Former Philippine Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, who once ordered the shutdown of more than half of the country’s mines saying they were damaging the environment, died Monday, a media company owned by her family said. She was 65.
A statement released by her family’s media company ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television network, said Lopez died of “multiple organ failure.” It did not provide more details, but local reports said she was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015.
“Gina was the pillar of strength that pushed ABS-CBN Foundation Inc. to achieve what seemed to be impossible,” the statement said. “Her caring heart and selfless kind of love inspired people within and beyond the organization to help and serve others.”
Lopez was an outspoken defender of the environment. She clashed with the country's mining interests after she was appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016.
Lopez became the bane of big mining companies after an audit found them allegedly to have severely damaged watershed areas. She ordered the closure of 23 mines, suspended five others and cancelled 75 contracts.
But her crusade ended 10 months into her term after congressmen rejected her appointment following a campaign led by the mining firms, which argued that her decisions threatened the lives of about 1.2 million people who depended on the industry.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo conveyed Duterte’s condolences and said Lopez was one of his “most-passionate cabinet members, whose environmental legacy remains unparalleled to this day.”
Lopez, according to Panelo, was a “crusader” who had fought off against the country’s big mining interests.
Sen. Sonny Angara described Lopez as the “confirmed environment secretary of the people.”
“She spent a lifetime pouring her considerable talents in bringing to the mainstream the powerless and the voiceless who exist forgotten in the margins of society,” Angara said in a statement Monday.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, in a reaction posted on her Twitter page, said the former environmental chief would be remembered as a fighter who “fought with everything she had against big polluters.”
Lopez had said that her decision to cancel mining permits was the “right thing” to do, regardless of the political consequences.
“And I am going to hope that maybe these politicians, even if they’re funded by mining money, must have love for God and country in their hearts,” Lopez had said.
Born on Dec. 27, 1953, Lopez was the second child in a brood of seven of Eugenio Lopez Jr. and Conchita La’O. She once said that she had a nice childhood, but that a spiritual calling made her travel in Europe and Africa as a yoga missionary.
She, however, returned to the Philippines in the early 1990s, and immediately was named head of the ABS-CBN Foundation Inc., the charitable arm of her family’s television empire. As head of the foundation, she spearheaded environmental causes, as well as championed the children’s rights of on TV shows.
Fishermen also mourned Lopez’s passing on Monday, recalling that she was with them in their fight against reclamation and what they called “destructive, profit-driven activities.”
Fernando Hicap, the chairman of the fishing group Pamalakaya, said Lopez backed subsistence fishermen’s fight against major fish-pen operators on Laguna de Bay outside Manila.
Hicap said Lopez was “the most competent environment chief in the Philippine history” who stood up to destructive mining without hesitation.
“She (was) also committed on seeking consultations with the grassroots to hear their views on government projects that affect civil and socioeconomic rights,” he said.
“We have not seen anyone from this administration, especially from the environment department, who can match her caliber,” Hicap said.
Jeoffrey Maitem from Cotabato City contributed to this report.