Balancing act: DENR Secretary discusses the need to balance extraction with rehabilitation

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I was invited to a roundtable with Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Maria Antonia “Toni” Yulo-Loyzaga to discuss the Department’s thrust regarding its policies and activities. A number of topics were brought up, including the issue of the effects of open-pit mining on the environment.

Sec. Loyzaga has a very pragmatic approach to the issue, which is that minerals are needed to fuel economic growth, even and especially as the world moves towards sustainable energy sources, but these should be balanced with scientifically sound rehabilitation to affected areas. 

“Globally, there are examples of open pits that have actually been successfully restored… we’re looking at examples now in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia wherein you don’t plant trees in areas that have been excavated for open pit—you actually develop the ecosystem to sustain the future life of the area,” she said. “Some of these areas… have actually been used as solar farm [or] water retention areas. And so there are all these different ways for mitigation to happen.”

The Department, under her leadership, follows a mitigation hierarchy: “First of all, you do no harm to the ecosystem—but of course that’s not possible. Second is you minimize, [and] where you cannot minimize, you mitigate… The [third] is where you cannot mitigate fully—and this is the case for mining in many cases—you actually look for ways to invest in high value biodiversity and high value ecosystem areas in order to compensate and offset. This is already happening globally,” she says. 

She understands that this does not make her popular with certain sectors on both sides of the mining vs. environment issue, but stresses that this is the best way they’ve identified so far to be able to balance the effects of mineral extraction with environmental conservation. “Here’s the reality of climate change and mining: to actually move towards renewable energy, we need minerals. Copper. Lithium. Nickel. And the push towards net zero will drive the demand for minerals. Exponentially in some cases, copper being one of them,” she said. 

“What we’re trying to do… is there are geostrategic implications in the way we manage our minerals as natural resources. There is a global demand for everything. I’ve been approached by investment bankers, for example, to tell me that the prevailing sentiment is buy everything when you can today. So our own policy needs to be somehow reflective of what critical and strategic minerals are being demanded globally, and what we need for our own energy transition and other needs. And that has to do not just with extraction but also that has to do with building an environment that actually creates an investment climate for processing here, value-adding here, instead of just exporting raw ore.”

It’s easy to vilify the mining industry, especially since it is prone to the abuse of the environment, not to mention its workers. Miners and their families comprise one of the country’s poorest sectors, often prone to chronic illnesses, disabilities, and drug abuse, often without recompense from their employers. But minerals are important resources, especially for a developing country, and it has always been a challenge for the DENR to balance both mineral extraction with the protection of the environment and of Filipinos, particularly mine workers and their families. This is a balance that can be hard to achieve, but one that Sec. Loyzaga thinks can be achieved.    

“We need to understand how mining has become—and this has been stated by the DOF (Department of Finance), etc.—a source for economic recovery. That’s already one established policy. But we need to actually begin to realize how this country can be competitive but also manage its own resources responsibly for the future, not just for now.”

She adds that rehabilitation includes a social aspect: “We talk about the ecosystem and the dividends, the impact to the ecosystem, and that has to do with the whole agro-ecological value we’re trying to realize by managing the different habitats sustainably.”

She further explains, ”…what we’re trying to do is take an ecosystems-based approach towards agricultural development… Right now we’re talking very closely with Usec Mercy Sombilla, who is with NEDA (National Economic and Development Authority), and so there are different conversations ongoing with how we can work together with the DA (Department of Agriculture). 

“Lately our conversations have been about unutilized fishponds, areas, and the kind of regeneration of the salt farming industry…what we have now is a salt production sharing agreement, which has a very minimal portion going to the government and the rest staying with the salt farmers. So Pangasinan is actually now opened up, I would say 400 small farms.”

While richer countries like Australia and Japan are able to devote bigger budgets to rehabilitation, the Philippines, like many countries in the Global South, have to work with limitations. As Sec. Loyzaga explained, “We don’t happen to have those resources. And so where we can follow what can be ecologically sustainable, this is great, but where we can also decide to cumulatively assess the impact of these multiple projects on the ecosystem and perhaps work on some modifications, that’s where I’m coming from.”

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor Agriculture.com.ph’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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