There’s gold in them there hills
10th November 2011 by Andrew Matheson, | 1 Comment
Sitting on a gold mine. That’s how we usually describe someone with a lot of assets to their name. It’s true of the Philippines too but at the same time it’s not — the country is sitting on a vast amount of gold, but very little of it is being mined.
The numbers are mind-boggling. According to the government’s own Mines and Geosciences Bureau the Philippines ranks second in the world for gold reserves and third for copper, and in the top five for overall mineral reserves. That’s an estimated US$1,400 billion worth of mineral reserves, a figure that’s hard to comprehend.
Less than 2% of those reserves is covered by mining permits, and mining has long been controversial in this country. A legal challenge to modern mining legislation delayed its implementation for five years, though after a supreme court decision in 2005 affirming the legislation the industry began a comeback. But there are still plenty of rocks in the road. A host of NGOs and the Catholic church strongly oppose mining, and some local governments are implementing their own anti-mining measures that many would argue are inconsistent with national legislation. Opponents of mining point to the environmental impacts, and fear both social disruption and loss of sovereignty through foreign investment in mining ventures.
Those who support industry gaining access to mineral resources point out that responsible mining can make a major contribution to the sustainable economic development of the country, and lift communities out of poverty. It’s no surprise that the joint foreign chambers of commerce highlighted mining as one of the seven ‘big winners’ in the advocacy report Arangkada, that detailed well-considered recommendations for accelerating growth in the Philippines. Foreign chambers and Philippine business groups have called on the government to act decisively against local government bans on mining.
There’s a mining link between the Philippines and New Zealand. Oceana Gold is a Pacific Rim gold producer, listed on stock exchanges in New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Its producing assets are all in New Zealand — two mines at Macraes Flat in Otago and one at Reefton on the South Island’s West Coast. I met the Oceana Gold board in Manila recently, and they’re excited about the potential of the gold mine they’re now developing at Didipio in Luzon in the Philippines.
Recent news about Oceana Gold’s activities in New Zealand got me thinking about managing the environmental impacts of mining that many people are concerned about. The company has just been given permission to expand its operations at Macraes Flat, through what’s known in New Zealand as a resource consent.
In the resource consent process the company’s application is notified publicly, people can make submissions, and there is a public hearing. In this case, the seven-day hearing was held in September and the decision announced this week. The hearing considered the balance of impacts and benefits on the community, and concluded that the effects of the project could either be tolerated, avoided, mitigated or remedied. It’s interesting to note that many of the conditions for dealing with the project’s impacts were finalised between the parties during the hearing itself, so the hearing is also a way of finding solutions. Now the expansion of the Oceana Gold operation at Macraes Flat is good to go for an estimated eight more years.
Mining has been important for New Zealand for a long time — it even features on our national coat of arms. We’ve come a long way from the pioneering gold-rush days, but the industry is still important to the economy. Regulatory control of mining has come a long way too. Our resource management system aims to protect the environment, but is based on the idea of sustainably managing our resources — striking a balance between protection and usage, through a decision-making process that’s under full public scrutiny.
We don’t always get it right. Historical damage caused by one mine (before the days of resource consents, it has to be said) near a town where I used to live still blights the landscape and is costing a lot to repair. And mining can be dangerous, as we have been reminded only recently. It is healthy that there’s debate between those who want less mining and those who argue controls are too strict. The end result is that, as best we can, New Zealand strikes a balance between losing economic opportunity and protecting its unique environment.
The Philippine government has challenges ahead to find where the balance should lie for this country. The Philippines is sitting on a gold mine, figuratively speaking. The arguments on both sides are loud and clear. What is needed is a way of channelling the discourse, and making and enforcing rational decisions on individual projects. Will mining become one of the seven ‘big winners’ that could make such a difference to the people of the Philippines?