Crusading Philippine Environment Chief Removed in Congressional Vote

Felipe Villamor
170503-PH-cabinet-620.jpg Regina Lopez gestures as she sings “I believe I can fly” during a news conference at the Philippine senate in Manila after legislators rejected her appointment as environment secretary, May 3, 2017.

Philippine legislators rejected the appointment of the country’s acting environment secretary on Wednesday, effectively ending her crusade against mining firms in the nation known as the world’s top nickel ore supplier.

The commission on appointments, composed of senators and members of the House of Representatives, voted to remove Regina Lopez, whose unprecedented crackdown was largely supported by President Rodrigo Duterte.

“We have so many plans for the environment. It’s such a waste,” Lopez said Wednesday shortly after her defeat, but asked her supporters to “keep the light shining.”

Lopez became the second member of Duterte’s cabinet rejected by Congress, after former foreign minister Perfecto Yasay was dismissed in March.

The commission found that Yasay was not fit to represent the country’s interests because at one time he had rejected his Filipino citizenship.

Lopez, the 63-year-old daughter of a Philippine media mogul, has become the bane of big mining companies after an audit found them allegedly to have severely damaged watershed areas.

She ordered the closure of 21 of 41 operating mines and the cancellation of dozens of contracts for undeveloped mines in February to protect water resources. She had also banned open-pit mining.

In the mining audit, Lopez’s team discovered that the mines that were ordered shut were found to be operating in watersheds, contributing to environmental degradation, including siltation, among others.

She also accused the mining firms of displacing communities and getting as much as 80 percent of all income derived from their mining activities, instead of sharing them with their provincial hosts.

The Philippines produced in 2015 about 420,000 tons of nickel, the metal derived from nickel ore – about 20 percent of global supply – and shipped mostly to China, according to a Bloomberg report. Latest figures were not immediately available.

Vote split

Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who led the confirmation hearings, said he was among eight senators who voted for Lopez, a scion of a wealthy clan that owns ABS-CBN, one of Manila’s leading television networks. Four other senators and 12 House members voted against her.

In his message delivered at the Senate floor, Pacquiao said he admired Lopez’s love for the environment.

“I believe in my heart that no matter how several big people may be against Gina, she will always stand by what she believes is morally and environmentally right and righteous,” he said, using Lopez’s nickname.

The church, environmental groups and other activists denounced Lopez’s removal, with the left-leaning political group Bayan denouncing what it claimed as a victory for the “mining oligarchs.”

“An extraordinary chance to protect the environment and the rights of the people has been squandered. Bureaucrat capitalism and vested interests triumphed once again,” it said.

“One can only wonder how such a rejection can happen under the Duterte regime, which wields the majority in both houses of Congress. Compromises appeared to have been made along the way,” the group said. “Big business interests continue to hold sway in the Duterte regime, both in the executive and legislative branches.”

Harry Roque, the deputy minority leader in the House, said that with Lopez’s dismissal “we lost a staunch protector of environment in government.”

Sen. Loren Legarda said the Philippines lost the opportunity to have someone “who has the passion, integrity and political will to implement our environmental laws.”

“Our natural environment has been compromised in the name of development,” Legarda said. “Our biological diversity has been significantly reduced and the general health of our environment is conceded to the greed of some.”

The powerful Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, which has welcomed the decision, earlier said it would not ever arrive at a “productive and rational dialogue” with Lopez.

While it said it respected Duterte’s decision to appoint Lopez, it found out that she was “unwilling” to work with the mining sector.

The Chamber said the closure order could cost the country about 650 million pesos (U.S. $13 million) in lost revenues from the mine firms, including taxes and fees and charges collected by town and provinces. The sector also employs tens of thousands in areas where they operate, leading to job losses.

Yeb Saño, executive director for Southeast Asia of environmental group Greenpeace, said Lopez’s rejection was “very disappointing and worrying” because it shows that destructive mining continues to hold Philippine lawmakers “by their neck.”

“We were made to believe, through her appointment last year, that reforms, environmental protection and social justice are still possible in this country,” he said.

“We thought that this administration is serious in implementing change by appointing a true environmentalist,” he said, adding that Wednesday’s vote only showed that some politicians have questionable loyalty.

The rejection was also an indicator of factions between officials who have benefited from old corrupt practices and those who are genuinely advancing true reforms, he said.

“The greed of the powerful few has won this round, but we consider this a temporary setback,” he said. “We at the environmental movement will carry on boldly, for our rights, our environment and our future.”

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