Who killed off Gina Lopez?

Photo: BBC World Service/CC BY-NC 2.0

The firebrand Philippine Environment Secretary was rejected from her post by a committee of parliament after she took strong action on environmentally-damaging mining operations.

by Francesca Ross

Gina Lopez, the dramatic but tough-talking former secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), has been voted down by the Commission on Appointments (CA) in a heated and difficult session.

This means she failed to get a majority vote among the group’s 25 members and had to immediately leave office. She left the chamber singing, but this finale shows just how Duterte’s influence in parliament can play a bum note. The Commission was dancing to a different, and damaging, tune.

Members of the Committee found that the Secretary was not qualified for the post

The former Secretary is accused of going beyond her rights as a minister. Ms Lopez, “obviously has a lot of passion and enthusiasm,” said Senator Panfilo Lacson. “Evidently, in my own observation and analysis of her performance during the entire confirmation proceedings, she is not fit for the job nor is she qualified,” Lacson said.

She says it is business interests, not democracy, that influenced the decision. “It is the duty of government to grant our people this right and when people make choices influenced and based on business interests, transgressing the right of every Filipino to what God has given them, it is wrong,” Lopez said.

The outgoing secretary has herself become famous, and infamous, as a passionate advocate of the environment. She showed tremendous courage and integrity as the head of DENR. She stirred up the public consciousness around protecting the environment and made people aware of the negative impacts of the mining industry. She may be gone, but her ideas are not.

Lopez began a wide-ranging audit of the workings of the mining industry

Lopez had been working on an industry-wide audit of the mining sector. This brought the closure or suspension of 28 mines and banned open-pit facilities all together. This means mining companies have delighted in Lopez’s dismissal.

Apex Mining, Benguet Corporation A and B shares and Oriental Peninsula Resources all saw surges in their stock market price since the decision was announced; of  18.24%, 15% and 13.19%, respectively. Lopez’s former department has confirmed the investigations will continue but industry sources have already admitted they will be pushing for a review of all the decisions already made.

 Apex mining share price over time (PHP)

The former minister is also facing allegations of graft from Citinickel Mines Development Corporation. They say she overstepped the powers of government by insisting they paid a trust fund PHP2 million (US$40,000) per hectare of land they disturb.

Lopez’s departure is the beginning of a new chapter for the mining industry said a senior industry figure. “Lobby money talks,” said President Duterte. Mining is a dirty business.

The President’s supermajority in the house is not reliable

Duterte has long been a supporter of Lopez, despite claims of frictions between her and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez. He has supported her push for rules and regulations to be placed on mining operations. He shares her disposition to the law of the environment over money-making enterprises. Her rejection must also suggest some rejection of his ideas by members of the bicameral committee.

This disappointing turn for the administration shows the President’s super-majority in the houses is not solid. It is not shaped around an agenda or set of principles. This means its members choose their own direction and, in this case, can trip up Duterte’s leadership.

Many legislators, such as the Vice-Chair of the CA, Ronaldo Zamora have interests in mining operations. Did personal interest overrule the right decision?

“This is a tragedy for the environment, as well as for the rights and welfare of our people. Lopez’s rejection is a betrayal of the people and specifically of mining-affected communities who are protecting their lives and livelihoods by resisting destructive large-scale mining,” Alyansa Tigil Mina national coordinator Jaybee Garganera said.

The new Secretary will be under pressure from all sides

The Philippines has an estimated US$1.4 trillion in mineral reserves and has one of the world’s largest potential mining industries. This includes supplies of gold, copper, nickel, aluminium, and chromite. There are an estimated nine million hectares of potential mining fields but less than 2% currently has a mining permit.

Lopez’s replacement, former army general and ambassador Roy Cimatu, has not been welcomed by members of the wider community. Environmental campaigners are concerned he has no track record in balancing development and industry and will look to chase the potential income from new fields. “We do not need a DENR secretary who is a compromised choice to appease the mining industry,” added a spokesperson for Caritas Philippines.

The loss of Lopez is a shame for the communities ripped apart by the impact of mining but also brings shame on the house that allowed it. Private interests have no place in public forums. The PHP70 billion that mining brings into the industry is not worth the cost; either in people’s lives, the environment, or the dignity of the political system.