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A longer term view of mining (Part II)

With all the bad press about mining, many of which are deserved, it is very facile to accept the irrelevance of the mining industry to our country’s future.

However, as often in the many complex issues we face, the resolution is not always that clear and straight forward.

In the first place, metals are very much part of everything we use and do. It is nigh impossible to contemplate civilization without metals. And every time we import these metal products, whether we like it or not, we have to pay the price of the mineral ores from which they are derived, share in the cost of extracting and processing them, and pay for restoration/rehabilitation of the earth where they came from.

The Philippines is ranked top five among the world’s mineral-rich countries. In terms of mineral reserves we are ranked 2nd, 3rd and 6th, respectively for gold, copper and chromite. Estimated worth of our mineral wealth is $1.4 trillion or R62 trillion.

Nine million hectares out of our total land mass of 30 million hectares have been classified by our Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as potentially mineral-rich. We are a close second to Indonesia although Indonesia has six times more land area than we do.

According to a UNIDO report, the gold concentration in our largest gold deposit in Mt. Diwalwal, Compostela Valley, is 25–100 grams per ton, which is 25–100 times richer than in the gold lodes in the famous Witwatersrand basin in South Africa.

The August, 2016 statistics released by DENR indicate that the annual gross value added (GVA) from mining averaged R82.2 billion during 2012 to 2015. Exports averaged $3.15 billion and employment 243,000 during the same period. Taxes, fees and royalties from mining were worth R25.88 billion per annum.

These numbers although constituting only a very small fraction of national totals cannot be casually dismissed. Mining can contribute substantially more to our economy if we manage it well.

In the commerce and give and take among nations, nations produce products and services where they enjoy some comparative advantage, whether natural or man-made, to contribute their share and to keep up with the competition. Since we are naturally blessed with minerals it only makes sense that we take advantage and build upon that which Nature blessed us with.

However as in all human endeavors, there are upsides and downsides to mining. We have to carefully weigh the benefits and costs, in the immediate and long-term, and make sure the benefits far exceed the costs.

If the mining industry were to prosper and be relevant to our county’s future it must 1) provide clear net economic benefits to the country at large, including and in particular, to the communities hosting the mines, 2) demonstrate its capacity and commitment to contain and mitigate the adverse impacts of mining to the health and safety of people and the environment, and 3) successfully compete for local and foreign investments.

 

Mitigating Adverse Environment Impacts

The most immediate among these concerns is the containment and mitigation of adverse impacts on health and safety of people and environment. Mining activities spoil lands and bodies of water needed for agriculture and fisheries; cause soil erosion and loss biodiversity. Pollution from heavy metals in mine tailings pose serious health hazards. Mining activities make certain communities vulnerable to floods and landslides.

Note, however, that these down slides while true are not nation-wide in impact because the foot print of mines is miniscule relative to the total land mass and bodies of water. Out of nine million hectares of mineral-rich areas, actually, to date, only 872,000 hectares are covered by mining permits, equivalent to 2.91 percent of total land mass. The existing 27 large-scale mines cover 60,000 hectares which is 0.2 percent of total land area.

For example, loss of biodiversity is often cited by environmentalists as a major negative impact of mining. This is an exaggeration. The loss of biodiversity is mainly caused by loss of habitat. The real culprits are agriculture and aquaculture with the conversion of millions of hectares of natural forests and grasslands into crop farms and hundreds of thousands of hectares of mangroves into fishponds.

Since the footprint of mining is actually very small and location-specific, the adverse impacts can be anticipated, planned for and intelligently managed.

Most of our mines are surface mines or open-pits. After the ores are exhausted, there are two-ways to proceed with managing the excavations. First, where appropriate, the excavations can be converted into ponds and small lakes for multiple uses like fishing, aquaculture, water sports and tourism. Dams/dikes are erected at the appropriate places to contain the water. Dams/dikes can break so they must be properly designed, regularly monitored and periodically retrofitted, if needed.

The other way is to backfill the holes with the overburden and rocks. The area is contoured to control soil erosion and the original top soil which should have been stockpiled from the very start is laid over the inert backfill to provide the necessary conditions for growth of vegetation.

The preserved topsoil contains seeds of the native vegetation as well as beneficial microorganisms necessary for soil health. The dormant seeds will germinate and in a few years a forest will be naturally regenerated. Provided the nearby forest is protected, in no time birds, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates will migrate and recolonize the rehabilitated site.

This has been successfully demonstrated in the forest regeneration project of Nickel Asia Corporation (NAC) and Coral Bay Nickel Corporation (CBNC) in Bataraza, Palawan, which I had the fortune to visit two years back.

At least 50 hectares of the mined-out site had been reforested with native species grown out of the company’s silviculture nursery tended by native Palawan womenfolk. In order to assure survival and rapid growth of the transplanted seedlings, the forester-in-charge Bibiano Ranes generously applied chicken manure and inoculated them with a cocktail of beneficial soil microorganisms like Mychorriza, Rhizobia, Rhizospirillum etc. (the Ph.D. thesis of Forester Ranes at UP Los Baños was precisely  the identification, isolation and multiplication of beneficial soil microorganisms for reforestation).

However, instead of limiting himself to conventional small one-meter tall seedlings, Forester Ranes pioneered in the use of large planting materials up to three meters size (which were balled wildlings from nearby forest) to accelerate the rehabilitation process. When asked to explain, Ranes had a straight forward reply — the NAC Chairman, Mr. Manuel Zamora wanted to see the forest tomorrow.

In other words with commitment and forward planning on the part of the industry and close monitoring and supervision by government regulators, the adverse consequences of mining on the health and safety of people and environment in the mining sites can be contained and largely mitigated.

The recent initiative of DENR Secretary Gina Lopez for the audit of the existing large-scale mines is therefore in order. The audit is in progress and so far only 11 out of the 40 mines have passed audit.

In the exercise of its oversight function, DENR required all mines to obtain ISO 14001 certification to attest to their worthiness and compliance with international mining standards (DENR E.O. 2015 -7). The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (CAMP) reports that 13 out of their 21 members have obtained ISO 14001 certification, while the remaining eight have pending applications.

The large scale mines which have not passed audit should be given stern warnings but should be allowed reasonable time to comply. If they cannot or would not, their mining concessions should be withdrawn and opened to those with the means and commitment to conduct responsible mining.

 

Rehabilitation of Abandoned Mined-Out Sites

Large-scale mines are better capitalized and have access to technology and expertise for mine rehabilitation and restoration. The same cannot be said of small-scale or artisanal miners of whom we have plenty of. Small-scale mining is hard, risky and unhealthy. But as long as our people in the countryside have no better livelihood alternatives they will continue to try their luck with mining.

Small-scale mining will have to be strictly regulated as well. However, regulation is much more complicated compared with the large mines and would require organization/cooperation among the miners themselves and the strong coordination between DENR and the local government units (LGUs). They will need significant government resources and intervention much like the 37 abandoned mined-out sites scattered all over the country which remain as grim reminders of what had gone wrong in the manner we have managed mining in the past.

An assessment by the MGB of 21 of these abandoned mined-out sites indicated that all 21 pose significant environmental and health risks in varying degrees. Unless mitigation and corrective measures are undertaken, the surrounding communities and environment will be continuously exposed to chemical and physical hazards. For those sites deemed subject to high physical risks, engineering measures like structural enhancement of tailings ponds to prevent collapse and ensure containment of waste rock to prevent acid mine damage need to be installed as soon as possible.

The mined-out sites can be converted to grazing land, naturally reforested or planted with fast-growing wood species, bamboo and industrial crops like coconut, oil palm, rubber, coffee, cacao and abaca. Provided sulfide-and heavy metal-containing materials are safely reburied and contained, the restored sites can be planted to annual food crops.

The mined-out sites can also be converted into recreation and eco-tourism sites complete with small ponds/lakes for recreational fishing, boating and hiking trails. With road networks, energy and water systems and port facilities in place, some can be candidate new town sites, industrial estates and export processing zones.

Where abandoned mines still have viable ore deposits, prior mining rights should be cancelled and the mines opened for bidding to new mine operators. The immediate and complete rehabilitation of disturbed areas should be part of the conditions.

Sadly, MGB-DENR which is tasked with looking after these mined-out sites does not have enough resources in its annual appropriations to accomplish the task. The taxes, fees and royalties from mining averaged R25.88 billion during the last four years. MGB should be allocated a fourth of that each year (R6 billion) for this purpose.

A national mine rehabilitation task force should be constituted to mobilize our expertise in engineering, geology, forestry, agriculture, ecology, biotechnology, land use planning  and the social sciences to heal these scars in our landscape. The mining sector itself, out of self-interest, should step in and demonstrate their concern and commitment with investments, engineering and business expertise.

But whatever post rehabilitation scenarios may be deemed feasible and desirable, the consent and active participation of the local communities as well as local governments must be secured.

To be continued . . . (Part III)

 

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Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP). For any feedback, email eqjavier@yahoo.com.