EDITORIAL: Mining industry resurgence under the Duterte administration’s policy shift

A ruling by the Ombudsman was released to the media this week by the mining company Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC) imposing a one-year suspension, without pay, on Brooke’s Point mayor and anti-mining activist Jean Feliciano. The decision, signed by Ombudsman Samuel Martirez on March 1, 2021, was in connection with a complaint for abuse of authority filed by INC against its host municipality in 2017 .

The case stems from the separate closure and demolition orders then issued by Mayor Feliciano against INC, after former environment secretary Gina Lopez  had canceled the company’s environmental compliance certificate (ECC) in the wake of the Duterte administration’s early pushback on the mining industry consistent with an election campaign promise of President Rodrigo Duterte.

In its recent ruling, the Ombudsman upheld INC’s assertion that Feliciano exceeded her authority in ordering the closure of their operations in 2007 in view of their appeal filed before the Office of the President and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).  The ruling has yet to be formally served to Feliciano, who told Palawan News this week she has yet to receive a copy of the Ombudsman’s order.

The ruling undercut Feliciano’s initial successes against mining interests in her town, first as a non government activist and later as the town’s local chief executive, in blocking attempts of several major industry players to exploit the town’s rich nickel oil deposits.

Mayor Feliciano’s anti-mining stance had aligned with the presidential campaign policy of President Rodrigo Duterte against supposed “irresponsible mining”, a promise that he followed through with the appointment of a hard core DENR secretary, Gina Lopez. The latter  immediately launched a performance audit of all mining companies around the country, leading to either closure or suspension of over 200 mining projects including that of INC and two other companies that have mining claims around the mineral rich town of Brooke’s Point.

The DENR’s stance was consistent during the early term of Secretary Roy Cimatu following Gina’s Lopez’ exit from the administration after she failed to pass the gauntlet of the Commission on Appointments (CA) that saw a powerful mining industry lobby pitted against her. Early in his term, Cimatu twice rejected INC’s appeal and upheld Lopez’ ECC suspension order, and even caused the filing of criminal and administrative charges against the company for allegedly illegally clearing an area without a valid tree-cutting permit.

The tide, however, seemed to have turned in favor of INC and the mining industry when President Duterte in April this year signed a new executive order lifting the moratorium on new mining permits, a policy that paved the way for the resurgence of mining activities specifically of companies earlier shut down by the administration during Gina Lopez’ term.

The fate of Feliciano’s advocacy for Brooke’s Point lies on her continuing court battle with INC, an outcome that is hard to predict solely on legal grounds.

What is evident is that Feliciano has become a collateral damage in the Duterte administration’s 180-degree turnaround on its mining policy, after Duterte pompously ordered a stoppage of all open-pit mining operations and banned the issuance of new mining licenses early in his term. At that time in the outset of his administration, his pronouncement had led to the closure and suspension of around 200 mining projects around the country, with Gina Lopez at the cutting edge of the administration’s policy.

The DENR under Cimatu had effectively thrown Feliciano under the bus, when it reversed itself by eventually reimposing its revoked ECC on June 5, 2020 through a new department administrative order. It will be interesting once the local Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) reviews its previous decision also cancelling the company’s Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) clearance.

Feliciano was unmoved by these developments, when asked by media this week to comment on her suspension order by the Ombudsman, stating she will be proud to wear it as a badge of honor and will continue to push her advocacy. It will be of sheer interest if she can qualify to run again as mayor of Brooke’s Point based on an interrupted term, even if she had already served the maximum three terms allowed by law.

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