himself? If so, how pathetic is that? The Philippine Nickel Industry Association has been just as quiet, although a number of its members are as affected by Gina’s closure orders and the first audit. Where are our lawmakers and the DOF officials who courageously stood in defense of the mining industry two years ago against the impending shutdown of half of the industry and the dislocation of thousands of stakeholders?”

As the annual Mining Philippines International Conference and Exhibition comes closer—it will be held from September 10 to 12, 2019, at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila—it will be interesting to see how this issue will be tackled, or if it will be given any attention at all.

For comments and suggestions, e-mail me at mvala.v@gmail.com

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