MANILA The Philippine environment minister said she has been given the greenlight by President Rodrigo Duterte to explore an unorthodox strategy to rehabilitate and develop the country's mining areas: recruit communist rebel fighters to help.
The plan of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez, who has ordered the closure of more than half of mines in the world's top nickel ore supplier, may be tough to carry out given the decades-long conflict between the New People's Army (NPA) rebels and the Philippine government that has killed more than 40,000 people.
Lopez, an environmentalist-turned-regulator, believes it can work though.
"What I've seen with the NPA, they just really want to get people out of poverty, they're really not bad people," Lopez told reporters on Thursday. "We might have a situation where miners work with the NPA. We must come from the same page."
NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, earlier this month agreed to a temporary truce with government, the first time both sides have agreed to a joint ceasefire since November 1986.
Lopez said she's initially looking at working with NPA rebels to develop a mining province in southern Mindanao island, and had asked Duterte's permission at a recent cabinet meeting and "he gave a go-ahead."
Duterte's spokesman, Ernesto Abella, said "that needs to be verified" when asked to respond to Lopez's claim that Duterte has cleared her to work with the rebels.
Miners are unsure whether Lopez's strategy will work.
Mining contracts "are granted by the government, not by the NPAs. So, in what capacity could we work with the NPAs? I don't know," Dante Bravo, president of Global Ferronickel Holdings Inc, told Reuters. Global Ferronickel is the Philippines' No. 2 nickel ore producer.
The Philippine Army did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lopez waged a crackdown on the Philippine mining sector shortly after taking office in June last year. In February, she ordered the closure of 22 of the Southeast Asian nation's 41 mines to protect water resources and later canceled dozens of contracts for undeveloped mines.
Duterte backed Lopez's mining crackdown, himself angered by years of environmental harm he said miners have caused. Late on Wednesday, he reiterated his support for Lopez, who has said she wants the country to be "mine-free".
"I asked how can we do that? We have to amend the law. There's a mining law which allows mining," Duterte said.
"But I agree with Gina," Duterte said, calling the minister by her nickname.
Duterte reappointed Lopez this week after lawmakers deferred a decision to confirm or reject her appointment before Congress went into recess from March 18. Hearings on her confirmation resume on May 2.
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. and Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Tom Hogue)