COTABATO -- South Cotabato provincial government lifted a ban on open-pit mining, removing the final regulatory obstacle for a long-delayed copper and gold project in the country's restive south, a senior official said Monday.
The Tampakan project on Mindanao island has been described by its developer Sagittarius Mines as "one of the largest undeveloped copper-gold deposits in the world."
It was previously estimated to cost $5.9 billion (P310 billion) and was due to start operation in 2016.
But the project has faced numerous problems, including the local government's 2010 ban on open-cast mining and opposition from church, community, and environmental groups.
On Monday, the South Cotabato provincial government agreed to amend its environment law to allow open-cut mining, paving the way for the controversial project to start.
"The barangay wanted the project, the municipality wanted the project, only the provincial level of the council had the problem," said Wilfredo Moncano, director of industry regulator Mines and Geosciences Bureau.
"With this lifting of the ban, there's no more problem."
The move was immediately condemned by a local Catholic church group, which described it as a "tragedy" and called on the provincial governor to veto the changes to the law.
"The amendment allows all forms of mining, including open-pit, in the province. And the future of the province was decided in less than 15 minutes," said Father Jerome Millan of the Diocese of Marbel.
Rene Pamplona of the Alliance to Stop Mining accused the South Cotabato government of ignoring warnings about the negative effects of the mine on the local community, particularly farmers who rely on irrigation for their crops.
"They railroaded the whole process. They made themselves technical experts," Pamplona said.
Moncano said Sagittarius, which is headquartered in South Cotabato and is a government contractor, had already obtained the necessary certification from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and agreement from the indigenous community.
He added Sagittarius hoped to "mobilize within the year" to get the mine started.
Open-pit mining directly extracts minerals on the ground and differs from other methods that require tunneling or underground mining.
The Philippines is one of the world's biggest suppliers of nickel ore and is also rich in copper and gold, but the government estimates 95% of its mineral resources remain untapped.
Mining revenues contribute less than 1% of GDP to the economy, according to the latest available government data.
A nationwide ban on open-pit mines was lifted last year in a bid to revitalize the country's coronavirus-battered economy.
It was imposed in 2017 when the then-environment minister blamed the sector for widespread ecological damage.
Manila has since reversed course, encouraging mining investments to shore up government revenues as lockdowns and quarantine restrictions ravaged the economy.
In April 2021, President Rodrigo Duterte -- who had previously threatened to shut down the sector completely -- lifted a nine-year ban on new mining deals set by his predecessor following public backlash over a series of devastating accidents.