Philippines 'unfit for mining' because of nation’s unique ecosystem: minister

By Manolo Serapio Jr and John Chalmers

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez will not reconsider her decision to shut down 23 of the country's 41 mines, saying the Southeast Asian nation is "unfit for mining."

Lopez last week ordered the mines permanently shut and suspended five others, shocking mineral producers that have vowed to overturn a ruling that they say will affect 1.2 million people.

The 63-year-old minister defended her decision, convinced of mining's destructive nature.

"Every time you put up an open pit and every time you put up a tailing pond you're putting our country at risk," Lopez told Reuters on Monday in an interview at her office in Manila.

"It's really unfair. I'll be so blatant to say the Philippines is unfit for mining. Because we're an island ecosystem with biodiversity and endemicity like no other."

The Philippines is the world's top nickel ore supplier and Lopez has said that closed mines represent about half the country's output.

Three-month nickel on the London Metal Exchange climbed 1.4 percent to $10,370 a ton on Monday. The metal hit a three-week high of $10,500 on Thursday when Lopez announced the closures.

A team that reviewed the audit of Philippine mines recommended the suspension of operations and payment of fines for environmental violations, instead of the closures, two people with knowledge of the matter said.

Lopez said she opted to close many of the mines permanently so she can access rehabilitation funds.

"If it is closure, I can then heal the land. It is closure because there is no way you can have any kind of mining in watershed areas," she said.

Lopez launched the environmental audit of the mines in July, initially suspending 10 and saying 20 more were at risk of being halted. She is a long-time environmentalist who took over the department that oversees the mining sector last June when President Rodrigo Duterte came to power.

Duterte, who has said that the Philippines can survive without a mining industry, has thrown his support behind Lopez's decision. She will present it formally at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

The minister's decision to close and suspend mines is "illegal and unfair,", jeopardizing an industry that has paid a large amount in taxes and fees to the government, the country's mining industry body said earlier on Monday.

Lopez stood by her action. "They're killing our rivers, our streams, they're mining in watersheds. That's against the mining law," she said.

(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. and John Chalmers; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

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