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March/April 2011
Vol. 36, No. 2


Philippines: Mining, logging halted

In February, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III made two environmentally-respectable decisions: He announced a halt on mining permits on the island of Palawan, and he outlawed rainforest logging.

Palawan, an island in the southwest region of the archipelago, is losing its rich and historical beauty to mining. The name comes from the Chinese word "pa-lao-yu" meaning "the land of beautiful safe harbor." The island contains 70 percent of the biodiversity on earth, has 40 percent of the country's remaining mangrove forests and 30 percent of the country's coral reefs. It is believed that its first human inhabitants arrived 22,000 years ago.

Forest covered 52 percent of the island in 1992 when Republic Act 7611, or the Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan, was signed by then-Pres. Corazon Aquino (mother of the current president). Despite the law, forest cover on the island had dropped to 46 percent by 2005.

Like many other nations, the Philippines often has sacrificed natural resources in order to keep up with industrialization. (See related article on Tanzania.) Palawan rainforests contain metal ores such as nickel and chromite, lucrative products for mining companies. President Aquino has rejected around 600 mining permits; however 19 new mining projects, with a combined potential profit of around $13 billion, are lined up for review.

On January 24, Gerry Ortega, a radio broadcaster and active environmentalist, was shot and killed in a market in Palawan. An outspoken opponent of mining on the island and of politicians he considered corrupt, Ortega was believed to have been targeted for his work. Several days after Ortega's death, murder charges were filed against a former government official (of whom Ortega had been critical) and four other men, but no one has been arrested.

After Ortega's death, the Save Palawan Movement, a coalition of environmental, legal religious and other civic groups, launched the No Mining in Palawan campaign with the hope of gathering 10 million signatures on a petition demanding that mining end on the island.

On February 1 a ban on logging in rainforests took effect. In 1950, 15 million hectares of forests covered about half of the Philippines. That number had dropped to 5.4 million by 1997, but has since risen to 7.2 million due to reforestation programs, according to the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

According to a 2008 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, up to 45 percent of Philippine logging is illegal. Some wonder if the ban will keep loggers away from the rainforests. While unlawful logging means 20 years in jail, no big logger has been caught, according to Marilea Muniez of Code Red Philippines, though smaller loggers get arrested from time to time.

An estimated 650,000 wood industry jobs would disappear because of the logging ban, according to eco-business.com, and the country would have to rely more on timber imports. President Aquino, however, believes that protecting the environment will encourage tourism, and its profits will make up for the timber industry loss.

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