GOVT  SUPPORTS  MINING  INDUSTRY  /  E. GUINEA, RP  SIGN  OIL  DEAL

MANILA,
May 20, 2006 (STAR) The government reaffirmed yesterday its support for the mining industry even as a Roman Catholic bishop called for the closure of an Australian-owned mine he accused of spreading pollution.

Economic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri said the government expects mining to generate $5 billion to $7 billion in foreign exchange annually and create 240,000 jobs over the next six years. It should also produce tax revenues of P17 billion to P23 billion.

"These targets, in my view, are achievable considering the past performance of the industry and considering the renewed interest in mining activities," Neri said.

Mining now accounts for just two percent of the country’s export earnings, compared to 20 percent in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines.

Neri tried to allay the concerns of mining opponents, which he said could be addressed by enforcing existing laws.

"They should be environmentally sustainable, have consultation with local stakeholders, (get) their cooperation and consent and practice mutual sharing of benefits with the local stakeholders," he added.

Bishop Arturo Bastes submitted yesterday the 169-page report of the Rapu-Rapu Fact Finding Commission (RRFFC) that he headed to look into Lafayette NL on Rapu-Rapu island in Albay, whose operations were suspended late last year after a minor tailings pond spill.

The report accused the company of contaminating the environment and asked the government to cancel its environmental permit as well as suspend its production sharing agreement with Manila.

"The two tailings spill incidents were the proximate cause of the health and environmental hazards in Rapu-Rapu and (nearby) coastal municipalities," the bishop told a news conference.

There was no immediate reaction from the government or the company.

President Arroyo earlier this year formed the RRFFC headed by Bastes to look into allegations that Lafayette was violating the terms of its mining permit, several weeks after the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a pastoral letter calling for a blanket mining ban in the country.

They claimed mining is destructive to the environment and its benefits were partial and unevenly shared.

Another independent study commissioned by the Chamber of Mines reported on Thursday that Lafayette had met all the safeguard measures required by the government to prevent another spill.

This study recommended that the government restore the company’s operating permit on a trial basis.

Lafayette had warned that it was running out of cash and that its bankers were circling.

It is among only eight projects at the production stage since the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the 1995 Mining Act.

Neri estimated the country’s mineral endowment at between $840 billion and $1 trillion, or "about 14 to 17 times the current Philippine external debt of $57 billion. Extracting only a tenth of this mineral wealth would be more than enough to wipe out this debt."

Impact

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said the recommendation made by the RRFFC to close the Lafayette mining firm would set a precedent for the country’s mining industry.

DENR officials, however, were quick to explain that accepting the RRFFC report did not mean they would totally approve its findings.

"The report and recommendation of the Bastes Commission have a bearing (on the government’s policy and decision-making on mining) because the fact-finding team was created by Malacañang," DENR Undersecretary on Mining Demetrio Ignacio said.

"But we would have to still study the legality aspects and parameters of this report and recommendations. We would only consider their report and recommendations, it is not necessary that we adopt it," he added.

Ignacio said DENR Secretary Angelo Reyes had ordered them to review the Bastes commission findings during the weekend and asked them to make a thorough assessment of the report and submit proposals.

He said the DENR recognized the concerns being raised by the RRFFC and the Lafayette are "converging issues" that require careful assessment.

Part of the review is the "self-checking" of the RRFFC report since it pointed out the alleged failure of the agency to monitor the operation of the Lafayette firm, he said.

Ignacio said the DENR’s policy and legal department, Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), and Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) would be also be tasked to conduct a review of the findings this weekend.

"As of the moment, since we have just received a copy of the report, there is no definite position yet by the DENR. But as per order of our Secretary, we should immediately come up with a complete assessment of the report. Hopefully, by next week we would come up with a formal position on the issue," Ignacio noted.

He said the DENR will submit their position over the issue before President Arroyo.

Ignacio also bared plans by Reyes to hold a press conference on the DENR’s position over the report and recommendation by the Bastes commission.

‘Too harsh and extreme’

Lafayette Philippines spokesman Julito Sarmiento said they would respect the decision of the Bastes commission, but added it believed "their findings and recommendations are unscientific and reflect an unforgiving bias against mining."

Sarmiento said the RRFFC’s recommendation to close the company is "much too harsh and extreme," insisting that the damage caused by the spill was "relatively minor."

Sarmiento said Lafayette officials will go through the report before issuing a more comprehensive response.

A ranking Malacañang official disclosed Bastes and the other RRFFC commissioners wanted to make a media spectacle of the turnover of its report to President Arroyo in Malacañang yesterday.

The Palace official said they were able to prevent it from happening since the commission was divided over its opinion.

The same official said a minority report would be drawn up by some of its mining expert members in the coming days.

Bastes wanted to hold a press conference in Malacañang calling for a suspension of mining operations in the country and a review of the 1995 Mining Act.

The Palace official said Bastes went to Malacañang to hold the press conference with environment activists from Greenpeace in tow.

The bishop also brought with him some journalists from Albay, the official said.

"We somehow prevented the occasion from being used by the anti-mining members of the commission," the official said.

The event, held at the Heroes’ Hall at Malacañang, was designated as a "photo-op," meaning television cameramen and photographers were allowed to take their shots after which they are asked to leave.

Reyes, who was among the Cabinet members who received the RRFFC report, refrained from commenting on it since the commission’s report and recommendations would still have to be validated.

Bastes simply read the summary of the 169-page report for about 20 minutes while Mrs. Arroyo listened intently.

"It did not sound like a technical report but it was more of an advocacy speech," observed one Palace official during the ceremony.

After receiving the report, Mrs. Arroyo thanked Bastes but gave no further comment.

The official said some members of the commission, particularly the mining experts, did not attend since they disagreed with the results of the RRFFC report.

Among them is Gregorio Tabuena who sent a letter to the President yesterday expressing his disagreement with the findings and recommendation of the RRFFC.

In his letter, Tabuena claimed the Bastes commission had "gone beyond its mandate" in recommending the closure of Lafayette.

"I am unable to affix my signature to the Final Report of the Commission as I disagree with a number of its findings and recommendations," Tabuena said.

Tabuena added he would submit his dissent on the report completed by the RRFFC.

"The dissenters were said to have complained that the commission overstepped its authority," the Palace official added.

Mining industry officials had claimed the conclusions of the RRFFC report were "preordained" since Bastes and many of the members of the commission are known anti-mining lobbyists and members of militant groups.

Bastes himself was slammed for bias after he reportedly misled residents of Rapu-Rapu in saying the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) had issued a statement opposing all forms of mining.

Local government officials led by Albay Vice Gov. James Calisin said Bastes might have a conflict of interest in heading the fact-finding board.

Industry players and stakeholders claim the country stands to lose some $10 billion in initial investments and its credibility before the international community if the Arroyo administration does not exercise its political will in fully implementing the 1995 Mining Act.

The industry players warned that foreign investors and other nations are looking at the Rapu-Rapu issue as "a test case," closely watching how Mrs. Arroyo acts on the recommendation after making strong representations in her trips abroad to secure mining investments.

Carlos Dominguez, chairman and president of Lafayette Philippines, claimed the mining company has long been ready for inspection and independent testing.

He said testing and the resumption of operations are required by law to determine whether a company is complying with environment and mining regulations but for no apparent reason, the RRFFC did not allow them to operate.

Dominguez stressed there is no reason for the government to allow the Bastes commission to dictate policy and subvert the law. - AFP, AP, Paolo Romero, Katherine Adraneda

E. Guinea, RP sign oil deal By Aurea Calica The Philippine Star 05/20/2006

The Philippines and Equatorial Guinea agreed yesterday to create a joint commission that would take charge of all possible investment agreements between the two countries, particularly on oil and energy.

President Arroyo and visiting Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo witnessed the signing of the General Agreement on Economic, Cultural, Scientific and Technical Cooperation establishing the joint commission.

Obiang, who is on a four-day state visit, was bestowed the Congressional Medal of Achievement by the House of Representatives for his leadership of the African state since 1979.

Under House Resolution No. 453, the award was given to Obiang by Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. at Malacañang.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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