By Danny O. Calleja
LEGAZPI CITY, 17July2013 – Imprisonment of at least five years and a fine of not less that P10,000 await any person who will be caught doing mining operation in the province of Catanduanes.
These are penalties that an ordinance recently passed by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan (provincial legislative board) provides, as it declared the island as a “mining free” province.
The ordinance is aimed at protecting the province’s natural resources characterized by a diverse ecosystem serving as home to important wildlife species, some of which are considered unique to the province but are nearing extinction.
Some species of reptiles, birds and amphibians — whose natural habitat describes natural features having ecotourism potentials — are still abundant in the island that mainly serves as the province’s watershed, which, in accordance with the Catanduanes Watershed Forest Reserve Management Program, should be preserved and conserved.
Located in the eastern seaboard of the country that is virtually isolated in the Pacific Coast, the province — although within the typhoon belt — is blessed with significant landforms and rich forests, thus, it is considered the “last frontier” of Bicol Region in terms of forest cover.
Forest lands of Catanduanes cover an approximate area of 69,770 hectares, or 46 percent of its total land area measured at 1,511.5 square kilometers.
Of this, 69,684 hectares are classified as forest lands while 86 hectares are still considered unclassified forest lands.
A report of the Philippine-German Forest Resources Inventory conducted in 1984 shows that the forest area of the province constitutes about 49 percent or 74,561 hectares of its total area.
Of these, eight percent or 5,876 hectares are dipterocarp old-growth forest; 28 percent or 21,274 hectares, dipterocarp second-growth forest’ three percent or 2,026 hectares, sub-marginal forests; 37 percent or 23,300 hectares, brush land areas; and 30 percent or 22,085 hectares are under other land uses.
These forest areas are the main source of all types of water supply in the province for domestic, irrigation, industrial, hydro-electric power generation and recreation, among others.
The provincial government also taps the optimum utilization of water that emanates from the watershed to augment the prevailing power crisis in the province by employing additional hydro-electric power sources.
In the light of this situation, the government has set aside large portion of the province’s forest areas into watershed reservation in June 23, 1987 through Presidential Proclamation No. 123.
The Catanduanes Watershed Forest Reserve (CWFR) has a total area of 26,010 hectares that covers Baras, Bato, Caramoran, Gigmoto, San Miguel, San Andres, Virac and Viga — eight of the province’s 11 municipalities.
Pursuant to the provisions of Republic Act 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 1992, the CWFR became its initial component and the Interim Protected Area Management Board organized in 1996.
This significant development for the national concern over environmental protection and biodiversity conservation has opened the gate to explore the opportunities and challenges of managing, protecting and conserving the remaining forest cover and the biological resources in the watershed for the use and enjoyment of the future generations.
The province, however, has become attractive to giant mining firms because of its over-1.2 million metric tons of high-quality coal deposits within an 8,000-hectare land area.
When converted to cash based on the prevailing world market price, this volume would be worth P9.4 billion, a recent report citing a US geological survey said.
This coal area straddles the municipalities of Caramoran, Bagamanoc, Panganiban and Viga — all major abaca and coconut-producing municipalities that sit at the heart of the island.
In March last year, the Department of Energy awarded a new coal mining contract to the Australian-owned Altura Mining Limited through its local subsidiary, Altura Mining Philippines Inc., following its successful bid for the first of three Coal Operating Contracts under the Philippine Energy Contracting Round 4 (PECR4).
The mining site initially covers 7,000 hectares identified as “Area 3 Catanduanes,” the same site covered by a contract earlier awarded by the DOE under the PECR of 2009 to Monte Oro whose operation was called off due to strong opposition mounted by local environmental protection advocates.
The provincial ordinance simply aims to protect the island’s ecosystem from destruction as well as from the adverse effect of mining, its author, Board Member Giovanni Balmadrid, said in a statement reaching here Wednesday.
It covers as prohibited acts the extraction of valuable materials or other geological materials from the soil and includes such mining activities as exploration, feasibility, development, utilization and processing large-scale quarry operations.
It excludes, however, legal quarrying of gravel and sand for projects directly undertaken by agencies of the national government or by the provincial government provided that it is for basic services such as — but not limited — to roads and bridges, school buildings, water and energy utilities and similar public works.
“Any person, employee or employment agency who violates the provisions of the ordinance will be penalized with imprisonment of at least five years and must pay a fine of at least P10,000 but not more than P50,000,” Balmadrid said.
Moreover, if a violator is a corporation or association, its president and managers or its agent or representative in the Philippines — in case of a foreign corporation or association — shall be held liable.
According to Balmadrid, mining must not be allowed in the province to avoid its adverse effect on the environment which includes erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity and contamination of soil and water. (PNA)