By: Our Correspondent

The 7,100 islands of the Philippine Archipelago, formed 43 million years ago and sitting on top of steep underwater mountains, contain some of the richest mineral deposits in the world, with an estimated US$73 billion in gold, US$56.7 billion in copper and US$2 billion in silver.

The constant volcanic upthrusting from the islands’ share of the Ring of Fire pushes minerals from deep in the earth up to where they are accessible for mining. The Philippine Mines and Geo-Sciences Bureau, which is constantly upgrading its reserves (see charts below), believes another 13 classes of precious and semiprecious minerals could total mineral worth 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 all, with other mineral or energy resources, the Philippine mneral wealth is believed to be as much as US$2.1 trillion, probably as much as Indonesia’s, where industrious mining of resources has delivered billions of dollars to private multinational and domestic companies and local and national governments, although not without controversy, corruption and environmental depredation.

Disaster from Mining
It remains questionable, however, whether the Philippines will ever get much of those resources out of the ground, given public outrage over the despoliation caused by the mining industry. Those offences include driving indigenous peoples off mining lands without compensation, leaving abandoned mines to deliver up a toxic mix of poisonous minerals into rivers and streams, and other shortcomings that have earned the industry the implacable enmity of the Catholic Church, the communist New People’s Army, environmentalists, populist local leaders, human rights activists and indigenous peoples, among others. NPA guerillas, either because they are denied extortion money or to further their aims, regularly descend on mining operations and destroy fleets of expensive mining vehicles.

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.

Executive Order finally issued
Aquino finally issued a new an executive order on July 9 outlining guidelines on mineral extraction and banning mining until the comprehensive guidelines are put in place. The guidelines establish protected areas such a prima agricultural lands and tourism development areas, mandate full enforcement of environmental standards, demand review of the performance of existing mining operations, block new mineral agreements pending new legislation, establish mineral reservations, mandate public competitive bidding for new mining rights and require the cleanup of abandoned mines, among other requirements in the eight-page order.

Making sure that the guidelines are met, and the industry is cleaned up, will be yet another major test of Aquino’s will to bring a measure of order to his lawless country, both in controlling the environmental and social damage caused by the extractive industry and the forces that have stifled what is potentially one of the Philippines’ most valuable industries.

There are constant stories of cyanide spills that have polluted rivers, toxic heavy metals running off mine tailings into rivers, poisoned rivers, landslides and vast amounts of other degradation. The ruination of the land has fed into both Islamic and Communist insurgencies in various parts of the country. Philippine law requires that local tribal communities give consent before investment can proceed. That has split tribal groups, with some backing investors with the support of the military to acquire the necessary permits, while others get support from the NPA or other armed groups, resulting in proxy conflicts that engender numerous rights abuses.

As Asia Sentinel reported in April 2011, Chinese mining companies are also evading the mining laws to go after reserves of copper, gold, zinc and other minerals, using permits issued to local minors to continue to extract minerals.

Depth of the Damage
“Having visited many developing countries and seen many places where environmental degradation or destructive development has damaged the livelihoods of people, I was nevertheless deeply shocked by the negative impact of mining in the Philippines,” wrote Clare Short, then the UK minister for international development who led a team of human rights and environmental experts to the Philippines in order to examine the impact of mining in 2006.

“We met with communities affected by mining and proposals for new mines. We heard how indigenous people had been shifted off their lands to make way for mining and how their consultation rights had been undermined and ignored. We saw polluted rivers, destroyed mangrove forests, damaged coral and ruined agriculture. We concluded that the Philippines is in danger of losing much of its rich biodiversity and damaging the lives of unique indigenous cultures."

Short and her team at that point said all plans for mining should be scrapped and a new strategy put in place to protect biodiversity and the rights of indigenous communities. “My own conclusion from the visit was that I have never seen anything so systematically destructive as the mining program in the Philippines. The environmental effects are catastrophic as are the effects on people’s livelihoods.”

Marinduque Disaster
One of the worst disasters occurred in 1996, when an estimated 3.3 million cubic meters of poisoned mine tailings collapsed and spilled into the Boac River in Marinduque Province, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and farmers. Despite the environmental carnage, 16 years later nothing has been done to rehabilitate the site, with continuing water contamination and poisonous gas leaking into the atmosphere to contaminate the food chain.

Nothing has changed since Short put out the report. Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a Manila-based country risk firm, reported in April that almost none of the mines in the country that have been closed are sealed to protect the environment. The government, PSA reported, “does not have the resources to effectively rehabilitate abandoned mines. Only the private sector, particularly foreign investors, has the technical expertise and resources to deal efficiently with these sites.”

Human Rights Watch details abuses
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a press release today that Aquino’s executive order “is silent on the issue of human rights abuses arising from mining investment and on the deployment of paramilitary units at the mines” to make sure environmentalists and human rights activists don’t interfere with operations.

Human Rights Watch said it has documented three cases since last October in which critics of mining and energy projects have been killed, allegedly by paramilitary forces under military control, the release noted, and that nothing has been done to find the killers.

Margarito J. Cabal, 47, an organizer of a group opposing a hydroelectric dam in Bukidnon province, was gunned down on May 9. On March 5, Jimmy Liguyon, a village chief in Dao, San Fernando town, Bukidnon province, was reportedly killed because he refused to sign an agreement needed to secure a mining investment. An Italian priest, Father Fausto Tentorio, in Arakan, North Cotabato province, was killed on October 17, 2011 for advocating tribal rights and opposing mining in the area.

Media and local human rights and environmental groups have reported other attacks against anti-mining and environmental advocates, the rights group reported. “Sister Stella Matutina, a Benedictine nun who led a grassroots campaign to oppose destructive mining in Davao Oriental, told Human Rights Watch that she continues to fear for her life as the military persists in vilifying her as a communist. She and her fellow advocates say that she is being targeted because of her opposition to mining in the province.