A lawmaker on Thursday said legalizing the operations of small-scale miners would help promote their safety, provide financial incentives, generate higher revenue for the sector and protect the environment.

Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte made the statement in support of President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.’s recent order for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to strengthen its regulatory powers on small-scale mining so the government can provide miners with social protection plus skills training and even financial incentives for their operations.

“Environment Secretary Toni (Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga) must act with dispatch on the President’s recent directive for the DENR to strengthen the regulatory framework for small-scale mining with the end view of legalizing the preponderantly unsupervised and perilous activities of these small miners while better protecting the environment,” Villafuerte said.

Villafuerte also supported the President’s proposal for Congress to amend Republic Act 7065, or the “People’s Small-Scale Mining Act of 1991,” by incentivizing small-scale mining and extending social assistance, labor protection and government assistance programs to these miners.

He urged the DENR Secretary to work on legalizing more small-scale miners after learning that only 49 Minahang Bayan applications for small-scale mining areas have been approved thus far from the time RA 7076 was signed into law in 1991.

The 1991 law defines small-scale mining as activities that “rely heavily on manual labor using simple implement and methods and do not use explosives or heavy mining equipment.”

The People’s Small-Scale Mining Areas or Minahang Bayan areas are places where small-scale miners are legally allowed to extract gold, silver and chromite.

He said the legalization of more Minahang Bayan applications would enable the DENR and its Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) to effectively track small-scale mining activities and better protect the environment.

“The legalization of small-scale mining is definitely a lot better way of monitoring the operations of these miners, because it certainly is far more difficult for the DENR and MGB to track the activities of small-scale miners if they continue operating outside Minahang Bayan areas,” he said.

“Limiting small-scale miners to do their extraction activities only in Minahang Bayan areas will enable the government to effectively monitor if these miners are abiding by the law that bans their use of mercury, which is believed to cause respiratory and kidney diseases or even death for people following their high exposures to this neurotoxin,” he added.

In a meeting with DENR officials at Malacañan Palace in November, Marcos lamented the failure of mining firms, particularly those involved in illegal activities, to provide adequate safety measures inside the mines.

“Ang kawawa diyan ‘yung mga miners. They have no safety. Ang daming namamatay (The miners are victims here. They have no safety. A lot of them die),” he said.

Marcos said there is a need to enhance social protection and security for workers in the mining industry.

“We might be able to access financing, they might be able to access social protection,” he added.

He also urged the DENR to address bottlenecks to regulate the small-scale mining industry.

“Gusto natin ma-legalize ang mga small-scale mining firms kasi marami sa kanila illegal, kaya walang protection ang mga minero (We want to legalize the small-scale mining firms because many of them are illegal, so the miners have no protection),” Marcos said.

“Gusto nating palakasin ang regulatory framework para maka-operate sila ng legal, upang mabigyan ang ating minero ng assistance at protection para sa ligtas nilang pagtatrabaho (We want to strengthen the regulatory framework so they can operate legally, to give our miners assistance and protection for their safe work),” he added.

Mining accounts for less than 1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), although the Marcos administration is eyeing the industry to be one of the major contributors to the country’s economic development.

It has been estimated that 70 to 80 percent of small-scale miners in the Philippines operate illegally. (PNA)