Sustainable revitalization of an economic pillar

Engr. Felix Jose M. Vitangcol, Secretary General, Philippine Business for Environmental Stewardship (PBEST)

There will always be nuances in the risks and opportunities involved in mining. The Philippines is no exception when it comes to this. Many stakeholders worry about the risks and challenges frequently associated with mining. They fear that the industry’s growth, especially with the lifting of the four-year ban on the open-pit method, will be detrimental to the environment, and to the safety of host communities.

These misgivings, however, are unfounded. In fact, the ban on open-pit mining only caused the industry to lose momentum on its way to again becoming a major economic engine that generates jobs, business linkages, and government revenues. These revenues could have been used by the national and local governments to improve public services, infrastructure, and COVID-19 responses. The ban repelled much-needed investments and the arrival of technology that could have been useful for productivity and for the management of environmental risks.

Open-pit mining has long been a globally accepted industry practice. After a long series of diligent consultations with the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (CoMP), industry experts, and stakeholders; and a thorough understanding of the science, the manageable risks, and huge economic benefits, the Philippine government has lifted the ban. The industry, in turn, must strengthen its commitment to meet society’s expectations – to be sustainable and stewards of the environment while meeting the global metal and mineral demands of a modern and greener society.

Despite recurring criticism from anti-mining groups, the Stratbase ADR Institute’s commissioned survey, conducted by Social Weather Stations in October 2021, revealed that the majority of nationwide respondents (63%) say that it is possible to have responsible mining.

In reality, the Philippine mining industry, led by CoMP, has been going beyond its mandated responsibility to sustainably manage its environmental footprint, as well as the key role it plays as an economic engine of the underdeveloped areas of the country and in the global mineral value chain.

These realities, together with the recent policy development, mean mining companies must integrate sustainability in their operations. They must live up to the open-pit method’s history of generating significant economic and social benefits for the local communities. And these companies, to their credit, have quickly and decisively acted. They have already shifted substantial capital funds to tangible, measurable initiatives toward this end.

Legitimate mining firms have already been incorporating responsible practices in their operations. They are proactively addressing their environmental impact, and have been investing in new methods suitable to the geology, geography, and ore type of their projects for environmental and economic feasibility.

For a long time now, mining firms have been on the right track toward sustainability.

With the increasing demand for minerals globally, members of CoMP are readying their capacity and reinforcing sustainability by adopting the Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) scheme. Its members are investing in environmental management systems to help them address environmental risks onsite and in their host and neighboring communities. They closely engage communities and obtain feedback on how they can improve their operations.

These mining companies also undertake revegetation of mined-out areas as part of their progressive rehabilitation initiatives, with the end in view of restoring and developing a more economically viable operation. No less than the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has acknowledged that the reforestations programs of CoMP members are the biggest contributors to the country’s National Greening Program. The strict compliance with environmental regulations by these legitimate mining companies sets them apart from unregulated and illegal operators.

With the lifting of the ban on open-pit mining, the Philippines has opened the opportunity to be a major player in the global economy’s fast-evolving digital transformation agenda and green infrastructural development boom.

According to the World Bank (WB), over 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed to deploy wind, solar, and geothermal power, as well as energy storage, required for achieving a below 2°C future. Similarly, as countries boost their post-pandemic commitments, technological innovations and development in the digital and health spectrum will further boost the demand for most minerals.

Our mining industry must be enabled to harness the country’s untapped mineral resources and seize this huge opportunity to create a thriving industry that will spark multiple centers of prosperity, especially in remote and undeveloped areas. To illustrate the magnitude of the country’s untapped mineral potential, mining occupies only 2.55% of the 30 million hectares of identified mineral lands in the country.

Now that the open-pit mining ban has been lifted, several local big-ticket mineral projects such as Sagittarius Mines’ $5.9-billion Tampakan copper-gold mine project in South Cotabato, Philex Mining Corp.’s $2-billion Silangan copper-gold mine project in Surigao del Norte, and Nadecor’s $2-billion King-King copper-gold mine project in Davao del Norte, can now move forward. Other mine projects with a potential of approximately $11 billion in total investments that were previously affected by the ban could now be encouraged to resume development plans.

The Philippine mining industry can now progress from its long-repressed potential into a revitalized strategic economic pillar empowered with conducive regulatory stability. An enabling policy regime will boost the industry’s global competitiveness. The mining industry must reciprocate by delivering on its environmental stewardship responsibilities as we move towards a more sustainable post-pandemic environment.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld

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