Good science, due process and mining

Aristotle’s concept of the "golden mean" is one of the most practical moral concepts I have encountered. According to this ancient Greek philosopher, "Virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue. Therefore, virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate." 

As I wrote in one of my Eagle Eyes column 5 years ago Aristotle's golden mean is relevant to the challenge of mining in the Philippine. In that article, I raise questions which many are again asking in the wake of recent decisions by Secretary Gina Lopez: “Is a middle ground on mining possible? Is there such a thing as responsible mining that conforms to sustainable development? Or is mining always destructive of nature and communities? What is the golden mean in mining?”

Conditions for responsible mining

There is no disagreement that minerals are one of the most important economic resources, from the steel of skyscrapers and bridges, to the rare-earth metals used in semiconductors and electronics. Mining is also an important component of any national economy as it brings hard currency, elicits investment, and generates jobs. 

The situation in the Philippines is however far from ideal.

Weak governance institutions and corruption compromise mining governance, with environmental, safety, and human rights regulations frequently ignored. Our mining claims system is also antiquated, allowing companies and individuals to lay mineral claims on large swaths of Philippine territory and unnecessarily giving the impression that all of the country is open for mining.

I have long advocated a more modern approach of the government – identifying the mineral resources and bidding them out pro-actively rather than granting concessions on a first-to-claim basis. 

For the record, I am not against mining per se. I oppose mining that is environmentally destructive and a mining governance system that does not distribute benefits properly. The latter is more important because if we solve the inequity of revenue distribution in mining, we can ensure that enough resources are set aside to minimize its negative environmental and social impacts. This is true for both small-scale (which I also do not endorse unconditionally because of its environmental impacts and safety risks) and large-scale mining. 

Mining, and similar natural resources issues are best seen and resolved through the prism of environmental and social justice. Hence, the most important reform in mining governance is the proper distribution of powers, responsibilities, and income from the extraction of mineral resources.

Thus, indigenous peoples and local communities must have a voice in the mining decisions and a big share of the revenue. Similarly, local governments should have a major say on whether or not mining should be allowed within their territory and must have a just share of the revenues. Where there is conflict between national government and local governments, mediation is the only recourse. 

No community or local government should be railroaded to accept mining. Opposition however must be based on scientific grounds. For example, the claim that mining causes earthquakes has no scientific basis, although irresponsible mining can increase the risks of both geological and climate disasters. 

Mining’s contribution to economy

Mining operations bring jobs and infuse money into the local economy, and the mining sector contributes to economic growth in general.

Even so, is any positive number in terms of job generation and economic growth always a good thing? How much incentive does the government give to the mining sector, which should be deducted from the net benefits to the country and local people? How much more (or less) can the government get if it considers alternative uses of the land?

In other words, are Filipinos (as a people) really better off with mining, and is the government getting the best deal for its people? 

These are tough questions to answer due to the lack of data and a framework to analyze benefits as a whole. But there are known facts that can help in this analysis. It does not help when supporters of mining exaggerate the figures with inflated claims of job and economic losses.  

As to the benefits that local people can derive from mining, mining companies rightly claim that there are huge economic and social benefits during mining operations. Indeed, a mining operation can result in new roads and access to transportation, increased trade of goods and services supplied to the mining operations, and even improved access to health centers and schools. Some local governments rely only on mining tax revenue to supplement their internal revenue allocation. 

Unfortunately, we have no independent studies that give us accurate estimates of these benefits and that weigh them against the environmental and social impacts of such operations. There is also an accusation that most of the benefits of mining go to a very narrow set of beneficiaries. 

If we are to enable responsible mining, changing the economics of the sector is a high priority. There is really no debate about this and that new legislation is necessary.

Way forward: Good science, due process

Is a golden mean possible in mining?

Yes, but radical reforms in governance are necessary to get there. Those reforms must be based on good science and grounded in due process that allows all affected parties and stake holders to argue their case and present their views. 

Good science means that we are able to make sure that the destructive impacts of mining are minimized, if not avoided entirely. Many in the mining industry will acknowledge the bad environmental legacy of mining. But they argue that responsible mining is now possible. They point to global best practices in environmental management and addressing social impacts which, when employed properly, make mining consistent with sustainable development. 

They are right. However, there are places where mining should not be allowed, where the risk to important biological, environmental and cultural resources are too serious and cannot be mitigated adequately.

Secretary Lopez and President Duterte are correct in asserting that watersheds, whether proclaimed or not, must be absolutely no-go as well. These no-go areas should have been identified years ago; it is a big disservice to the public if again the task is passed on to another body. Let those who want to mine carry the burden of proving that mining should be allowed.

Due process must be followed in mining decisions.

Mining companies, local governments, indigenous peoples, affected communities, and even ordinary citizens have rights that must be respected in the adoption of policies and in suspending and cancelling mining operations and agreements. Those rights are established by law and it does not take rocket science to determine if government has complied or not with what is required. If due process was not followed, corrective measures can be taken.

At the end of the day though, it’s the national interest that must prevail.

Is a golden mean possible in mining? The actions of Gina Lopez are taking us in the right direction. As a society, we must build on that and go forward, not backslide, to a better mining governance system. – Rappler.com

Tony La Viña is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.