Thursday, March 24, 2011

Right cure to mercury poisoning in mining sites

THIS IS in response to the story “Aquino calls for compromise on mining issue” (Inquirer, 3/16/11) where President Aquino was quoted as saying that mercury poisoning is brought about by small-scale mining operations, and that the closure of large-scale mines will open the door for small-scale miners who do not comply with our law to step in.

Aside from betraying the President’s obvious bias for large-scale mining, these statements apparently suggest that we’re better off with large-scale miners because small-scale mining is inherently bad. Having gone to many artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sites in the country, we voice our concern over mercury use in the mining industry. However, we firmly believe that we cannot solve the mercury scourge by simply favoring large-scale mining on the assumption that small-scale mining will go away. Instead of vilifying small-scale miners because of mercury, we have to deeply understand the reasons why this substance is being used, and appropriate interventions should be made to address the issue. Add to this the right of communities to self-determination or to figure out what they think is best for them based on the people’s consensus.

The National Strategic Plan for the Phaseout of Mercury in ASGM, which is currently prepared by the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) in consultation with important stakeholders and with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is actually geared toward this direction. Taking into account mercury use and other issues surrounding the ASGM sector, the plan has identified sets of activities and interventions that must be carried out to eliminate mercury and improve the sector’s work practices. Instead of running down ASGM, President Aquino can support this process by initiating or influencing needed reforms that would hasten the adoption by miners of mercury-free gold production techniques.

When the President vilifies ASGM for mercury use, he must not lose sight of the environmental catastrophe that large-scale mining wreaks on the environment as well. Lest the President forgets, under the law, small-scale miners have rights which must be protected.

Lastly, what the government needs to do but has not done yet is to internalize the social and environmental costs of mining, both large and small, that are continuously passed on to communities vis-à-vis the perceived benefits from these sectors. Until the real costs are factored in, any discussion of benefits or advantages will be inaccurate at best and, at worst, a misguided tool for national policy.


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