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The Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp. had previously received permission to mine a 990-hectare site [3.8 square miles]. But the ore reserves in that area will soon be depleted, company officials say.

Over the past nearly 20 years, the company has worked to overcome bureaucratic hurdles for the right to mine a much larger swath on the western side of Mount Bulanjao. Much of the area had originally been designated as “core zones,” or areas of maximum protection by Palawan law. But the layers of protection were gradually stripped away by local officials who changed land use and environment zoning maps to accommodate mining.

“It’s very alarming that zones are being changed or revised without solid science to back it up and also without community consultations,” said Mayo-Anda, the environmental lawyer who also serves as executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Legal Assistance Center.

In 2019, Rio Tuba scored a major victory when the Philippines Mines and Geosciences Bureau approved its application to renew and amend its agreement with the government over the scope of its mining operations. The company secured the right to mine an additional 3,548 hectares of forest [13 square miles], which would more than quadruple the size of its present footprint.

Officials with the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, a government agency that oversees the island’s strategic environmental plan and gets the last word on requests to develop forest areas, said it has cleared Rio Tuba to mine a smaller area: an additional 2,500 hectares [9.6 square miles], which would still more than triple its current footprint.

Paddies and Mount Bulanjao. (Kimberly dela Cruz for NBC News)

Many tribal leaders in Bataraza support the expansion. They say the mine has benefited local people — both adults and children — in the form of jobs and academic scholarships.

“We benefit a lot from that company,” Angelo Lagrada, a local chieftain, said in a July 2019 interview with the local news site Palawan News.

But the Environmental Legal Assistance Center has filed a petition challenging the decision to change the status of the area targeted by Rio Tuba to make it possible to mine there. The case remains ongoing, but Mayo-Anda acknowledged that it’s unlikely to stall the project.

Rio Tuba is preparing to start mining the new section of Mount Bulanjao next year. It is also seeking the green light to dig up nickel ore on a 667-hectare site [2.5 square miles] on the western side of the mountain near the town of Rizal.

But Rio Tuba is facing a significant obstacle: tribal leaders in Rizal oppose the expansion. Under the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997, mining companies are required to seek the consent of the Indigenous residents living in the lands where they plan to set up operations.

Narlito Silnay, a tribal leader in Rizal, lamented how the project has driven a wedge between the Indigenous people dwelling in the area.

“We ourselves are fighting each other,” Silnay said. “Before we didn’t go through this. It’s sad. It’s as if we don’t understand each other.”

Narlito Silnay, a tribal leader in Rizal. (Kimberly dela Cruz for NBC News)

The number of electric vehicles on the world’s roads hit a record high last year fueled by soaring Tesla sales. In recent months, General Motors and Volvo have announced that they intend to stop selling gasoline-powered vehicles within the next 20 years or so.

S&P Global and other industry analysts expect automakers to lean more on nickel for the surging electric vehicle battery market, moving away from cobalt due to its high cost and issues like the use of child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The bigger question about nickel is how do you get the refined battery grade material nickel out of the ground and to your battery market,” said Miller, of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, who expects the sector to grow by a factor of 10 to 15 by 2030.

The situation in Palawan raises a vexing question, experts say: To what extent is reducing carbon emissions through battery technology worth the damage it inflicts on the environment?

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