A Philippine Struggle Over Coal-Fired Power

Members of Limay Concerned Citizens in the Philippines. Photo/Keith Schneider

MANILA — Valentino de Guzman, the energy campaigner for the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, guided me to Mariveles to interview leaders of Limay Concerned Citizens. Guzman, a well-educated activist, once taught college level math before joining the Philippine climate justice movement. The citizens group on the Bataan Peninsula, across Manila Bay from the capital region, has been protesting the air pollution and disruption to their groundwater reserves caused by SMC Consolidated Power Corporation. The company’s 600-megawatt coal-fired power station is under construction along the Manila Bay shoreline in the community’s backyard.

On the way to Limay — a village of packed dirt, shade trees, and clustered homes — Guzman briefed me on the situation that the Philippines and much of the rest of southeast Asia faces. Government campaigns to build coal-fired power plants, and import most of the fuel from Indonesia, are running straight into the global energy revolution. Solar powered electrical generation is cheaper, easier to build, and prompting far less social resistance than coal-fired electricity. India is shifting to renewables. So are China, the United States (despite the Trump administration), and Europe.

For the time being, though, coal has the upper hand in the Philippines, and in Indonesia and Vietnam. Guzman said 26 coal-fired plants are operating in the Philippines and produce almost half of the country’s electricity. Thirteen more are under construction and 36 coal-fired plants are in the pipeline.

Literally in the backyard of Lamao village residents, SMC’s 600-megawatt coal-fired power station. Photo/Keith Schneider

In some communities, Guzman said, public resistance is so keen that the plants are not likely to be finished. In other instances, companies and the government are reappraising the cost of building coal-fired plants relative to solar, which currently accounts for scant generating capacity in the Philippines.

Environmental resistance is dangerous. More Philippine environmental activists have been murdered over the last decade than in almost any other country, according to Global Witness, a London group that compiles an annual report.

The situation in Limay is emblematic of most of the frontline struggles. The ten men and women waiting for me around a big communal table in the shade of a pitched roof described their frustration with the new power plant. Fly ash from preliminary operations contaminated the soil, and their gardens were no longer were productive. People were coming down with strange skin ailments. Some neighbors had respiratory illnesses.

One of the leaders of the anti-coal movement on the Bataan Peninsula was Gloria Capitan, president of United Citizens of Lucanin Association, a community that has been peacefully opposing the operation and expansion of coal plants and open coal and ash storage facilities in the Mariveles region. Auntie Gloria, as she was known, had focused her work on a big ash storage pile on a coal loading dock along the shoreline in her community. Ash from the pile was causing respiratory difficulties and dirtying the homes of nearby residents.

Capitan was gunned down on July 1, 2016 by two men on a motorcycle. The murder occurred at Capitan’s roadside store and bar near Mariveles. Capitan’s eight-year-old grandson was grazed by a bullet. Like so many other killings of activists around the world, the police have no suspects.

The Philippine and local governments had paid some heed to the resistance. The coal ash pile that Gloria Capitan opposed was enclosed in an immense metal building soon after her murder. Not far away, due to activism from Limay Concerned Citizens, their village’s water supply was switched from groundwater to municipal water. In December 2016 and January 2017, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, then led by activist Gina Lopez, served SMC with notices of violation for haphazard fly ash management and for air pollution. SMC said it would send doctors to Limay and would stop dumping ash. The doctors never showed up, said the citizens group, but the ash dumping did stop.

Manila Bay, despite its pollution, supports a strong fishery. Here, maintaining a fishing boat near Mariveles on thee Bataan Peninsula. Photo/Keith Schneider Continue reading “A Philippine Struggle Over Coal-Fired Power”

Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like

Former Philippines Environment Secretary Gina Lopez during one of her helicopter tours of mine sites. Photo/Keith Schneider

QUEZON CITY, Philippines — On June 20, 2016 Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, asked Gina Lopez to join him in Davao City for an extended conversation about the condition of his country’s land and water.

It turned out to be an eventful encounter. The glib, rough talking, 71-year-old strongman former mayor of Davao City sought help from a 62-year-of woman known inside her wealthy family as the renegade daughter, and outside as an incorruptible foundation director and maverick environmentalist. As head of her family’s ABS-CBN Foundation Lopez led one national campaign to ban open-pit mining. She organized another to clean up a portion of the filthy Pasig River that flows through Manila just to prove it could be done.

When the meeting concluded Duterte extended Lopez an invitation to direct the weak and corruptible Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She accepted. On July 1, the day after Duterte’s inauguration and with his enthusiastic support, Lopez launched environmental compliance audits of the country’s 41 big hard rock mineral mines that eventually resulted in shutdown or suspension orders against 26 mines. She reviewed government approvals for 339 proposed mines and issued show cause orders to cancel 75 of them. In the last week of April the DENR banned new open-pit mines. The order came seven years after Costa Rica banned new open pit mines, and a month after El Salvador banned all mining.

And all the while during her 10 months in the post Lopez planted bamboo to clear the nation’s waters of pollution, and invested in environmental restoration projects that produced new jobs for indigenous communities. Lopez also started a joint police-military-prosecution task force that curtailed illegal logging and jailed offenders.

Rarely has an environmental officer in any nation so aggressively challenged the industrial community. Not surprisingly Philippine business interests mounted a ferocious counter attack within the Congress and the Duterte administration, which includes several cabinet members close to the mining industry. Two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, owned by mining companies, editorialized against Lopez and her enforcement measures.

The Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Luzon island is a target of 50 mine proposals. Photo/Keith Schneider

Lopez In Office 10 Months
A skilled organizer, Lopez proved to be tenacious. She countered with frequent tours of towns affected by polluting mines, and inspected dozens of mine sites by helicopter. Her exploits were covered in the media and on Lopez’s Facebook page that kept hundreds of thousands of Filipinos informed about the value of the closure orders. Continue reading “Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like”

South Africa Locks Onto Coal Despite Water Risks, Grim Market Trends

Juliette Ndosi and her son, Tobi, live near the site of a proposed underground mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal province. Photo/Keith Schneider
Juliette Ndosi and her son, Tobi, live near the site of a proposed underground mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal province. Photo/Keith Schneider

VRYHEID, South Africa — The chilly highland valleys of northern KwaZulu-Natal province, where coal mining and agriculture have coexisted since the late 19th century, have never been a geography of unfolding uncertainty, mystery, and menace like they are today.

South Africa’s allegiance to coal mining and coal-fired power generation in an era of rising concern about water supply and quality, and weakening national and global demand, is causing a furor in the country’s mining sector, affecting the financial community, and tearing holes in President Jacob Zuma’s veil of privilege and scandal.

The national turmoil, and a number of distinct regional conditions are tilting the balance of benefits and risks against new coal development in this area, say many residents. A deep two-year drought, the worst ever experienced in northern KwaZulu-Natal, emptied the drinking water reservoirs of Vryheid and nearby Paulpietersburg late last year. Thousands of town residents line up every morning to fill buckets with fresh water transported by tanker trucks from sources as far away as Pongola, a farm town set by the river of the same name that is 132 kilometers (82 miles) east of here.

More Mystery
Outside the hill towns, where springs and deep wells are still active, one coal company is drawing nearer to gaining a license to mine a new coal seam near Paulpietersburg. At least nine other companies have been quietly nosing around the steep slopes of the area’s tabletop mountains for unmined reserves. Markets for new reserves are thought to include coal-fired power stations in neighboring Mpumalanga province, and for export. Richards Bay, South Africa’s primary export shipping terminal, is 214 kilometers east (133 miles).

Senior managers of the South Africa Department of Mineral Resources declined to be interviewed for this article. The department’s weak public involvement mechanisms and Web site make it difficult for the citizens to follow new licensing applications. Farmers, acutely anxious that pollution from new coal mines could contaminate their water, have responded by establishing a new advocacy group, the Pongola River Catchment Protection Association, to keep abreast of mining activity on the ground, and to oppose new mineral development. On an overcast day earlier this year Mattie Beukes, a retired sugar cane grower, and Johann Boonzaaier, who manages the big water supply and transport network for Pongola’s sugar cane plantations, toured the quiet highland valleys to talk with farmers and civic officials. Their goal was to gain intelligence about any new coal mining activity. The fact-finding trip turned up no fresh evidence of new mines, but the region around Utrecht and Vryheid is alive with mining proposals not yet acted on.

Acid mine wastes drain from an abandoned coal mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Photo/Keith Schneider
Acid mine wastes drain from an abandoned coal mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Photo/Keith Schneider

“What we think about is how mining affects our water supply,” said Boonzaaier, the chief executive of the Impala Water Users Association, which supplies water to 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of sugar cane plantations in a dry valley closer to the Indian Ocean. “Any mine pollution from here, on the highlands, could flow to our water downstream.”

More Threat
Coal mining also mixes with another threat in this region. Like a cold fog, the sense of regional apprehension settling over the KwaZulu-Natal highlands grew more gloomy two years ago when Nico and Marcia Lens were murdered at their grain and cattle farm tucked into a highland slope outside Paulpietersburg. The unsolved murders of the 62-year-old farmer and his 52-year-old wife draw agriculture and energy together in an unexpected way. The Lens’ empty and unsold white farmhouse, which lingers barely visible beneath untrimmed trees at the end of a long dirt drive, lies close to the 2,000-hectare (4,942- acres) underground coal mine that Tholie Logistics, a small Johannesburg mineral company, proposes to develop.

The murders and mining applications have put farmers and other residents of this region on high alert for their personal security, and the safety of the land.

“No one knows why it happened. They were good people,” said Beukes, who started a new career last year as a land and water conservationist. “People are a little nervous. Things are happening here that make you worry. New coal mining in this area. It’s not a good use for the land.”

That sentiment is gaining more credibility in KwaZulu-Natal and across contemporary South Africa. Though there are a small group of out-of-work miners, some government officials, and a handful of mining executives that view new coal production in KwaZulu-Natal as a boost to job growth and local treasuries, that it is by no means a consensus opinion. In interviews with farmers and local residents, white and black, people objected to new mining.

— Keith Schneider

Read the full report at Circle of Blue here.

See all of the reports from South Africa at the Choke Point: South Africa page at Circle of Blue.

South Africa’s Impending Crop Failure

Nduku Msimanga, a tractor driver on the Horn family sugar plantation in Pongola, fills a water storage tank and waits for a break in South Africa's ferocious drought. Photo/Keith Schneider
Nduku Msimanga, a tractor driver on the Horn family sugar plantation in Pongola, fills a water storage tank and waits for a break in South Africa’s ferocious drought. Photo/Keith Schneider

PONGOLA, South Africa — On the last Friday of January, payday on the sugar cane farms of northern KwaZulu-Natal province, a hot sun beat down on the red clay of Cobus Horn’s equipment yard. Nduku Msimanga, taut and muscled as a welterweight boxer, waited there with three other tractor drivers to receive unusually meager pay stubs.

Msimanga, who is 33 years old, supports two teenage boys, a seven-year-old girl, and his wife on the wages he earns on the Horn family’s sugar cane farm just outside Pongola. He’s worked on the Horn farm since he was 23. His pay, usually about 5,000 rand a month ($US 300 at current exchange rates), is tiny by western standards but above average on South African farms.

This year Msimanga’s pay stubs are half that, a reflection of just how deeply South Africa’s worst drought in 34 years is attacking the country’s nearly $US 9 billion farm economy. The drought is also an ecological force multiplier that is aggravating virulent trends in joblessness, crime, and social stability.

It could hardly have developed at a worse moment in this thunderously beautiful, water-parched, and economically reeling nation of 55 million residents at the bottom of Africa. Since December, following an abrupt shake-up in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet and sliding commodity prices, the South African rand dropped in value to its lowest level ever. It is now worth barely more than 6 U.S. cents. The business confidence index fell to its worst-ever rating. Agronomists project that South Africa could sustain the biggest crop failure in its history. Grain harvests, usually formidable enough to support big export markets, are likely to be half the normal total, prompting expensive imports. Food price increases are anticipated to reach 25 percent. Hundreds of farm workers are being laid off (called “retrenched” here) in KwaZulu-Natal and the four other provinces declared drought disaster areas, where most of the country’s major row crops are produced.

Cobus Horn and his family in Pongola. Photo/Keith Schneider
Cobus Horn and his family in Pongola. Photo/Keith Schneider

The layoffs and reductions in hours are aggravating the country’s terrible joblessness. South Africa’s 35,000 big commercial farms account for more than 650,000 jobs, seven percent of the country’s working adults. That’s more than South Africa’s mines employ, according to Statistics SA. At least 1 million other South Africans work full or part-time on the 1.3 million small and subsistence farms. As heat and dry weather kill crops, workers are being forced from the fields. More than one in three working age adults are now unemployed.

The endowment of optimism and progress that South Africans embraced at the start of the new multi-racial elections and the formal end of Apartheid in 1994 has dissolved into a period of deepening national economic and social stress. Continue reading “South Africa’s Impending Crop Failure”

Earth Day 2015 Marks Convergence of Inspiring Trends

The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country's allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country’s allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider

Earth Day, first celebrated 45 years ago in the United States, is now a grown-up international convergence that joins a reckoning with ecological deterioration to the panorama of human activity devoted to improving the planet’s condition. What’s inspiring about Earth Day is that the same principles of responsibility, collective action, pollution prevention, and natural resource conservation that informed the first Earth Day in 1970 have proven to be the durable foundation of 1) ecological repairs on every continent, and 2) social movements that are fostering public pressure and government action to solve the tough threats that remain.

My personal Earth Day history encompasses nearly all of the modern environmental movement and its myriad transitions. I was 14 years old on April 22, 1970, an eighth grader in Highlands Junior High School in White Plains, New York. Earth Day was such a big national event that the White Plains Public School administrators called a school holiday to allow students to participate in organized activities, most of them focused on some sort of clean-up. I organized a few of my friends to join me in painting the White Plains train station, and dragging old tires and appliances out of the Bronx River, which flowed past the station. Our work attracted notice from The New York Times, which reported on our work in the second to last paragraph of a front-page article on Earth Day in the April 23, 1970 edition of the newspaper.

The path I chose to embed my life in environmentalism was through journalism and story-telling. As a student at Haverford College in the late 1970s I studied chemistry and biology, literature and history, which provided the research skills required of environmental reporting and knowledge of the arcane language of two of the galvanizing threats of that era: managing toxic and nuclear wastes. Very soon after the start of my career the Love Canal toxic waste site was discovered in upstate New York, and half the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor melted during an accident in March 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the Susquehanna River, downriver from my first newspaper job in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Over the decades the risks that attracted the country’s attention, and the focus of my own reporting, steadily evolved. Water and air pollution. Conserving wild lands, wild habitats, and wild species. Activism to curb pesticide use in food production. The advent of genetic engineering in agriculture. Disastrous oil spills. The push-back from property rights groups and conservative activists about government authority to regulate wetlands, private lands, and business. Ocean pollution and the decline of coral reefs and fisheries. Suburban sprawl as an environmental problem and smart growth urban redevelopment as its cure. Climate change. Fracking. The global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food in the era of declining freshwater resources.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter

There’s no end to the reasons for pessimism about our planet’s condition. In Asia, rising coal consumption in China and India warms the atmosphere and is causing eight-year-olds in China to develop lung cancer. In South America, gold mining and forest cutting are wrecking the Amazon. In North America, unconventional fuels production is torturing the forests and water of northern Alberta Canada, contaminating drinking water and causing earthquakes in the United States, and pouring explosive fuels into flimsy rail cars for transport to coastal refineries. The planet’s population continues to grow 80 million people annually.

Yet what keeps me and so many other people devoted to the principles of Earth Day is the progress that’s been made, and the convergence of powerful trends motivating big changes in how we operate.
Continue reading “Earth Day 2015 Marks Convergence of Inspiring Trends”