A port is pictured as trucks and a backhoe load rocks and soil containing nickel-ore minerals into a barge in the mining town of Sta Cruz, Zambales, Feb. 8, 2017. — REUTERS

THE PHILIPPINE government’s lifting of a four-year-old ban on open pit mining will revive the mining industry and potentially help drive the economy’s recovery from the pandemic, according to the head of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).

However, an advocacy group warned the resumption of mining activities may lead to further environmental damage.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issued on Dec. 23 the Department Administrative Order (DAO) 2021-40, which lifts the nationwide ban on the open pit method of mining for copper, gold, silver and complex ores. The order was published in a newspaper on Dec. 25 and will take effect after 15 days.

This repealed the order issued by the late DENR Secretary Regina L. Lopez, a known anti-mining advocate, in 2017.

“We had pushed for its approval because the MGB initiated the memo to the Office of the President, offering the mining sector as a potential contributor to the recovery of the economy ravaged by the pandemic,” MGB Director Wilfredo G. Moncano said in a text message.

The Philippine economy contracted by a record 9.6% in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The mining sector accounted for P102.3 billion, equivalent to 0.6% of gross domestic product (GDP) growth in 2020.

In April this year, President Rodrigo R. Duterte signed Executive Order No. 130 that lifted the nine-year moratorium on new mineral agreements.

The DENR is hoping to revive the mining industry through the lifting of the ban on open pit mining. It said the move will help create much-needed jobs and provide raw materials for the development of other industries.

Open pit mining is a globally accepted method, DENR said. It is defined as “the process of mining any near-surface deposit by means of a surface pit excavated using one or more horizontal benches.”

“There are best practice control strategies and technologies that can help avoid or manage the negative impact of open pit mining,” the department said, adding that major issues concerning mining can be attributed to accidents, not the method itself.

The DENR said mining tenement holders should ensure that using the open pit mining method will not pose hazards to public health and do not release hazardous chemicals into the environment. The mining firms should prevent acid rock drainage and other heavy metals that may contaminate land and water bodies, as well as reduce the use of freshwater resources.

“We welcome the decision to lift the ban on open pit mining,” Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (CoMP) Vice-President for Communications Rocky G. Dimaculangan said in a text message.

“As most mining applications propose the use of the open pit method, this decision will enable the industry to contribute more to our country’s economic recovery, particularly from the devastating effects of this ongoing pandemic through investment promotion, job creation, and poverty alleviation.”

Mr. Dimaculangan said thousands of mines, including those in Australia, Canada and the United States, allow open pit mining. He noted open pit mines can be operated safely and rehabilitated properly.

Meanwhile, Alyansa Tigil Mina in a statement criticized the Duterte administration for allowing open pit mining to resume, saying it is “short-sighted” and shows its “misplaced development priority.”

Reuters said the Philippines’ annual export revenue from its mineral extraction industry could increase by up to $2 billion over the next five to six years as new mining projects take off, citing the government.

The Southeast Asian country is China’s biggest supplier of nickel ore and also has substantial copper and gold reserves.

More than a third of the Philippines’ total land area of 30 million hectares (74.1 million acres) has been identified as having “high mineral potential,” but only less than 5% of its mineral reserves has been extracted so far, according to the MGB.

Philex Mining Corp. is one of the Philippine units of Hong Kong-based First Pacific, the others being Metro Pacific Investments Corp. and PLDT, Inc. Hastings Holdings, Inc., a unit of PLDT Beneficial Trust Fund subsidiary MediaQuest Holdings, Inc., has interest in BusinessWorld through the Philippine Star Group, which it controls. — Luisa Maria Jacinta C. Jocson with Reuters