MAC: Mines and Communities

To Lose A Forest

Published by MAC on 2006-11-06
Source: Inquirer

To lose a forest

By Cielito C. Goño, Commentar, Inquirer

6th November 2006

FIRE RAZED THE HILLS OF HOMONHON FOR over two months in the early 1980s. When it was over, an estimated 2,000 hectares of forest were gone. Since then, the local mining company and the residents of the historic island have been trading blame for it. On one side, Heritage Resources & Mining Corp. says it was not even operating there when the fire occurred, and that it was the honey harvesters who had accidentally set off the blaze. On the other side of the argument, there are the locals who say that people associated with the company were the only ones known to have been where the fire was, and question how the company could have known that some honey collectors did it when it says it wasn't even there.

Meanwhile, if there was any attempt at reforestation, there certainly isn't any trace of such endeavor. There are no signs of any kind of intervention that has made a dent in reversing the damage. Today, more than two decades after the destruction, the area is still littered with the burnt and ashen remains of trees. From one of the island's highest points, we saw that the hills of Homonhon were mostly brown, the topsoil unprotected and exposed to wind and rain. There is some vegetation, but the forest is gone.

In his book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist Jared Diamond looked at environmental and socio-economic structural factors to explain how societies-such as the Easter islanders, the American Southwest Anasazi, the Mayans and Greenland's Norse settlers-disappeared. He found that deforestation was one of, if not the, major factor in the collapse of these societies. He argued that the role of deforestation in their decline was more powerful than was previously thought.

Because forests, once destroyed, take so long to regenerate, their destruction can mean a slow but permanent alteration of ecosystems, setting off worsening incidences of crop failures, as well as erosion and siltation that through time can completely degrade fishing grounds.

Diamond believed that wind and rain slowly carried off the thin topsoil left unprotected by deforestation in Easter Island, leading to starvation and population crash. Soil loss due to deforestation, he argued, was also vital in the breakdown of Mayan and Anasazi societies. "Collapse'' earnestly cautions that while forests and fishing grounds took thousands of years to form, the societies that depend on them can dispose of them with irrational disregard. (Or "with bounded rationality," as the new institutionalist school in the social sciences would have it.)

I strain to read "Collapse," without images of the the burnt forests and open-pit mines of Samar in my head, or memories of complaints about how hardrock mining can mean environmental devastation for small-island ecosystems, like those of Rapu-Rapu and Masbate. Like any firm, the nature of a mining company dictates that it is responsible mainly to its stockholders, rather than to the local communities whose resources it is exploiting.

While Diamond also cited mining companies that have been socially and environmentally responsible, he said that even in the United States, the government has a difficult job holding mining companies accountable.

Environmental bonds that mining companies are required to post in some states (as they also are, under the Philippines' Mining Act) have no clause for the inevitable escalation of cleanup costs, including water treatment. Moreover, cleanup costs are routinely underestimated because they are usually given by the mining companies themselves. Diamond says this is "because government regulatory bodies lack the time, knowledge and detailed mine engineering plans necessary to make such an estimate for themselves. In many cases . the actual cleanup costs have proved to be up to 100 times the mining company estimate."

There is little that can stop mining companies from walking away from environmental rehabilitation after they are done with a place, especially if they declare bankruptcy. As a result, American taxpayers face billions of dollars in liability to clean up and rehabilitate hardrock mines. In the Philippines, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has identified 857 abandoned mines "needing attention." For only one of these-the old Bagacay mines left by the Philippine Pyrite Co. in Western Samar-the DENR has reportedly set aside P50 million. It seems that here, as well, the taxpayers must foot the bill for whatever damage to the environment a mining operation leaves behind.

Supporters of the Philippines' Mining Act speak, for the most part, in the language of macro-economic interests. To them, the measure is a relaxation of the policies that previously restrained mineral extraction. The move will boost GDP, they say.

What is absent in the reckoning, however, is that national income accounts do not reflect the depletion of natural resources. As economist Jeffrey Sachs often argues, when a tree is cut, sold and not replanted, the logger's income is counted, and that is the end of that math. Because of our concepts of what wealth is, we do not see the tree as having a value and so we fail to compute that; rather than creating cash from nothing, we exchanged one form of resource (the tree) for another (cash). So, also, we can say that when minerals are extracted and sold, we see the result merely for the GDP that mining generates, but fail to account for the costs of losing a forest and silting up fishing grounds.

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