Mining promises

Many years ago during President Gloria Arroyo’s first term, a mining conference was held in Metro Manila. The former president proudly declared that the Philippines was on the threshold of becoming one of the ten largest “mining powers” in the world, and because of a reinvigorated mining industry, our country was on the verge of an economic takeoff like never before. To end her keynote speech, the former president exclaimed, “We should not be poor!”

Remarkably, when the then president was addressing those 300 hundred delegates, representing 7 countries, who attended that mining conference, the Philippines had already given 40 percent of its territory as concessions to multinational mining companies. Yet, poverty was still a principal concern, as it was during the watch of Presidents Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, and Joseph Estrada. What could have gone wrong? Why didn’t mining eradicate poverty and bring about prosperity as promised?

The newly appointed secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was the ineffable Michael Defensor, rapidly confirmed by the Commission on Appointments, unlike the combative Gina Lopez. At that same conference, he jubilantly revealed that the top 23 mining companies and the 37 exploration projects were expected to generate US$ 5 to 7 billion in new investments, in the next five years, which meant the government would earn at least P100 billion a year in taxes. He bragged that the Arroyo administration would not only wipe out the country’s fiscal deficit, but also and more importantly, put an end to the curse of chronic poverty.

Also present at that conference was the debonair Ignacio Bunye, presidential press secretary and spokesman, who assured one and all that safeguards and safety nets had been incorporated in the mining plans to protect the rights of “affected communities.” I felt that he was anticipating violent objections from environmentalists and civic action groups.

How blessed we are; we have been sitting on tons of gold, silver, zinc, copper, nickel, cobalt, not to mention natural gas, heavy water, oil, semi-precious stones like agates and jades. However, exploiting these precious natural resources has been deadly and devastating not only for those communities living around the mining areas but also for the environment in general. The example that refuses to be forgotten is Marinduque, an island of Region IV-B’s Mimaropa, with an area of 959 sq. kilometers and a manageable population of less than 300,000. Marcopper  conducted mining operations there for 20 years with no safeguards at all. As a result, the rivers and waterways and farmlands in Marinduque have been poisoned beyond salvation. The incidence of poverty was recorded at 71.9 per cent. In like manner, the riverside dwellers of Bataraza, Palawan, the Subanons of southwestern Minadanao, the Mangyans of Mindoro Oriental, the Tagbanuas, B’laans, Batak, Cordillerans, and Tau’t Bato are today not a centavo richer because of broken promises of mining companies.

During that conference, the “International Business News” published a glowing report about the Philippines having an estimated US$ 1 trillion in unexplored mine wealth which, if properly exploited can generate as much as US$ 3 billion in annual gross sales and P500 million in yearly taxes for the government. Will someone please check out those figures and the predicament of the above-mentioned communities? We have to know if those promises made before an international audience were ever fulfilled.

More than a decade ago, supposedly on the threshold of mining boom, President G. Arroyo declared, “We should not be poor!”