MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Arroyo to review, may amend Philippines mining law

Published by MAC on 2006-03-11

Arroyo to review, may amend Philippines mining law

by Christian V. Esguerra, Philippine Daily Inquirer

11th March 2006

APPARENTLY bowing to pressure from the influential Catholic Church, President Macapagal-Arroyo yesterday agreed to review the controversial Mining Act of 1995, a law that opens full ownership of local mining projects to foreign investors.

After a two-hour, closed-door meeting with five Catholic bishops at the Traders Hotel in Manila, the President assured the prelates from the country's most active mining areas that she would work to have the mining law reviewed and possibly amended.

The bishops earlier assailed Republic Act No. 7492, otherwise known as the Mining Act of 1995, for allegedly "destroying life" and called for the cancellation of all mining concessions.

Ms Arroyo was accompanied by Speaker Jose de Venecia, Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes, National Economic Development Authority chief Romulo Neri and Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor.

"(We) agreed with our beloved bishops that we will review the Mining Act immediately," De Venecia told reporters after the meeting. He said he would ask the Congress committee on environment and natural resources headed by Rep. Leovigildo Banaag to immediately look at the possible amendment of provisions in the Mining Act.

The Speaker said Congress would integrate the strongest possible safeguards for the environment and safety standards for mining communities, noting that the bishops were not against mining per se, but were against 'irresponsible mining."

Very nice talk

The law was upheld in a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2004, prompting a government drive to attract foreign investment to dig up an estimated $1 trillion worth of mineral wealth.

''We had a very nice talk," Palawan Bishop Pedro Arigo said.

''At least she heard us. She seemed very nice, at least today," Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes quipped.

During the dialogue, Bastes told the President to ''listen to the people, not the politicians," in deciding on mining issues.

Positive act

''If she is sincere in addressing [the problem of] corruption, this is her test case," he later told the media, noting that destructive mining operations existed largely with the help of corrupt public officials.

De Venecia requested the Church's National Secretariat for Social Action-Justice and Peace to gather complaints against mining, including their scientific bases, and submit a consolidated report to Congress ''as soon as possible," said Sr. Roseanne Malilin, Nassa executive secretary.

According to De Venecia, the report would help the committee formed by Congress to look into the Mining Act.

''That was a positive sign on the part of the government to review the law," she told reporters.

But the bishops were still keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that Ms Arroyo would indeed make good on her promise.

''We'll see if she's sincere in containing the evil effects of mining. The ball is in [her] hands," Bastes said.

''What will come out of this remains to be seen," Arigo said. ''We are hoping and praying that the government will make good its promises."

Bastes and Arigo were accompanied by fellow prelates equally passionate about the mining issue, namely Bishop Reynaldo Evangelista of Boac, Antonieto Cabajog of Surigao, and Bishop Emeritus Francisco Claver of Bontoc-Lagawe.

Claver said the bishops made it clear to Ms Arroyo that they were ''not against mining per se but on how it is practised in the Philippines now."

Environment laws

He said they also raised the issue of the ''faulty and very weak" implementation of environmental laws, and the need to review RA 7492.

''There has to be a wide dialogue," he later told reporters. ''Let the people speak out."

The positions raised by the bishops were consistent with the January pastoral letter of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines calling for a repeal of the law.

''Our experiences of environmental tragedies and incidents with the mining transnational corporations belie all assurances of sustainable and responsible mining that the Arroyo administration is claiming," the CBCP said.

In March 1996, tons of mining waste from a copper mill partly owned by Canada's Placer Dome spilled into the Boac River in Marinduque, causing millions of dollars' worth of damage.

''Increasing the number of mining affected communities, Christians and non-Christians alike are subjected to human rights violations and economic deprivations. We see no relief in sight," CBCP added.

AO on Lafayette

Bastes was visibly upbeat yesterday after Ms Arroyo informed him that an administrative order covering the specific functions and composition of the Rapu-Rapu commission was now ready.

He went straight to Malacanang after the affair to see the document for himself.

In a hastily arranged dinner with Bastes and some other bishops last Jan. 30, Ms Arroyo told the group that she was forming a commission to investigate the spill of toxic wastes by Lafayette Philippines Inc. in Rapu-Rapu, Albay.

In yesterday's dialogue, Bastes said he was appointed by the President as head of the 10-person commission.

He said the commission was tasked to gather information about the spill, including complaints from affected residents, and submit a recommendation within a month.

UP study

However, Lafayette said yesterday that tests made by the University of the Philippines-Natural Sciences Research Institute (UP-NSRI), on March 1 show that water and fish from around Rapu-Rapu Island and Sorsogon are safe for human consumption.

The UP study, Lafayette said in a press statement, reinforces the five previous studies of the Bureau of Fish and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) that the mercury contamination of Sorsogon fish and waters near Rapu-Rapu as alleged by anti-mining groups never existed.

According to the UP study, the surface water samples from all the 29 sampling stations in and around Rapu-Rapu as well as the eastern coast of Sorsogon, including Prieto Diaz and Bacon, were safe and had mercury and arsenic contents well below the allowed limits.

Fish fit to eat

It also said that the 11 kinds of fishes sampled in the same places were safe and fit for human consumption. The tests also cleared seawater around Rapu-Rapu and wastewater from Lafayette's Rapu-Rapu project.

The five previous tests conducted by BFAR showed that water and fish from Bagacay, Rizal, Barcelona and Prieto Diaz in Sorsogon were well within the allowed mercury limit.

Anti-mining groups from Sorsogon had said the Rapu-Rapu project in Albay, across the sea, was the source of mercury contamination in Sorsogon.

No mercury problem

The company, however, insisted that it does not use mercury in its operations and that Rapu-Rapu Island does not have a mercury problem.

These groups also claimed the company caused the skin problems of a few children. Government doctors who examined the children, however, said the condition was not caused by mercury but by bacterial infection, Lafayette said.

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