Exquisite timing

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The timing, though unintended, could not have been any more exquisite. A week after the Supreme Court ruled that 100 percent foreign-owned companies could exploit Philippine mineral resources under the Mining Act of 1995 came the twin typhoons Winnie and Yoyong, devastating vast areas of Luzon through widespread flooding and mudslides.

Last week’s disaster has been correctly blamed on the ecological destruction caused by logging. The Supreme Court’s own, disastrous ruling of the week before was of a piece with that disaster, in that large-scale mining, together with logging, has also been blamed for environmental disasters on a scale to rival last week’s as well as that which devastated Ormoc, Leyte in 1993, when the denudation of surrounding mountains caused a flashflood that killed 5,000 people.

A group of scientists from the University of the Philippines has in fact warned that the “large-scale plunder of Philippine natural resources results in areas that are susceptible to environmental imbalance…”

“Allowing the entry of wholly-owned foreign corporations…,” declared the scientists’ group AGHAM, [will] aggravate the worsening environmental situation in the country.” In apparent reference to several high-profile ecological disasters in which large-scale mining was the culprit, AGHAM noted that some mining companies “are already liable for the rapid destruction of the Philippine environment.”

Among those disasters of recent vintage was the Marcopper-Placer Dome mine-tailing catastrophe of 1993, when a dam built by that company collapsed in Marinduque, dumping four million metric tons of mine wastes and tailings into the rivers as well as surrounding areas. The result was the death of the river system, the loss of livelihood among hundreds of thousands of people, their exposure to short and long-term health risks (mine tailings are often toxic), and the wholesale destruction of the environment, including the inundation of croplands

The United Nations Environment Program sent a team of experts to Marinduque in 1996 to assess the impact of the disaster. The team concluded that

  • the Makulapnit and Boac river system “has been significantly degraded as to be considered an environmental disaster;”
  • the aquatic life, productivity and beneficial use of the rivers for domestic and agricultural purposes are totally lost…;” and
  • “the coastal bottom communities adjacent to the mouth of the Boac River are also significantly degraded as a direct result of smothering by the mine tailings.

While “there is no evidence of acute poisoning in the exposed population due to the mine tailings,” the UN team pointed out that “there is an increased health and safety risk due to immersion and flooding as a result of the very large volume and physical properties of the mine tailings…”

Another mining company, Lepanto Consolidaterd Mining, has been blamed for, among other environmental offenses, a fish kill in the Abra River which occurred in 2003, allegedly as a result of effluents from the firm’s operations. The effluents have been blamed for health problems among the people living along the river from Benguet to Ilocos Sur and Abra, as well as for the destruction of the ecosystem and people’s livelihoods, among them fishing and agriculture. (Interestingly, Lepanto has also been accused of using the local police against its own workers.)

Both companies are partly foreign-owned. Lepanto has denied responsibility for that particular episode, and describes itself as a socially-responsible company, while Marcopper has ascribed the Marinduque disaster to natural causes.

The fact is that ecological disasters do attend large-scale mining, given its methods, which have led to the collapse of areas above the extensive tunnels they dig, or to above-ground devastation caused by open-pit mining.

The effects of the 1990 earthquake that devastated Baguio and surrounding areas were aggravated by mining in areas below the city and in their surroundings. Mine tailings from the operations of such companies as Benquet Consolidated have also allegedly found their way into Lingayen Gulf, where fish have yielded high levels of mercury, a heavy metal residue of mining operations.

It was in the context of a long history of past and ongoing mining disasters that, to begin with, the Supreme Court reversed itself. The floods and mudslides of the following week gave that decision additional significance in view of concerns among environmental and other groups over the escalating cost in lives and property and long-term consequences of the massive destruction of the Philippine environment.

The decision took the greatest pains to explain the Court’s reversal of its own January 27 ruling, which had declared the Act unconstitutional, by asserting that the Philippine Constitution “should be read in broad, life-giving strokes (and) should not be used to strangulate economic growth or to serve narrow, parochial interests…”

“Rather…(should the Constitution be) construed to grant the President and Congress sufficient discretion and reasonable leeway to enable them to attract foreign investment, as well as to secure for our people and our posterity the blessings of prosperity and peace.”

Strange words these, which (1) ascribed to such activities as the large-scale, environmentally-disastrous mining operations favored by multinationals “life-giving” attributes; (2) dismissed the Constitution’s emphasis on preserving the national patrimony as “strangulat(ing) economic growth”; and (3) implied that the very same orientation serves “narrow, parochial interests.”

Far from “life-giving,” the operations of mining companies have in fact been life-taking, in many instances quite literally, even as they “strangulate” the livelihoods of the people in Philippine communities. And they do also serve the “narrow, parochial interests” of anonymous stockholders who couldn’t care less about who lives or dies in some place so remote they can’t even imagine it.

The decision also assumed that attracting foreign investments is sound policy, despite its having been in place for the last 50 years–during which time it has failed to “secure for our people and our posterity the blessings of prosperity and peace.”

Like another Court–that one headed by Enrique Fernando which in 1972 refused to rule on the legality of Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial rule–the Davide Court also refused to accept responsibility over “presidential power”, although this time that power consists “of control over the exploration, development and utilization” of the country’s natural resources rather than that of placing the country under martial law.

But while pretending to be above regulating presidential power, this Court declared in the same breath that its decision was meant to support the executive department’s claims that the involvement of foreign companies in mining would “jump start our floundering economy” by extracting “some $840 billion in mineral wealth lying hidden in the ground…”

In an astounding non sequitur (a conclusion its premises cannot justify), the justices also said that while this would be achieved–implying that the $840 billion would somehow end up in Filipino bank accounts or in the form of food on tables and clothes on Filipino backs rather than in the profit columns of foreign firms–it would also “enhance our nationalistic aspirations, protect our indigenous communities, and prevent irreversible ecological damage” !!!

The Court then intoned in its best magisterial manner that “verily, the mineral wealth and natural resources (of the Philippines) are meant to benefit not merely a select group of people living in areas locally affected by mining activities, but the entire Filipino nation.”

The phrase “a select group of people” alludes to community complaints against the impact of mining on the health, livelihoods and lives in general of populations close to mining operations. The Court was actually saying that these concerns are of no moment, because they involve “merely a select group of people” rather than “the entire Filipino nation”.

By the same token, the Court should also dismiss the disasters in Quezon as involving merely a “select group of people” rather than the entire nation, given its mistaken assumption that the benefit of the “the entire nation” is an abstraction rather than the sum of its component communities’ health, welfare and livelihood.

Maybe the honorable justices can tell the people of Quezon, who have lost not only their homes and farms, but also their wives, husbands, parents and children that because they are “merely a select group of people” and not the entire nation, their woes do not and should not matter in the calculations of this country’s decision-makers. After all, by implication did they already say that to the people of Marinduque, Benguet, Ilocos Sur and Abra, so what’s one province more—or two or three?

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com)

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