When the Philippines’ wealthiest and most powerful people came together to talk about mining – social media personalities notwithstanding – there was a voice lost in all the digging and the raking. As The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s editorial rightfully pointed out, it’s the “ranks of farmers, fishermen and tribal minorities, the marginal and destitute folk who have lived for generations in those remote, undeveloped areas where mining often occurs and that inevitably have to bear the brunt of its aftereffects.”
This is a story often repeated in the realm of good intentions. Whether it’s about mining or fishing or hunting or kaingin, the struggles of advocacy are never as simple as a battle between good and evil. Rather, it’s a battle of discourses and viewpoints that, apparently, can be rendered “fair and balanced” by presenting two extreme positions. Positions that, in a way, betray bias, privilege, upbringing, proximity, relevance, and among other things, intention.
The forum, I think, should have been an invitation to a more important question at hand:
Who should answer the question, “Why mining?”
Should it be MVP, who probably could not speak in behalf of an indigent villager panning gold? Should it be Gina Lopez, who probably cannot rage against families in the small-scale mining industry, mining and panning from deep water-filled holes for years with only the aid of a siphon and a compressor pump? Or should it be that guy who directly suffers the consequences of having a home near the vicinity of a mine and have his life changed forever, for better or for worse?
For me, this is not a debate of whether or not an anti-mining advocate should stop wearing gold jewelry or any other non sequitur posturing as a logical correlation of values and arguments. This is a debate of the participation in debate, where the concerns and lives of people directly affected by a mining project are deliberately excluded from the conversation. It reeks, I believe, of the penchant of the center to make judgments and decisions – judgments and decisions that affect lives – in behalf of the periphery.
And this happens all the time: the deliberate exclusion of the women, children, the poor, and the indigenous peoples – far away from the center of economics and politics – from a conversation that directly affects them more so than it will affect us. They are the ones directly affected by the decisions we make in behalf of them, whether it’s a matter of policy or advocacy.
And the list of it has a wider scope than mining issues: animal rights (say, the eating of dog meat and exotic game), consumer welfare (say, the use of traditional medicine), labor (say, wage boards), education (say, the language spoken in the classroom), women’s rights (say, the importance of women in the decision-making process and policy), technology (say, traditional irrigation systems that have purified wells for centuries), and so on and so forth. And while we have enough representation for the excluded in the form of advocates and cause-oriented groups, we have yet to come to a point where the efforts of those who “know better,” or those with the ability to do so – more specifically the government – would give the excluded a voice of their own. Not echoes or whispers made in the realm of good intentions.
We have yet to come to a point where we acknowledge that the marginalized and those in the periphery can provide us with the help and insight that we need the most, especially in matters of policy and a very public debate on very public issues. That in a battle of extreme positions, they are the middle ground.
But what we have at the moment are two extreme positions that do not represent the middle ground. It’s a ground that would have been covered by the presence of people – real people – whose real lives would be affected by a mining policy. I think it’s time to ask the people what they want and what they need, and for all of us to come to a compromise for us to reach our mineral needs while a policy exists for them to meet their material needs of a mining project, with all the science and engineering and indigenous knowledge left to the technological know-how of those who know it most and best. And for that matter, making sure that the benefits of an environmentally-compliant, sustainable mining policy benefits those in the periphery.
At the very least, however, it behooves us to understand that the balance and the middle ground that we’re all looking for in the way of a national mining policy is not one to be found in putting two extreme positions against each other, praying for a synthesis. It’s in inviting those on that middle ground to the conversation: to hear them out, and for once, be on their realm.