Nov 21, 2012

Philippines - A Catholic Blind Eye on Illegal Mining

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The Philippine Catholic Church picks the wrong target, either by accident or deliberately

In the Catholic diocese of Marbel in South Cotabato Province in Central Mindanao, parish priests regularly demonize the large-scale mining companies seeking natural resources in the province. Some priests have gone as far as barring employees of the mining companies from Sunday Mass. In Zamboanga Province, dioceses have reportedly refused to hold mass or to administer church services in areas where large-scale, licensed companies are operating.

The church’s antipathy to mining companies stretches back to earlier decades when multinationals poured into the Philippines to loot the country’s vast store of natural resources, estimated by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to be worth as much as US$1 trillion.

Multinational and domestic large-scale mining companies drove indigenous peoples off mining lands without compensation, left abandoned mines to deliver up a toxic mix of poisonous minerals that poured into rivers and streams, built substandard dams to hold back toxic tailings and looted substantial areas of the country. The environmental and social damage was so severe that President Benigno S. Aquino III, shortly after he came into office, issued an18-month moratorium on mining until guidelines could be promulgated reforming a disastrous industry.

It is an industry that holds enormous promise for the Philippines if strong regulations and an efficient bureaucracy can keep the mining companies under control. The country is believed to have more extractive reserves than Indonesia. The Philippine Mines and Geo-Sciences Bureau, which is constantly upgrading its reserves, believes that besides gold, another 13 classes of precious and semiprecious minerals could total mineral wealth of as much as US$464.9 billion. Another 25 recorded non-metallic or industrial minerals are believed to be worth as much as $71.7 billion.

In recent years, as the multinationals have moved back in, now operating under stricter Philippine government environmental standards, the Catholic Church has remained an implacable foe. In 1998 and 2006, the Conference of Bishops issued statements maintaining that large-scale mining causes environmental destruction and breeds poverty.

The reasons for that antipathy to large-scale mining, however, may have to do with other reasons than either environmental depredation or concerns over poverty.

In a Nov. 15 report, the Manila-based Pacific Strategies & Assessments country risk firm noted that the church gets sizeable donations from anti-mining NGOs across the planet, including Bread for the World, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, the Ecumenical Council for Social Responsibility and the German Catholic Bishops’ Organization for Development.

“Should the Catholic Church suddenly abandon its anti-mining campaign, it potentially could lose the funding it currently receives from international donors sympathetic to the anti-mining cause,” the report alleges.

Whether deliberate or inadvertent, the church has ignored the fact that it isn’t the big mining companies that are wrecking the landscape. It is indigenous miners, who are empowered by the 1991 People’s Small-Scale Mining Act of 1991 which allows anybody with a pick and shovel and P10,000 (US$242) to obtain a tract of land to dig in. Under the law, they must rely on manual labor.

As Asia Sentinel reported on Nov. 13, however, often those who obtain permits are paired up with Chinese mining companies that bring in the bulldozers and skip-loaders, the cyanide and dynamite and wreak environmental havoc. In addition, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources estimates that nearly 80 percent of the 300,000-odd miners operating in 30 of the Philippines’ 80 provinces are operating without permits.

Philippine Sen. Miriam Santiago Defensor has called for a legislative investigation of the industry, citing a Reuters report that said almost all the production of small-scale mines goes to the black market. Despite reported small-scale mining output of $10.4 billion early this year, gold purchases by the Central Bank dropped an annual 4 percent, 4 percent, 76 percent, and 88 percent in the second, third, and fourth quarters of2011, respectively, and 92 percent in the first quarter of 2012 because it either passes through traders in the black market or is sold directly from mines to foreigners coming in on tourist visas.

The PSA report, which is available only to subscribers, pointed out that as many as a thousand illegal miners have invaded the area where the Tampakan Copper-Gold Project, operated by the Australian mining firm Xtrata, has been given a license by the Philippine government to mine.

“An estimated two hectares of the mountains have reportedly been destroyed due to sluice mining operations, which began as early as 2008,” PSA reported. However, the church, PSA reported, has purposely ignored reports of illegal miners exploiting 8-and 9-year-old children who are forced to use primitive air hoses in water-filled pits as a breathing mechanism.

There may be more than delayed recognition of the problem, according to the PSA report In fact, according to the report, “the tendency to overlook the obvious ills of illegal mining while demonizing large-scale mining is no doubt attributed to the desire to bolster the church’s populist image.”

In fact, the church has also overlooked the role of local governments, in collusion with private firms, to hide behind small-scale mining to conduct unregulated large-scale operations, while insisting that regulated and monitored large-scale mining has been the main cause of environmental destruction throughout the country.

Some priests have privately acknowledged that their opposition to large-scale mining is based on their diocese’s accountability to the council of bishops and to the fact that the church’s local parishioners tend to be the illegal miners and their families.

“By all appearances, the Catholic Church has elected to remain silent and mute to blatant illegal small-scale activities throughout the country,” PSA said, “although a vast amount of evidence shows it accounts for the majority of the mining related environmental damage across the Philippines.”

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