Ordinarily, I usually merely skim through the business news on the Web but the announcement, a week or so ago, made by Wellex Industries Inc, the investment company of plastics magnate William Gatchalian, that it was shifting its focus from manufacturing to mining and energy caught my interest because it also mentioned the fact that the company was already considering possible mining sites for chromite in the provinces of Surigao del Norte, Dinagat Island and in my own home province of Surigao del Sur.
You see, for some time now, I, like many others in Lianga, have become perturbed by what seems to be a rather alarming trend towards the intensification of industrial mining investments in our part of the country. That is not to say that people like me are against the mining industry per se in all its forms, but one does wonder if the entry of such investments in our very own communities can be acceptable even when their well known deleterious and destructive effects on the local environment can far outweigh whatever benefits they may provide struggling local economies.
Everyone knows that Surigao del Sur, despite its reputation as one of the poorest provinces in the country, is blessed not only with untapped mineral resources like coal, nickle and gold but it also happens to be a fast developing tourism destination for both foreign and local visitors eager to sample its pristine, white sand beaches, scenic mountain panoramas and rich, diverse native flora and fauna. It also possesses one of the country's last remaining stretches of tropical virgin forests.
Primarily an agricultural economy, it is a major rice and copra producer in the Caraga region and many of the towns and communities that dot its long coastline bordering on the Pacific Ocean are heavily dependent on fishing and the harvesting of marine products for a living.
Thus the entry of new mining investments and expansion of existing, large scale mining operations in the province is a cause for concern for many local community leaders and residents who feel that they have not been consulted adequately on the negative environmental impact of such industries in their specific localities. There is also a fear among these groups that the provincial government and many government agencies like the Department of Environment and Natural Resources have been largely too eager to facilitate the entry of these mining companies because of the hundreds of millions of pesos in direct local investments involved.
So far, large scale mining operations have been confined to the northern part of the province particularly within areas covered by the municipalities Carrascal, Cantilan, Madrid, Carmen and Lanuza. The Carac-an Development Corporation and Marcventures Mining, for example, both have pending mineral product sharing agreements (MPSA) with the government to mine for nickle and other mineral deposits in that area. Clarence T. Pimentel, a local businessman and member of the Pimentel political clan to which provincial governor, Vicente T. Pimentel Jr, belongs also owns one of the largest mining concessions in the same area.
No wonder the governor has vociferously defended the mining operations there against opposition from local religious, and community leaders as well as environmental protection groups who have sharply criticized the mining operation's potential destructive effects on watershed areas and rice irrigation systems in the affected municipalities. He has even engaged in a recent word war with Bishop Nerio P. Odchimar of the Diocese of Tandag who has been very vocal in his opposition to the mining activities.
The fact that senior provincial officials may have direct or indirect links to these mining investments also brings to the fore the worry that the local provincial government has become a tool to further legitimize and expand mining operations at the expense of the public welfare. Local government offices supposedly tasked of monitoring the operations of mining ventures and insure their compliance to environmental protection laws have, therefore, been rendered largely useless and powerless.
Personally, I have never been totally against the mining industry and mining activities in general. But the in the Philippine context, large scale industrial mining has had a checkered history as far as environmental safety and protection is concerned. The Marcoppper mining disaster in Marinduque Island in the mid-1990's which showcased government incompetence and apathy in the face of widespread destruction to that island's environment and marine ecosystem is a case in point.
It is imperative, therefore, that entry of industrial mining investments of whatever nature in Surigao del Sur or wherever else in the country, where such investments may have direct impact on the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people, must first be subject to intense consultations and dialogue between the companies investing in such ventures , the local governments concerned, the residents of the affected communities and all concerned parties and individuals.
The pros and cons of such investments must be thoroughly discussed with emphasis on the both their short and long term impact on the environment and the quality of life in the affected areas. Mining companies with their cohorts in both the national and local governments cannot simply muscle their way into environmentally sensitive areas anywhere in the country and then rape and mutilate the environment and then justify the such wanton acts under the name of much needed progress and development.
Perhaps it is now high time for the residents of Surigao del Sur to be more assertive and speak out more on what they want and envision for for the future of their province. Because if they don't, what is transpiring in the north of the province may soon be happening right on their very doorsteps.
And when that happens because of our silence, abject cooperation and apathy, it might already be too late to do anything. We and those who will come after us, therefore, may eventually be forced to pay a high price in the future for our stupidity, timidity and cowardice now. All because we refused to be heard or did not have the guts to sound out on this issue when we should have and could have if we really wanted to.