Taking a five-hour drive to Rio Tuba from Puerto Princesa, one could see the scenery barely changing. The mountains spread across the horizon and the trees create a natural canopy above the road, creating shade for travelers and work animals alike. As the Philippines’ “Last Biodiversity Frontier”, Puerto Princesa still hosts more than 50% of its natural forest cover. It was declared as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1990 because of its biodiversity richness and unique indigenous cultures.
For several decades, mining expansion and urbanization have caused longstanding debates regarding their effect on Palawan’s environment. Various advocacy groups have launched anti-mining advocacies to stop the operation of many plants, regardless of the permits and protocols being observed by these companies.
“There’s a science behind mining. “Hindi na man pwedeng mina ka ng mina,”said Esan Nadres, a community relations officer of the Rio Tuba Mining Corporation (RTMC). The company hosted the Environmental Journalism-107 class of Silliman University’s College of Mass Communication and several student-leaders of Ateneo de Zamboanga last July 24-26. The aim of the fieldtrip was to cultivate an understanding of sustainable and responsible mining.
RTMC under Nickel Asia Corporation is the oldest and biggest operating nickel mine in the Philippines. It is the leading producer of saprolite and limonite ores which are then converted into raw materials for many of our electronic, medical and industrial needs. Many of the everyday items we know of contain nickel because of its corrosion resistance, strength and functionality under high and low temperatures. It also contains special magnetic properties.
Abiding by Law
RTMC does not chemically process ores in the areas where its operations are being conducted. It extracts and then ships them off to the corporation’s partner businesses in China and Japan. In 2014, it has been cited by the Philippine stock exchange as the best performing mining stock.
More than being “able to buck the trend and perform strongly even as miners around the globe are languishing due to falling metal prices”, it has been able to comply with strict standards set by the local government of Palawan and those of national government agencies such as the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).
“Palawan is very unique because you have to get a special clearance from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development and you can only mine at a certain place,” Nadres continued, “we are only allowed to mine 17-25 hectares per year.”
The type of mining done by RTMC is open-pit mining wherein only 20 meters below the earth’s surface is being excavated. Blasting is only conducted once the immediate community is notified. Power supplied to the mine comes from a 2 megawatt plant owned by the company in addition to coal imported from Indonesia due to its low carbon dioxide byproduct.
More than 1,000 employees are currently working for RTMC, including many indigenous people. In order to protect their welfare, they have been provided with the necessary safety equipment and social services. A primary care hospital, access to proper sanitation, a La Salle-managed school complete with a state of the art computer laboratory and recreational facilities have been put up within the mining community. The company set aside a Social Development Management Program fund of Php 27.24 million for these purposes.
RTMC also provides housing to employees and scholarships for their children. In its 2014 Sustainability Report, it has produced 90 scholars.
Life after Mining
“The company is a very transparent. We don’t deny that mining has an effect on the physical environment,” said Nadres. She added that soil erosion, water quality degradation and vegetation and land disturbance happen with mining.
Anarea of the Rio Tuba mining site has been declared “mined out” and is currently being rehabilitated after 40 years. As a countermeasure, they have employed means to recover its forest cover. To regain the nutrients lost in the soil, they have made use of organic fertilizer to provide sustenance to plants. Wetlands have been established to remove metals in water. Large endemic trees have also been planted. Two years after RTMC’s rehabilitation efforts, 60 species of invertebrates, 35 birds and 6 mammals have been spotted reoccupying the rehabilitated area.
From the educational lecture conducted by RTMC, Jessah Milvar, a senior SU Mass Communication student shared her learnings: “So I generalized that what they [mining companies] do is disturb Mother Nature for profit. But when I knew about Nickel Asia, I realized that not all mining companies are bad. There are responsible miners. What Sir JB Baylon of Nickel Asia said was true: importante jud ang mining. Who would want to live in the Stone Age? Nobody. It’s good that there’s mining in Rio Tuba because it helps the locals. Also they paid back Mother Nature thru reforestation and planting more crops to benefit the community.”
By: Michiko Je M. Bito-on