MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines’ environment minister said he was hopeful that a ban on open-pit mining would be lifted before the end of the year after a government panel recommended its removal on Tuesday.
Lifting the ban would allow the development of some big-ticket mining projects including the $5.9 billion Tampakan copper and gold mine.
Open-pit mining is allowed under the mining laws of the Southeast Asian country, the world’s top nickel ore exporter. However, 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.
A staunch environmentalist, Lopez stepped down in May after she failed to win congressional confirmation. Roy Cimatu, a former soldier, replaced her and was confirmed in his post by lawmakers earlier this month.
The Mining Industry Coordinating Council said in a statement that a majority of the panel voted to recommend that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources “lift the ban on open pit mining provided that mining laws, rules and regulations are strictly enforced.”
Cimatu, who co-chaired the council with Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, said he will follow the recommendation and present it at a Cabinet meeting in the first week of November.
Asked whether the ban will likely be lifted before the end of the year, Cimatu said: “Hopefully.”
“We will strengthen the regulatory environment surrounding the implementation of open-pit mining,” he told reporters.
The Tampakan project in South Cotabato province on the island of Mindanao is the nation’s biggest stalled mining venture.
Its development was halted after South Cotabato banned open-pit mining in 2010, prompting operator Glencore Plc to quit the project in 2015.
Lopez has said the project would cover an area the size of 700 soccer fields in what otherwise would be agricultural land.
Removing the ban would may also lead to the resumption of development of the $1.2 billion Silangan copper and gold mine , also in Mindanao, by Philippine miner Philex Mining Corp.
Miners praised the panel’s recommendation, saying it is a positive step for the industry.
“Open-pit mining is an accepted method worldwide to extract shallow mineral deposits and a lot of our minerals are exactly that,” Ronald Recidoro, executive director of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, told Reuters by phone.
“The challenge is for it to be done safely and the environment is protected during and after the mining is accomplished.”
However, President Rodrigo Duterte said last month he supported the open-pit mining ban given the environmental damage it causes though he would give mining firms time to find other ways to extract minerals.
Lopez, in a Facebook post on Tuesday, said open-pit mines pose “very high risks in tropical and archipelagic countries like the Philippines” where strong typhoons are normal.
“The Philippines is not a fit and proper place for open pit mining,” she said.
Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. and Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Christian Schmollinger