Mixed signals

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on February 18, 2011

Barely a week after Philippine Environment Secretary Ramon Paje announced the suspension of large-scale mining applications until the end of the year, Board of Investments (BoI) Executive Director Efren V. Leano announced that mining will be listed under “preferred activities” in this year’s Investment Priorities Plan (IPP). Mining is being moved to that “chapter” of the IPP from “mandatory” reportedly to “highlight the government’s interest in such ventures.”

Perhaps I’m missing something, but isn’t a suspension in acceptance of large-scale mining applications a pretty obvious signal that government has lost interest in mining? Apparently, no. “The incentives will be the same,” Mr. Leano said of the IPP revision. “We want to show that we want to help mining investors, that we want to promote it. That’s what the board said in its last meeting.”

Which is it, ban, or promote?

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources is recommending that new mining projects in Eastern Visayas be prohibited, and the provinces of South Cotabato and Romblon have enacted what appear to be politically-inspired mining bans. The supposedly politically-powerful Catholic Church is riding the “banwagon,” too. In full-color, half-page ads early this week, the Most Rev. Pedro D. Arigo, D.D. proclaimed, “Even the clergy does not want mining in Palawan.”

The Rev. Arigo invokes the memory of the late Dr. Gerry Ortega to implore readers to, “rummage through our heart in search of values” and say “No to Mining!” Dr. Ortega was known as an environmental activist. He was assassinated last month with a gun traced to an aide of former Palawan governor Joel Reyes. Dr. Ortega was a harsh critic of the former governor, and a close friend of Mr. Reyes’ political rival, Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn.

Rev. Arigo, incidentally, is Vicar Apostolic of the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Princesa. He encourages readers of the ad to visit a slick website, www.no2mininginpalawan.com, to sign an online petition against mining. A little over 34,000 individuals had submitted digital signatures when I visited the site, which seeks to collect 10 million signatures to impress local and national governments.

It’s not clear who developed the website—an “About” tab doesn’t appear to link to information on the site owners and developers. What seems clear is that Dr. Ortega—who is said to have moved comfortably in political circles—an influential Catholic Church official, and a heavyweight local politician are (even in death, it seems) united in their opposition to mining of any kind. For investors, it’s clear from this and other developments that the Philippines has myriad internal alignments to address before its stated investment priorities can be taken seriously.

The national government’s schizophrenic approach to mining investment—magnified by local government opposition—is just one area in which the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III appears to be talking out of both sides of its mouth. The president appeared to be supportive of the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill early in his campaign and the need to educate Filipinos on the perils and consequences of unsafe sex. But his administration has ruled out certifying the measure as a priority to Congress.

Like mining, the Catholic Church is deeply opposed to any legislation that it believes interferes in any way with natural procreation. That opposition, many believe, has contributed to the Philippines’ high rate of population growth and its high incidence of poverty. Investment in educational infrastructure can’t keep up with population growth, which means that dropouts and graduates alike are unprepared to lead productive lives.

Mr. Aquino says he respects the rights of individuals to make their own decisions about whether to engage in safe sex and planned parenthood. But his failure to support the RH bill makes those words seem cheap. The same thing can be said about his view of the Freedom of Information bill. While Mr. Aquino insists that he believes his government should be and is transparent in its actions, he must refrain from disclosing information that might “lead to panic.”

That’s an awfully broad definition. For an administration that ran on the slogan, “No Corruption, No Poverty,” transparency and communicating that transparency should be an obvious priority. If Mr. Aquino is sincere about making his government transparent, then he might have more accurately said, “We need a tighter bill,” if the present version is infirm, and promise such a bill within a specific timeframe.

The mixed signals the administration is sending could be mere growing pains, or signs of disagreement and misalignment within the administration and between administration critics. Or simply signs of trying too hard to please influentials.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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