Open-pit mining in context and by example

By on January 18, 2018

By Dindo Manhit

Administrative Order No. 2017-10 prohibiting the open-pit method of mining for copper, gold, silver and complex ores in the country remains effective at the turn of the year. This is largely due to President Duterte’s decision to maintain the ban because of the perception that no corrective measures are in place to address the environmental disturbance left by an open-pit mine.

The President has maintained this stance despite the recommendation of the inter-agency Mining Industry Coordinating Council to lift the ban on open-pit mining after its consultations with technical experts.

Open-pit mining would not have been more controversial than other methods, like underground mining, were it not for the propaganda of groups opposed to mining and former environment secretary Gina Lopez, who issued AO 2017-10. Open-pit mining is accepted worldwide as the efficient and safe method for harvesting mineral deposits near the surface. Recent data show that top mining countries have numerous open-pit mines: among others, the United States has 1,891; China 109; Australia 94; Thailand 67; and Russia 66.

Moreover, foreign jurisdictions have plenty of examples where erstwhile open-pit mines have been turned into other productive land uses. There is, of course, the Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay, British Columbia, Canada, which was formerly a limestone quarry that became a world-famous tourist attraction and was named a National Historic Site. Another example is the Eden Project in Cornwall, England: What was once a Kaolinite pit became a massive greenhouse complex touted as the largest indoor rainforest in the world. Sweden has the Dalhalla, an open-air theater that took advantage of the change in land formation to provide superb acoustics for live performances. The Hong Fatt Mine in Malaysia, once the largest opencast tin mine in the world, is now operating as an integrated health and wellness resort known as the Mines Wellness City. The New Landscape Ronneburg of Germany must be appreciated after being transformed from a uranium mine. Lastly, another good example is the Golden Cross Mine, which used both open-pit and underground methods to mine gold and silver, and was successfully rehabilitated into a working farmland in New Zealand.

These are just some examples of how other countries are able to address the challenges concomitant to open-pit mining. Certainly, our local mining industry can emulate these very successful rehabilitation projects undertaken by responsible miners in various parts of the country, such as in Bataraza in Palawan and Sipalay in Negros Occidental.

With foreign countries exemplifying the transformation of open pits into productive land uses, and our own local industry likewise exhibiting successful rehabilitation, it appears that the continuous effectivity of AO 2017-10 will do more harm than good. In particular, it will deprive the country of much needed development in the countryside, such as the Philex-Silangan Project, which is estimated to generate some P60 billion in investments, about 8,000 jobs, and P6 billion spending in community development. The project’s demonstration of technical feasibility, environmental compliance, social acceptability and financial viability, and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau’s requirements for responsible mining should be seen and appreciated by more policy leaders and more so by the President for a more enlightened, science-based policy on open-pit mining.

While the positive examples abroad are inspiring, the method must be properly contextualized, as succinctly put by
Dr. Carlo Arcilla in a policy paper published by Stratbase-ADR Institute:

“We should note that mining, especially open-pit mining, is an ugly process: Trees have to be cut, mountains reshaped (flattening is not economical), a lot of dust raised, and so on. Although an active mining operation is not pretty, it is a temporary use for the land, and the mining cycle should only be judged afterward, if rehabilitation was done properly on disturbed areas. Mining is not complete until rehabilitation is finished.”

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Dindo Manhit is founder and managing director of Stratbase Group.

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