Philippine lawmakers seek to ban mining in watershed areas, export of raw ore

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine lawmakers have filed a bill seeking to ban mining in watershed areas and exports of unprocessed ores and will require miners to get legislative approval before operating, in line with President Rodrigo Duterte’s pledge to overhaul the sector.

FILE PHOTO: A view of nickel ore stockpiles at a port in Sta Cruz Zambales in northern Philippines February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo

The Philippines is the world’s top nickel ore supplier but Duterte says miners pay too little tax and not enough to compensate mining communities that suffer environmental damage.

“The challenge for government is to ensure proceeds translate into sustainable development, environmental protection, and greater transparency and accountability in the mining industry,” according to the bill authored by 22 congressmen led by Pantaleon Alvarez, the speaker of the House of Representatives and a strong ally of Duterte.

The bill seeks to ban mining in all watershed areas, a policy enforced by Regina Lopez, the former environment minister who in May failed to get approval from lawmakers that confirm Duterte’s cabinet appointments.

Her replacement, former soldier Roy Cimatu, has so far not reversed any of her measures, including her decision to suspend and shut erring mines.

Aiming to amend a Philippine mining law enacted in 1995 that only banned mining in proclaimed watersheds, the new bill will not allow mining in “watersheds, in general, as well as critical watersheds.”

The bill also seeks to halt the export of unprocessed mineral ores “to help develop the mineral processing industry in the Philippines and to benefit the localities where the minerals came from.”

And in a bid to ensure the government can extract more benefit from mining operations, the proposal will also require investors in the sector to get legislative approval.

“Hopefully, this creates a more rigid and transparent process which weeds out the undeserving companies from securing a mining permit,” the authors wrote.

Mining permits are currently issued by the government’s environment and mining agencies.

Duterte in his State of the Nation address last month warned he might close the mining sector completely and tax miners “to death” if damage to the environment persisted.

Mining is a contentious issue in the largely underexplored Southeast Asian country after past examples of environmental mismanagement, including a 1996 tailings leak at Canadian-owned Marcopper Mining Corp’s copper mine in Marinduque that contaminated rivers.

The sector contributes less than 1 percent to the overall economy, with only 3 percent of the 9 million hectares identified by the state as having high mineral reserves being mined, according to government data.

Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr., editing by David Evans