Demonizing open pit mining

The ascension within the DENR of avowed anti-mining advocates led by none other than the Madame Secretary has resulted in a renewed effort to demonize open pit mining.

“It’s so ugly”, the Madame has many times been heard to exclaim, referring, I suppose, to the exposed hillsides that are excavated to depths of 20 plus meters in pursuit of nickel that appears on the surface of the earth’s crust. This, in contrast to other valuable minerals, such as gold, which require underground mining or tunnels that follow the veins of the minerals. Or petroleum, which require deep drilling (sometimes offshore).

It is touted by the anti-open pit advocates that many countries have been banning this process. Costa Rica is listed as an example. I tried to fact check: indeed, Costa Rica’s Congress voted to ban open pit mining – to be exact in November 2010, per a Reuters report. The same report cited El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as being other countries in the same region that have applied brakes on mining operations but not necessarily on open pit projects.

So I became curious: which of Costa Rica’s mining riches would be affected by this ban and how would it impact global mining? To answer this I turned to Google to find out which are the globe’s mineral-rich countries to see how far up the chain Costa Rica was. In my mind was the earth-shaking image of a global mining power turning its back on a globally accepted mining process!

Turns out, Costa Rica – which has a land area that is half of the whole island of Luzon -- is not among the world’s mining big boys. No wonder it could take such a move!

Of the fifteen top tin producing countries led by China and Indonesia, Costa Rica is not on the list. Of the six top titanium producers in the world led by China and Russia, Costa Rica is not on the list. Of the ten top producers of silver in the world led by Mexico and China, Costa Rica is not on the list. The world’s five platinum producers led by South Africa does not include Costa Rica.

Neither is Costa Rica one of the world’s top 23 producers of Manganese, led by China and South Africa. It is not among the world’s top seven producers of Lithium, led by Australia and Chile. It does not rank among the 35 major global producers of iron ore, led by China and Australia. Nor is it a major producer of gold like China and Australia.

It is not on the list of aluminum producers, led by China and Russia. Not among the fourteen major producers of the bauxite.

It does not count among the top ten producers of copper, led by Chile and China. It is not one of the five producers of bismuth, led by China and Mexico. It does not rank among the 25 top global producers of coal, led by China and the United States, or among the 42 countries producing zinc, led by China and Peru. It doesn’t even count among the 90+ countries producing natural gas!

No wonder it is easy for Costa Rica to turn its back on open pit mining. It won’t benefit much from it anyway!

It’s just like having the Bishop of Borongan saying he is giving up paternity leaves.

It doesn’t mean anything to him anyway! (Or at least I’d like to think so!)

But you see, no major mining power has turned its back on open pit mining. Not China.

Not Canada. Not Australia or the United States. Not Russia. Not South Africa, or Mexico or India. Why? Because open pit mining is a globally accepted mining process that is designed for certain minerals that can only be mined the open pit way – because the minerals occur 1) on the surface of the earth 2) and across a wide expanse of territory.

In many respects open pit mining is a “benign” mining method, that doesn’t require explosives or blasting — especially in nickel mining where the ore is soft enough to be crushed by equipment before being loaded onto trucks for transport either to a processing plant or to barges. More importantly, open pit mining is the easiest method to monitor: all you need to do is to take satellite photos on a regular basis (or hire a drone) to check the extent of the mining, the extent of any rehab, the extent of any damage to the environment.

You can also imagine how easiest it will be to rehabilitate an open-pit mine. In contrast: how do you “rehabilitate” a mountain that is internally scarred with tunnels?

Heck, open pit mining is no different from the way limestone is quarried in the process of producing cement, though I am told that in quarrying for limestone explosives are oftentimes used. So any move against open pit is also a move against quarrying - which means these anti-open pit people will force us to import cement from Thailand before we know it.

That’s the problem with ill-advised advocacies, and activism by sloganeering. It’s

easy to do because it doesn’t require much thinking and all you need are a few “ugly” pictures of the actual disturbance of the mountainside and it is easy to obtain signatures from people who don’t also have - or don’t have the time - to think deeper.

But disturbed mountainsides an be – and have been – converted many times over into new forests. Rio Tuba and Taganito Mining can provide examples in Palawan and Surigao del Norte, respectively. Because open pit mining, when done the right way, is simply a temporary disturbance of nature made necessary because mankind has moved out of the Tabon caves and needs to capitalize on the gifts of Mother Nature to improve lives all around.

Open pit mining, when done responsibly, is not destructive of the environment. That is why major countries in the world – many with really stringent environmental protection laws -- allow it.

To argue that responsible open pit mining cannot be done in the Philippines is to show not only a low regard for the abilities of our homegrown mining engineers (and geologists and the like), but it also shows an unwillingness to be rid of preconceived notions born (to be kind) of sheer ignorance of both the science and the art of responsible mining.

Which, unfortunately, seems to be a-plenty nowadays.

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