Philippines' Duterte keeps open pit mining ban in policy clash

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has not lifted a ban on open pit mining, his spokesman said on Monday, going against the stance of a government panel and the environment minister who are seeking to reverse the policy.

Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte Rodrigo Duterte gestures during a news conference on the sidelines of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Pasay, metro Manila, Philippines, November 14, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao

Open pit mining is allowed under the laws of the Southeast Asian country, the world’s top nickel ore exporter. But, the former environment minister Regina Lopez banned it during her 10 months in office, saying the environmental degradation ruined the economic potential of places where it was done.

The Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC), an inter-agency panel that makes recommendations on mining policy, last month asked the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to lift the ban. Roy Cimatu, the new Environment and Natural Resources Secretary, supports removing the ban. Cimatu replaced Lopez when she stepped down in May after the Philippine Congress voted not to confirm her.

“I assure you that this is one of the instances when I personally asked the President if there’s been a change in policy. And he says that’s there’s still no new policy on this, there’s still a ban on new open pit mining,” Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman, told a media briefing.

Roque said he was unsure whether the MICC recommendation has reached Duterte. The MICC is co-chaired by Cimatu and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez.

Calls and messages to Cimatu seeking comment were not immediately returned.

But Finance Undersecretary Bayani Agabin, who is an alternate for Dominguez on the MICC, said the policy on open pit mining is under Duterte’s authority.

“The President has the final say on the matter,” Agabin told Reuters in a text message.

The ban would only affect new projects. Lifting the ban could open the door for some big-ticket ventures including the $5.9 billion Tampakan copper and gold mine.

The Tampakan project in South Cotabato province on the island of Mindanao is the nation’s biggest stalled mining venture.

Operator Glencore Plc to quit the project in 2015 but development was first halted after South Cotabato banned open-pit mining in 2010.

Lopez has said the project would cover an area the size of 700 soccer fields in what otherwise would be agricultural land.

Duterte said in September he agreed with the open-pit mining ban given the environmental damage it causes, but would give mining firms time to find other ways to extract minerals.

Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Christian Schmollinger