MANILA The Philippines' environment minister said on Monday she stands by her decision to shut more than half the country's operating mines and bar mining in watershed zones as an inter-agency panel began a review of her actions.
Members of the government's Mining Industry Coordinating Council will scrutinize the affected mines to ensure due process was followed and consider the impact on jobs and the economy after an outcry by the mining industry in the world's top nickel ore supplier. The review could take three months.
The council cannot overturn her orders, but its findings could feed into a decision by President Rodrigo Duterte, who has said he will review the planned closures after initially throwing his support behind his environment minister.
"My stand on no mining in watersheds is staunch," Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez told Reuters by phone. "It's madness to do any kind of extractive industry in areas which are the source of the water supply of the island."
Lopez on Feb. 2 ordered the closure of 23 of the Southeast Asian nation's 41 mines and suspended five others for environmental violations including harming watershed areas and causing siltation in coastal waters.
The decision angered domestic miners which said they would contest the move. A mining industry group has said the closure or suspension of 28 mines would affect 1.2 million people who depend on the sector for their livelihood.
She also ordered the cancellation of 75 mining contracts, or nearly a third of mineral production sharing agreements for mines that have yet to go into production, for being located in watershed zones.
Lopez, who is a committed environmentalist, co-chairs the Mining Industry Coordinating Council with Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez.
Senior members of the mining council met on Monday to discuss the review and to assess all aspects of affected mine operations, Finance Undersecretary Bayani Agabin said.
"It will be investigative and done in a scientific manner. And we determined that we will probably need experts to look at the technical, economic, social aspects of the mine operations," Agabin told reporters. The experts would not come from mining firms, but would likely be academics, he said.
"Even if a contract has been made, the (Environment and Natural Resources) secretary is in full authority to review contracts and make decisions based on the common good," Lopez said.
"The priorities I am legally mandated to comply with are in many laws."
Duterte has previously criticized the environmental damage from mining and said last August that the country could survive without a mining industry.
Still largely unexplored, the Philippines' mining sector contributes less than 1 percent to the overall economy, with only 3 percent of 9 million hectares identified by the state as having high mineral reserves being mined, according to government data.
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Additional reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Richard Pullin and Jane Merriman)