SIPALAY CITY -- Environment Secretary Regina Paz “Gina” Lopez has expressed dismay over the horrid effects of mining to the communities, including those in southern Negros.
Lopez was in Negros Island Region Tuesday, April 25, to inspect two former mining sites.
She first went to Negros Oriental to check the mining site in Basay town, and proceeded to this city in Negros Occidental.
Lopez, on board a chopper, conducted an aerial inspection of the open-pit mining left by Maricalum Mining Corporation in Barangay San Jose.
Upon touchdown, the Cabinet secretary, in disgust, said “it’s horrible. Horrible!”
“It looks like hell to me. Everything is horrible,” Lopez added.
She said she saw “really lush” and “very beautiful” hills when the helicopter flew over the city, then felt disgust after seeing the former mining site.
She added: “From verdant hills, then this huge open pit, crazy!”
Lopez, who was welcomed by Mayor Oscar Montilla, told the local chief executive that the open pit “will be there for life.”
“If anything happens here, the community will suffer,” she said, adding the mining company just “go and leave this (open-pit mine). This is social injustice.”
Moreover, Lopez again expressed disgust after learning that the mining company caused four mine spills during its operations.
With the spillage, it is the local government that has to take care of it, she said, adding that “it is taxpayer’s money.”
Lopez stressed it’s the government’s job to “stop this atrocity” perpetrated by mining companies.
“We have lost the moral authority to govern if we continue to let this happen, it’s wrong. The only agency and only institution to stop this is the government. If the government can’t do it, we have lost our ability to govern. We have lost the moral ascendency to govern... government must be brave enough to manifest its love to people with strong serious action,” she said.
She said the two mining firms will be given show-cause notices pertaining to alleged violations of environmental laws.
Failure to comply would mean cancelation of their mineral production sharing agreements, she added.
Lopez said the toxicity level in the open-pit mine in Basay is 500 times more than normal, citing the study conducted by Silliman University.
Also, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau has been writing to mining companies to submit a care and maintenance program, but they ignored it, she said.
Lopez said: “We’ll go there, with the police. Look at the damage of what they did. Writing time is over. I can’t take this anymore. We have to take serious action.”
No potable water
For his part, Montilla said the 7,000 to 10,000 residents affected by the mining operations in Barangay San Jose have no access to potable water.
“When the mining company was still operating, there is free water. When it ceased its operations, they also stopped spending (for water),” the mayor said.
Maricalum was shut down more than 10 years ago due to labor issues. The company also cut off the power and water lines to the community.
The community received rations of water through water tanks daily, Montilla said, adding that the water was sourced from a nearby underground river.
The ration of water is at 80,000 to 100,000 liters every day, he added.
Moreover, the mayor said the local government spent for the rehabilitation of the nearby farm land and has put up an irrigation project.
Montilla said that when the mining operations stopped, people also lost their jobs.
He said that affected residents go to the City Hall to ask for jobs.
They were hired as job order employees on a weekly basis, “just to make ends meet,” the mayor added.
Montilla admitted it is hard to generate jobs as there are no other industries in Sipalay except tourism.
“We can’t cope with the volume of laborers,” Montilla said, adding that the residents are still hoping that the mining operations will resume.
“That is the only job they know,” the mayor added.
He said the local government is “amenable” to the idea as long as the mining company improves its mode of operations and complies with all the regulations.
Alternative livelihood program
Lopez presented an alternative livelihood program to the more than 100 residents who attended the mining forum at the Sipalay City Hall after her aerial inspection at the Maricalum open-pit site.
She said the mining industry has a net revenue of P35.5 billion, 82 percent, or P29.2 billion of which goes to the mining company while the remaining 18 percent, or P6.2 billion, goes to the government.
Her Genuine Economic Growth program is focused on area development, which gets the people and environment involved.
She showed models of area development approach that were successful in communities.
Recognizing that the affected communities have lost their livelihood due to mining, Lopez assured them and the local government that the DENR will kick start ecotourism projects as long as they are willing to participate.
She cited the project she initiated at Ugong Rock in Puerto Princesa when she was still a private citizen.
The earnings of the town had increased from P7,000 to P29 million over the last decade due to ecotourism, she said, adding that it has elevated the status of the residents.
She also cited La Mesa Eco Park developed by the ABS-CBN Foundation, adding that it is now earning P40 million every year.
“If Palawan can do it, so can you,” Lopez told the Negrense crowd, who cheered.
She said the DENR can have an agreement with the community, as she assured them she will help in its development if they stay committed to the project and will spend their net income wisely.
“In government, money is not a problem. The problem is how to use it,” she said.
Meanwhile, during the forum, Lopez was also asked about her stand on the proposed construction of a Japanese shipbuilding facility in Hinobaan town.
She said she is not for it. “Nothing that destroys the environment,” she added.
Lopez also reacted when she was told by environmental group Green Alert Network about the geothermal exploration of the Energy Development Corporation (EDC), which was owned by her family, inside Mount Kanlaon.
“Give me a letter. I will check. I know my family,” she told the group.
She also expressed opposition to small-scale mining, which was insisted by a resident during the forum, saying that any kind of mining will “kill the future.”
Lopez assured the residents and the local government that her office will “find a way” to rehabilitate the affected sites.
“We can’t develop ecotourism, and it is bad for tourism,” she added.
During her visit here Tuesday, Lopez was accompanied by Environment Assistant Secretary for Special Concerns Galo Martinez Jr., former Environment undersecretary Leo Jasareno, and former Bayan Muna party-list representative Satur Ocampo.
Published in the SunStar Bacolod newspaper on April 26, 2017.
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