November-December 2008
Minding mining

Dig this

THE annual revenues it promises to corporations easily come to millions of dollars each. For governments, the figures can reach billions. The materials it extracts also end up in a wide range of products for all sorts of uses — from fuel to infrastructure components, to luxury goods, including the gaudiest gems — and it is capable of providing employment for thousands of people per site for decades. Indeed, if only it weren’t intrinsically destructive, mining would be a thorough winner of an industry.

But there’s the rub: Mining materials like gold, iron ore, copper, and even the lowly coal necessitates the clearing of vast tracts of land, disturbing habitats of local fauna, and boring through and often slicing up mountains. Unfortunately, too, poisonous substances are sometimes brought up along with the coveted materials, which are also semi-processed on site with harmful chemicals. Its critics thus say that even barring accidents, the mining industry is literally a dirty business, if not a disastrous one (except, perhaps, in terms of profit).

Mining, however, seems to be a necessary evil. After all, although rappers and Paris Hilton can keep breathing even if they had less bling on their bodies, a wide variety of metals are still needed for the construction of buildings, homes, and vehicles, among other things. Even PCs and cell phones and whatever latest gadget we have decided that we can no longer do without have more than one mined component. For sure, activists have begun arguing that there are enough metals (and gems) above ground that can be recycled, hence reducing the need to mine for these. Yet aside from the recent attempts of some unscrupulous individuals to smuggle tons of Philippine coins to China and South Korea (where they presumably would be melted and their copper and nickel content extracted for something else), there are hardly any signs of anyone heeding that call.

In the meantime, proponents of mining insist its drawbacks can be reduced and that companies and governments are now starting to apply the lessons learned from previous disasters. Here in the Philippines, environment officials say earlier mishaps, especially the 1996 Marcopper mining disaster in Marinduque, have led to more stringent implementing rules and regulations for the controversial 1995 Mining Act that provides a slew of generous incentives for foreign investors. Already, a couple of cyanide spills at the copper, zinc, and gold mining site of an Australian firm in Albay in 2006 saw the government closing the company’s operations there for more than a year and slapping it with hefty fines. Obviously, though, the better scenario would have been no spills at all.

It’s such a rich and complex subject matter that i Report will be devoting the next two months to it. We start by revisiting the towns that bore the brunt of Marcopper’s mining activities in Marinduque. We will also look at older mining communities, as well as scrutinize new ventures, both big and small. We may even go overseas to see how some of the Canadian and Australian mining companies that operate here behave elsewhere.

There is much to explore, so dig in.