The Philippines has lifted a two-year mining ban on the approval of exploration permits as the country aims to better evaluate the potential of mining operations within its borders.

A ban on new mining operations, which has been in place for six years in regards to larger operations, is still in place in order to protect the country’s environment. The news follows the repeal of a similar ban on new small-scale mining projects last month, suggesting that the world’s second-largest exporter of nickel ore could be moving towards more widespread mining.

However, environment and natural resources undersecretary Analiza Teh stressed that the repeal of the ban would lead to no immediate sweeping changes.

“Only those with existing MPSAs [mineral production sharing agreements] can proceed with exploration only,” Teh said. “The exploration permit allows only mapping, drilling so it can proceed to determine mining potential, but no new mineral agreements will still be signed.”

The government previously lifted the moratorium for smaller-scale companies so long as they adhere to state regulations. Last month a government panel concluded that 23 of the 27 mines that underwent assessment passed a review for compliance with these regulations.

Mining bans have been in place in the Philippines since at least 2010 due to concerns over their environmental impact, particular open-pit operations. Mining only accounts for 1% of the country’s economy, and so shutting down projects such as the $5.9bn Tampankan copper-gold operation on Mindanao Island, which covered an area roughly equal to 700 football pitches, was seen as a way to protect the environment without significantly damaging the economy.

However, the price of nickel has steadily increased as supply has dried up following the ban, and it is estimated that only 3% of the nine million hectares identified by the government as having high mineral reserves is currently being mined. The government has faced pressure to loosen or repeal the ban as the country’s economic growth has faltered. In 2016, annual GDP growth rate was 6.9%, only slightly more than the 5.6% value in 1961; in the last half-century, GDP growth has never exceeded 8.9%, in 1973, and at times has plummeted as low as -7.3%, from 1983 to 1984.