By Manolo Serapio Jr
MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine miners facing more mine suspensions under an environmental review backed by President Rodrigo Duterte have stepped up their criticism of the process, questioning the inclusion of anti-mining activists in the review teams.
The world's top nickel ore supplier has halted operations of 10 mines, eight of them nickel, for environmental infractions, and the government has said more suspensions will be announced this week.
The crackdown is aimed at enforcing stricter environmental protection measures, with Duterte warning the nation could survive without a mining industry. But miners have labeled the review a "demolition campaign".
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, which groups 21 of the country's 40 metallic miners, said it had "trouble appreciating" the inclusion in mine audit teams of groups such as Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM), which translates to Alliance To Stop Mining.
"Why are they part of the audit team when they can hardly be expected to be impartial?" said Chamber spokesman Ronald Recidoro.
"Our members are fairly confident that they have complied with the technical and legal requirements."
ATM groups non-governmental organizations, church groups and academic institutions working to protect Filipino communities and natural resources threatened by large-scale mining operations, according to its website.
The mining industry has powerful opponents in the Philippines, led by the influential Catholic Church, following past environment disasters and the displacement of local communities.
Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez, who has said open-pit mining is madness, said she had committed to involving civic groups in the audit teams along with government experts.
"Miners need to upgrade their operations so that people don't suffer," Lopez told Reuters, adding that issues such as silt build-up on rivers, fishponds and rice fields around mining sites were "unacceptable."
"The problem is that mining here has not followed rules."
ATM's partners in local communities took part in the audit across the country, said Jonal Javier, advocacy officer for the organization. They told the audit team what to look into and submitted the public's complaints against mines, he said.
The suspension of nickel mines in the Philippines and the risk of more closures lifted global nickel prices last month to a one-year high above $11,000 a tonne, although the metal has since eased to just above $10,000 a tonne.
Nickel is used to make stainless steel.
The Chamber's Recidoro said four of its members had been affected and the operations of all four remained suspended despite having addressed environmental violations.
"How long is this suspension? Because an indefinite suspension is tantamount to a cancellation," he said.
The Philippines' top gold mine, run by Australia's OceanaGold Corp's, expects a positive outcome from the audit, chief executive Mick Wilkes told Reuters in an email.
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Richard Pullin)