I’VE never had the pleasure of meeting Gina Lopez personally. I of course know a little of her public persona and her pedigree; a daughter of the oligarchy who may have rejected the values of her class and assumed those of the “underclass,” and made herself a champion of the environment. Of late, one can’t help but form a positive opinion of this beleaguered bureaucrat, if only for the fact that she has emerged as one of the three or four competent and well-adjusted Cabinet members. And I may surmise that she comes closest to being a twin to the Deegong—minus the colorful language.
For the past few months since her appointment, Secretary Gina Lopez has wreaked havoc on the mining industry. Watching this woman on TV lambast mining violators, closing their operations, can be the most satisfying development nowadays. But the fierce secretary is yet to hurdle the Commission on Appointments (CA), as a full-fledged Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The mining industry
In 2014, a study conducted by the Fraser Institute cited the Philippines as the third worst in adopting mining policies in the world, only two notches higher than Venezuela and Kyrgyzstan.
The mining industry during the administrations of Presidents Macapagal-Arroyo and Aquino, was developed at a speed that caused long-term environmental damage and social problems. Aquino’s support of mining liberalization paved the way for the endorsement of 247 foreign-backed companies, severely undermining any sustainable development plans. This haphazard development resulted in loss of biodiversity, depletion of marine resources, disappearance of mangroves, and even human rights violations among environmental advocates. Aside from environmental degradation, hazardous child-labor in small-scale gold mining is prevalent. It is evident that the industry only benefited a few people.
The mining industry claims that it has contributed significantly to economic growth. However, a study conducted by IBON Foundation reveals otherwise. According to the IBON study, the mining industry’s contribution to the country’s GDP was only less than 0.10 percent since 1995. Indeed, it has produced 200,000 jobs, but the social and environmental costs over time far outweigh the benefits. In 2009, some areas where mining operations exist have the highest poverty incidence among all industry groups, and the highest poverty rate since 1988. According to official government data on poverty incidence since 2015, regions with mining operations fall severely behind in economic growth and development compared to other non-mining regions.
The birth of a dragon lady
This was the sordid state of affairs that confronted Gina Lopez when she was appointed DENR secretary. She came into office with impeccable credentials. A determined and courageous environmental activist, she headed the foundation established by her family and has since spearheaded campaigns against irresponsible mining and illegal logging, despite the Philippines being one of the countries with the worst records of environmental activists getting murdered. Eighty-eight environmental activists were killed between 2010 and 2015. One of them, Gerry Ortega, was a close friend of Gina. She also led the cleaning up and restoration of the Pasig River. She rallied against mining in ecotourism sites in Surigao del Sur in 2013 and gathered around 10 million votes for the Save Palawan Movement.
CA involvement in the mining industry
At Lopez’s confirmation hearing at the Commission on Appointments last week, more than 3,000 of her supporters rallied at the Senate. But the industry has begun to fight back, attacking her in the press and rallying their minions in Congress and the CA to block her appointment.
The forces arrayed against the Dragon Lady are formidable. A few members of the CA have ties with the mining industry and one of them is the CA vice chairman himself, San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora whose family owns Nickel Asia, a mining company that has been running since the 1970s in Surigao del Norte, Agusan and Palawan.
Another mining-affiliated congressman, although not a member of the CA, is Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay, the president of the Claver Mineral Development Corp. board. The Claver mine in Surigao del Sur was one of those closed down by Lopez. Pichay, who owns a 60 percent stake in the company, was once at the center of a mining issue controversy when he was accused of mining, transporting and selling nickel ore from an ancestral domain site without prior consent from the indigenous people of the area. Even Senator Manny Pacquiao is known to have investments in the mining industry.
Duterte rallies behind Gina
“I would rather follow Gina… Get the 70 billion somewhere else and preserve our environment,” said Duterte as he threw his support behind Lopez after a week of grilling that she went through at the CA. He even said that the Philippines can live without the mining industry and he would rather divert into other sustainable industries.
This is where the main problem lies. The lines are drawn. On one side is the mining industry and the loss of thousands of jobs and the much-needed income for government; on the other is Gina Lopez, the environment and sustainable development.
This need not be a zero-sum game where we the Filipinos are the eventual losers.
The President in fact should break the impasse and work out a compromise. Decidedly, there are among those closed mines ones that understand the concept of “responsible mining” and need to be re-opened. We can’t afford to leave our riches underground while our people wallow in poverty. On the other hand, we can’t let go of Gina who has already won the hearts of millions of Filipinos who have long waited for someone who will protect them from environmental and social injustices committed by illegal miners.
We need both.