Mixed reaction to Duterte tirade on mining in SONA

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 25) All bark, no bite.

This is how environmental advocates cast President Rodrigo Duterte's tirade against mining companies destroying the environment during his second State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Still, the fighting words were welcomed by some as it showed that protecting the environment was still front and center for the Duterte administration now into the second of its six-year term.

"I think he's very passionate about restoring the environment, I think that made the environmentalists very happy," said blogger and citizen advocate Jane Uymatiao on CNN Philippines The Source on Tuesday.

"But it remains to be seen whether it's going to be seen whether it's going to stay there or whether it's going to turn into action," she added.

Destruction of environment by mining still an issue

Nearly 30 minutes into his two-hour SONA on Monday—after highlighting his "unrelenting" war against drugs, his defense of martial law in Mindanao, and support for the military's bid to eradicate terror threats in the country—Duterte raised an alarm against irresponsible mining in the country.

"I am warning all mining operations and contractors to refrain from the unbridled and irresponsible destruction of our watersheds, forests, and aquatic resources," he said. "You have gained much from mining, we only get about 70 billion a year, but you have considerably neglected your responsibility to protect and preserve — and even the tax, it's about five percent — environment for posterity."

Also read: Restore mining areas or 'be taxed to death'

Like many others following the SONA, Uymatiao said she was surprised by the length of time the President spent talking about the environment.

"He spent so much time on mining. For me personally I was happy, because I really felt that that was an issue that needed to be addressed," she said.

But a coalition of environmental advocacy groups, Kalikasan Network for the Environment, challenged the President to "start walking his cheap talk." This, they said, could be done if he upheld the mining closure, suspension and agreement cancellation orders issued by former Environment Secretary Gina Lopez.

"These orders have been stuck in the Office of the President, and it only needs the political will of someone who is honestly against the big foreign mines," Kalikasan said in a statement, referring to the suspension and closure orders.

They also called on President Duterte to scrap the Mining Act of 1995 and push for the passage of the more pro-people House Bill 2715 or the People's Mining Bill if he really wished to overhaul destructive mining policies in the country.

In his SONA, Duterte called on big companies and industrialists to invest in manufacturing facilities in the country that not only extracted raw materials, but turned these into finished products.

The declaration was met with applause in the chamber  attended by some 3,000 guests that included politicians and members of the diplomatic corps.

"At this point in my administration, if possible, we shall put a stop to the extraction and exportation of our mineral resources to foreign nations for processing abroad and importing them back to the Philippines in the form of consumer goods at prices twice or thrice the value of the original raw materials foreign corporations pay for them," Duterte said.

Kalikasan said the proposed People's Mining Bill, which includes the implementation of a National Industrialization program for mining, was aligned with the President's speech. This "is precisely what President Duterte said he envisioned for the strategic long term utilization of mineral resources," the group said.

It added  that the bill pushed for "stricter environmental, socio-economic, and labor regulations including clear cut provisions for the mandatory clean up and rehabilitation of mining-affected ecosystem and communities that Duterte wants to impose on the big mining companies."

Political analyst Dennis Coronacion said that laws concerning mining are in place. "The problem is with implementation," he told CNN Philippines New Day on Tuesday. "There are some interests that are affected here and that are lobbying for better laws or improved implementation."

The Cordillera People's Alliance said that the Cordillera region, known as the country's "watershed cradle of the north," faced imminent danger of environmental destruction due to applications for new mining explorations in the region covering more than 428,000 hectares.  This is a land area six times the size of Metropolitan Manila.

"In the Cordillera, the onslaught of foreign mining corporations has become more imminent after the non-confirmation of former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez," the alliance said in a statement.

Lopez was largely supported by Duterte, environment groups, indigenous peoples, and millions of Filipinos concerned about the environment. But her confirmation for the post was rejected in May 2017 by the Commission on Appointments amid a powerful mining industry lobby and strong opposition from Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez.

Lack of support for indigenous peoples

But even as the President devoted time to his strategy of saving the environment from harmful mining practices, there were groups that felt that the indigenous peoples greatly impacted by mining and the subsequent militarization that came as companies took away their ancestral lands, were neglected from the SONA.

"Indigenous peoples are fighting large-scale mining, real estate and agribusiness interests that threaten their very survival. The president must lead efforts to provide sustainable livelihoods to indigenous peoples, to recognize their ownership of their lands and ancestral domains, and to make sure they participate in the peace talks," said Norly Mercado, executive director of the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center in a statement.

Mercado noted the President was a staunch advocate of the "lumad" or indigenous people when they were "caught in the crossfire between the military and rebels in Mindanao. "

However, they welcomed Duterte's condemnation of the destruction caused by mining and the move to collect more taxes from them.

"We urge the president to prioritize as urgent the Alternative Minerals Management Bill, which attempts to regulate the mining industry better by raising taxes, cordoning off environmentally sensitive areas from mining, and allowing mining only to help the country industrialize," the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center said.

Implicit support for former DENR Secretary

Duterte in his SONA made reference to Lopez, saying she gave the country a "clear picture of what is happening horrendously" to the environment.

The mention of Lopez in the SONA was an affirmation from the President of her accomplishments during her 10-month term as secretary, said Coronacion.

"Even when she's gone, the President is still telling these people that 'Hey, I'm still by her side,'" he added.

Also read: Gina Lopez on being the ex-environment secretary

Environmental groups minced no words about their displeasure for her replacement, former general Roy Cimatu.

"Duterte should also remove Roy Cimatu from the DENR and appoint an environment secretary who will go above and beyond the standards set by Lopez," Kalikasan demanded.

Cimatu has reversed some directives of Lopez, among them a requirement that all environmental compliance certificates (ECC) be submitted to the Environment Department's central office for review instead of being issued at the regional level.

Early in July, Cimatu signed Department Administrative Order (DAO) No. 2017-18  transferring the authority to issue ECC to DENR regional offices. "In order to expedite the issuance of ECC in the regional level consistent with the directive of the President to fast-track the issuance of government permits and licenses, DAO 2017-04 is hereby suspended indefinitely," the new order said.

Environmental advocates warn that the retraction paves the way for loosening rules on businesses' commitment to conserving the environment. "With the objective to speed up the implementation of ECC processing, the emerging concern is that decentralizing the ECC approval without reforming the DENR-EMB (Environmental Management Bureau) is tantamount to the aggravating environmental problems that the country is already suffering from," said Owen Migraso, executive director of the Center for Environmental Concerns.