Column: Ateneo, MVP — and nature’s bounty

Column No. 215, published on September 25, 2012.

The news that leading businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan had severed his ties with his alma mater, the Ateneo de Manila, traveled swiftly last Friday; speculation traveled even faster, at the speed of opinion.

A good thing, then, that Pangilinan’s letter to the Jesuit provincial superior, Fr. Jose Magadia SJ, was made available to the media on the same day he sent it, and that the so-called Jesuit paper he referenced was also published online that same night by the Jesuits. Those of us interested in the causes and consequences of what Pangilinan himself called his “complete and total disengagement from the Ateneo” could thus read both letter and paper mere hours after the news broke. (This did not, of course, stop some from indulging in innuendo.)

The paper was in fact a set of guidelines designed to provoke discussion on the mining issue, prepared by the Society of Jesus Social Apostolate (a council made up of both Jesuit and lay members) under the optimistic heading “The Golden Mean in Mining: Talking Points.” I happen to agree with most of the points raised in the paper, but I must say that I think I understand why Pangilinan, the turnaround management expert and sports patron better known as MVP, decided, in the end, to “draw the line in the sand” and “call it a day.”

He was driven to do so by the terms of the paper itself.

* * *

It isn’t entirely accurate to say that the “Jesuit paper” is merely an invitation to a dialogue on mining; it is an invitation to a dialogue on an industry already assumed to be a necessary evil, at best.

The framing may be on the level of the unconscious, as in the introductory passage on supporters pro and con. “On one hand, there are those who believe sincerely that mining offers a solution to poverty and that it can be done responsibly. On the other hand, many are of the opinion that mining, at least in the way we have experienced it in our country, has been destructive of the environment and has had principally negative impacts on rural communities.” The use of the word “many” seems to me to be a hand placed inadvertently, perhaps even innocently, on the scale, but I find it subtly weighted the debate.

More characteristically, the framing is deliberate: The paper’s real point of departure is the position of the Catholic bishops in the Philippines, who have repeatedly “pointed out … the adverse social impact of mining,” and asserted that the 1995 “Mining Act destroys life.”

Scattered throughout the paper, like veins of rich ore, are statements that, if read in absolute terms, can be interpreted as all but prohibiting mining. In the section on stewardship, for instance, we read, “Mining should never be at the expense of the environment.” In the section on the precautionary principle: “We must be careful in justifying trade-offs in mining. People and the environment should not be put at risk whenever mining decisions have to be made.”

Perhaps the most problematic of the paper’s guidelines is its unexamined assumption that small is negligible. Or, rather, that environmental degradation is forgivable if small-scale miners are at fault. In the section on the principle of the common good, we read: “While recognizing the environmental impacts of small-scale mining, addressing such impacts must not violate the rights of small-scale miners to participate in the bounty of our mineral resources.” In the section on the preferential option for the poor, we read: “The fact that their means of mining may be environmentally destructive should not be an excuse to further marginalize them, but is a reason to build their capacity to transition to more responsible mining.”

* * *

MVP’s letter is a lengthy attempt to respond to the paper’s own terms. “Failure to manage one’s affairs … [does] not mean a particular business is per se evil, as suggested about mining in that Jesuit Paper. It is man’s frailty—Filipino frailty to be exact—that should be blamed, not the business.” This is a provocative thought, and worth discussing in its own right. But to focus on MVP’s point: He accepts all the criticisms that have been hurled at the mining industry, but still insists that the bad can be made good. “Our preponderant task as a people is simply to do better—to strive for excellence. Isn’t that the Ateneo motto?”

Using a pointed example, he replies directly to the damning guideline on environmental impact: “Every human attempt at progress I dare say will have some impact ‘at the expense of the environment’—even the building and maintenance of places of worship and of education.”

I think it would be fair to sum up his entire attitude to the Church-Jesuit-Ateneo position on mining with the following passage: it runs “contrary to what our laws and Constitution say and to what I believe in—that any business, even mining, can be made to serve man and God provided it is managed well and responsibly.”

* * *

Perhaps the true breaking point for MVP, who runs the country’s largest mine, can be found in the paper’s last three paragraphs. “But in engaging the mining industry and other stakeholders, we must keep our objectivity and independence. Thus we have to ask hard questions about our financial and other relationships with mining companies, environmental organizations and others who have a strong stake in mining issues.”

This is only as it should be. But we should not be surprised to find that MVP, prompted by the same “spirit of active engagement tempered by sincere self-examination” we expect of ourselves, will ask his own hard questions too—and find “an institution which opposes my conviction diametrically and unequivocally.”

The primacy of conscience cuts—wounds—both ways.

CORRECTION (posted on This column mistakenly stated that Mr. Pangilinan’s letter was addressed to the Jesuit provincial, Fr. Magadia. In fact, it was addressed to Fr. Jett Villarin, SJ, president of the Ateneo de Manila University — after Pangilinan received a copy of the so-called Jesuit paper from Fr. Magadia. Mr. Nery apologizes for the error.


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