Why miners are not ready for Gina Lopez

Global spotlight, ISO standards

Philippine miners took the opportunity to bask in the global spotlight, strengthening their finance talents who then traveled the world to explain their companies' profit prospects and with it their stock prices.

Global media coverage of Philippine mining focused on local entrepreneurs riding this mining boom, and who has better connections with middlemen who in turn secured forward orders (a promise to buy or deliver something in the future) from Chinese and Japanese steel makers. Typhoons hitting the Philippines even meant an impact on metal prices since terrible weather affects shipment schedules.  

In the meantime, the chamber members, who comprise the largest mining operators in the country, worked on securing an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification. Fully complying with the ISO 14001 is a badge of honor that metal miners wear to claim they are aligned with global standards in environmental management practices. The audit entailed tons of paperwork with 3rd party certifying companies, but it was a clear-cut process businessmen can follow and implement.  

In fact, when Lopez was announced as the new environment secretary, the large miners mistakenly thought their ISO 14001 certifications would be enough to assure her they are responsible miners. In a television interview, the chamber’s executive vice president Nelia Halcon admitted the chamber assumed Lopez would start auditing the illegal and small-scale miners who didn't have to follow similar strict environmental standards.  

In other words, during the calm before the storm, the industry players were busy.

Beyond their own individual business interests and geographical reach, they did not invest in building goodwill for the entire industry that they can use as a buffer in case their wish for a new president who is more accommodating to the industry than Aquino has been does not happen. They remained comforted by the fact that their contracts and their contacts were intact. 

Lopez, on the other hand, is of a totally different mold, and an expert in communicating her advocacies. “She is easy to sell. She understands the narrative, the undercurrent of the changing times,” said one of the communications experts who took her on as a client to help in swaying public opinion to her favor in the run-up to the confirmation hearings. Her passionate calls for change resonate with the global battlecry against the establishment and the elite that produced Brexit, US President Donald Trump, and even Duterte. 

Commodities, not consumers 

What the miners in the Philippines are experiencing is not unique. Industries associated with “dirty" or “sin products” – tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and coal, oil and gas extractive companies – have been there and done that. 

Playing politics and the politicians or sticking to the legal battlefield has been a staple strategy, as were dirty tricks, like manipulating scientific inputs to muddle the logic and divert attention.

In the past decade, however, strategists have adopted a more forward-thinking style: Instead of attacking groups opposing their businesses, they decided to engage with a larger group stakeholders – government, regulators, communities, civil society, and other groups beyond their usual circle of influence – to help shape the discussion about them and reduce resistance. For example, alcohol groups now advocate “responsible drinking,” while casino operators trumpet “responsible gaming."   

Unlike these industries, however, miners don’t deal directly with consumers who, especially in this age of social media, can publicly complain to have a direct stake in the future of a branded product or service. Miners don’t have to advertise their product or promise product quality to consumers. Miners don’t have to care if a gold bracelet has the right cut or clarity, or if the steel produced usinng their nickel ore is strong enough to keep a skyscraper upright. They deal with traders to sell in bulk the raw materials that producers turn into an end-product. They are wired to extract resources in the most efficient ways as possible. Working to be loved by the public is not in their DNA. 

“We tend to think of customers, of our business in a technical way. We don’t need to be sensitive to personal needs of people. We don’t need to be in tune with customers," explained a miner.  

Note, however, that the owners of some of the biggest mines in the Philippines have core businesses that are very much in tune with customers: The Sys who have stake in Atlas Mining and Tampakan Mining operate the country’s biggest mall network (SM Prime) and bank (BDO Unibank). Manuel Pangilinan, who heads gold producer Philex Mining which has contracts that were ordered cancelled, is into industries that we use every day – telco (PLDT), power (Meralco), tollroads (NLEx, SCTEx, Cavitex, CALAx), water (Maynilad), hospitals, sugar, and more. Businessman and former senator Manuel Villar, whose growing empire now includes the planned King-King copper-gold project, has investments in real estate (Vista Land, and Starmall), retail, water utility, education, death care and health care. The Consunjis who operate the Semirara coal mine have been actively diversifying into mid- and high-rise condominiums (DMCI Homes). Alredo Ramos of Atlas Mining belongs to the family that runs the National Bookstore chain. 

The disconnect is glaring. The sooner these miners acknowledge and address it, the better prepared they are to deal with future Gina Lopezes. — Rappler.com