By Neil Jerome Morales
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines' environment minister on Thursday said President Rodrigo Duterte had backed her decision to ban mining in watershed areas at a meeting earlier this week, winning his support once more for her crackdown on the sector.
Duterte who warned last year that the Southeast Asian nation could survive without a mining sector had supported Lopez's decision this month to shut over half the country's mines. But he later did not rule out reviewing her order amid the potential revenue losses from mining.
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"He said: 'I agree with you. Don't worry, you are my cabinet secretary and I also believe that there should be no mining in watersheds'," Regina Lopez told a media briefing, recalling her meeting with Duterte on Monday.
Lopez on Feb. 2 ordered the closure of 23 of 41 mines in the world's top nickel ore supplier for environmental violations, saying many of them were in watershed zones that threaten water supply and quality. Another five mines were suspended.
She also ordered the cancellation of 75 mining contracts, or nearly a third of mineral production sharing agreements for mines that have yet to go into production, for being located in watershed areas.
She reiterated her stance on Thursday, saying she would not allow mining at the expense of the environment and people who depend on seas and farms for their livelihood. Lopez also repeated that her decisions were above board.
"Every step of the way, I followed due process," she said.
The recent moves by Lopez, a staunch environmentalist long before she joined Duterte's cabinet last June, have angered domestic miners many of whom have appealed their case with the president.
Miners that have filed appeals with Duterte can continue operating unless he rules otherwise.
A mining industry group has said the mining closures and suspensions would affect 1.2 million people.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines last week sought to block Lopez's appointment, saying her recent moves showed an "undeniable bias" against the sector. Lopez is among a few cabinet members who have yet to be confirmed by Congress and her next confirmation hearing is on March 1.
Amid the uproar, a government inter-agency panel will have its own review of the 28 affected mines that will begin in March and will take three months.
The Mining Industry Coordinating Council will engage experts from state universities and other independent professionals for the review.
The council will submit its recommendations to Duterte who will make the final decision on the environment agency's closure and suspension orders, Finance Undersecretary Bayani Agabin said in a statement on Thursday.
Still largely underexplored, the Philippines' mining sector contributes less than 1 percent to the overall economy, with only 3 percent of 9 million hectares identified by the state as having high mineral reserves being mined, according to government data.
For a graphic on Philippine mine closures, click http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/PHILIPPINES-MINING/010031S942V/index.html
(Writing and additional reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Joseph Radford)