Since we just celebrated Earth Day yesterday, it would be wise to revisit the challenges and controversies surrounding mining in the Philippines. Touted as the nation’s economic salvation, yet carrying with it potentially irreversible or crippling risks to the environment or to local communities, the debate-in-detail over mining pits important ideals and interests against each other.  These are the environment and the economy, job creation and the preservation of local culture and livelihoods, local autonomy and national governance. And the Philippines’ biggest mining stake to date brings all those interests into a grand collision course.


Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI)’s Tampakan Mining Project, a proposed copper and gold open-pit mine in the Municipalities of Tampakan in South Cotabato and Kiblawan in Davao del Sur, was granted an Environmental Compliance Certificate by the DENR, raising once more the debate concerning mining in the Philippines. Mention was made in the news that the project was worth $ 5.9 billion in investments.


The size of the investment is worth noting. Computed at their present trading value in the London Metal and New York Commodities Exchange, the mineral stake in Tampakan stands at around $ 73.4 billion, roughly three-fourths the size of the entire Philippine GDP.  This is a tempting number from a business point of view. Such a sum is almost irresistible. Almost.


To be able to reap the immense value of the copper deposits (estimated at 375, 000 tons/year) and gold deposits (estimated at 360, 000 ounces/year) in the towns of Tampakan and Kiblawan for 17 years, SMI will of course have to build and maintain the necessary infrastructure. The open-pit mine area itself spans 10, 000 hectares and will measure 800 meters deep. It will also involve a 400-watt coal-fired power station and a hundred kilometers of transmission lines and pipelines for the copper-gold concentrate, dozens of access roads and a port, in addition to the enormous equipment and machinery necessary during the construction phase and actual operation.


We must ask the question: will all this investment have any value for the local community, beyond the mining project?


Mining projects of this extent will also unavoidably affect the natural resources and ecosystems in the immediate and surrounding localities. And of course, as in any mining activity, the Tampakan Project is expected to generate tons of mine tailings and other waste products, 2.72 billion tons in fact.


It is not surprising that some communities and local governments units are contesting the mine, such as the B’laan indigenous peoples. The Province of South Cotabato, which has jurisdiction over Tampakan, enacted an Environmental Code in June 2010 prohibiting open-pit mining. The DENR cited this ordinance in previously denying the first filing by SMI for an ECC in January 2012.


Open-pit mining is a destructive way of extracting mineral resources, basically involving removing the earth covering the minerals. Large-scale open pits thus result in artificially large excavations on the land.


The immediate effect of having such an expansive excavation in the landscape, especially given the Tampakan mine’s scale, is the major and permanent change in the landscape that it will create, which will have a downstream effect in sources and quality of water, as well as the possibility of flooding and groundwater seepage. And the question that begs to be answered is this: What will become of the open-pit mine, a gaping 10,000 hectare-sized hole, after the mining operation is over? And how about climate change – what risks are exacerbated by this project?


Part of SMI’s ECC application included the submission of an Environmental Impact Statement, stating the expected impacts of the project, and planned mitigation measures. SMI’s EIS acknowledged the mine’s substantial and negative expected impacts in the affected localities, but also proposed measures by which to avoid or mitigate the foreseeable damage to the environment, as well as probable perils to human life and livelihood.  The Office of the President, in ordering DENR to finally grant the ECC for the Tampakan Project, essentially conveyed the message that the EIS will put in place sufficient safeguards to address the possible adverse impacts on community welfare and the environment.


In the meantime, the DENR’s grant of ECC for Tampakan does carry certain conditions for its continued validity, such as ensuring the social acceptability of the project, as well as respect for South Cotabato’s ban on open-pit mining, in the face of a DOJ declaration criticizing the constitutionality of such ordinance. There is also a reiteration of provisions of the Philippine Mining Act for the creation of a multi-partite monitoring team that will monitor compliance to the conditions attached to the ECC. While these are welcome, it remains to be seen whether the EIS and mining laws as implemented are indeed effective since most recently, two open-pit mining projects that similarly complied with both laws — the Semirara mining site in Antique and the Padcal mining in Benguet province — both registered significant environmental disasters resulting in serious loss of lives.


In my next column, I will tackle the arguments surrounding the validity of South Cotobato’s open-pit mining ban, as well as similar policies and actions by other local government units.


Eagle Eyes is Dean Tony La Viña's column in Manila Standard Today. Follow him on Facebook:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Twitter: @tonylavs.