OPINION: Was Gina Lopez the environment secretary the country needed?

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It’s rare to see a public official such as Gina Lopez, who had such a clear and compelling vision for her department. But despite her heart for her advocacy, was she fit to be environment secretary?

Editor’s note: Claire Jiao is a business correspondent for CNN Philippines. She covers news and developments in the mining industry. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Mining is such a hot-button topic that, once pressed, tends to overtake all discussion. Can we live without mining and the metals that come from it? Is there a responsible enough way to mine that doesn't cause irreparable damage to the environment? And should we be making compromises when it comes to the environment in the first place?

Without a doubt, this is a conversation our country needs to have. But the debate about Gina Lopez and her rejection by the Commission on Appointments (CA) is not about these questions. It's about whether or not she is fit to be environment secretary.

And yet, the issues raised against Lopez seem to get brushed aside, rebutted with appeals to emotion ("Don't you love God? Don't you love the Philippines?") or accusations that critics must be pro-mining. These concerns need to be recognized and addressed — not just to appease the oppositors, but even more so to do justice to the very advocacy Lopez wants to fight for.

At the center of the confirmation hearing was Lopez' aggressive crackdown on mining companies. In February, she closed 23 mines and suspended five others. That’s more than half the country’s 41 mines, gone in one fell swoop.

According to companies, they never saw the audit results of their mines, nor were they given the chance to address the supposed violations. Lopez also admitted the audit team only recommended fines, but she felt it was better to hike the penalties. “I visited the mines and I made my own judgment based on my own observations,” she told reporters.

gina-lopez-the-source_CNNPH.png Ex-environment secretary Gina Lopez on CNN Philippines' "The Source."  

Now, “due process” is a term that’s bandied around so often these days, it’s lost all meaning. But I want irresponsible mines shut down, too; if there are going to be closure or suspension orders, I want them to stick, not struck down for basic procedural mistakes.

Malacañang had to step in and review Lopez’ orders after widespread indignation among miners and fears among mining communities. In a strongly-worded statement, it said Lopez “had apparently kept [the orders] to herself and even excluded members of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau team that conducted the audit, as well as the panel that reviewed the audit findings.”

And for all of President Rodrigo Duterte’s public statements in support of Lopez, his office has had to grant reprieves for mining firms who’ve appealed her orders.

For her part, Lopez said the problems of mining were urgent and the needs of the environment, non-negotiable. It was better to act now than to do too little and sacrifice the future of many.

But if that were so, oppositors asked, why hasn’t Lopez targeted all extractive industries? In fact, she’s been strangely quiet about practices like quarrying — a business her family is involved in.

But as many have argued, the DENR post may not have been the best choice for Lopez anyway. As a regulator, she would have had to balance both the environmental and mineral resource portfolios of the country. Lopez is an environmentalist through and through.

 

Local governments and indigenous peoples also pressed her on her plans after mines are shut down. What then of the communities that derive their income from mining? Eco-tourism has been her go-to answer. Lopez helped develop Ugong Rock in Palawan and La Mesa Dam in Quezon City to great success when she was still with the ABS-CBN Foundation.

But not all mining sites have tourism potential, nor do they have the infrastructure to cater to tourists. Even if they can be developed, it would take years before the communities have an alternative livelihood. Not to mention, eco-tourism is already a problematic concept for many environmentalists. We need not look far: the controversial treatment of whale sharks in Oslob, the destruction of corals in El Nido, the garbage in Sagada.

Of course, Lopez will not have definitive answers less than a year into her term. But it’s reasonable to expect that she would have a plan — and one pursued just as speedily as her crackdown. We all know what mining, even responsible mining, entails. But there’s a reason why people still take the risk: livelihood and income. An alternative livelihood program needs to be a priority, not an afterthought.

 

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Gina Lopez, however, is a tricky thing. Am I convinced she is the great savior of the environment many paint her to be? No.

Was I surprised she got rejected by the CA? Absolutely not.

But was I disappointed they did? A little bit.

Despite her oversights, her missteps, her questionable taste in R. Kelly music, people will always agree: her heart is in the right place. And in government, having a heart is not always a given.

It’s rare to see a public official with such a clear and compelling vision for her department. At a time when many in the world are still unconvinced about sustainable development, she is unwavering in her commitment: an investment in the environment is an investment in the future and the people.

As Senator JV Ejercito said in defense of his vote for Lopez: “Mr. President, we have to look beyond certain qualifications before individuals can serve the country and be a catalyst for change. Secretary Gina Lopez has the passion to take care of the environment and address the indigenous peoples’ displacement in their ancestral lands.”

Rody-Duterte-PRRD-Gina-Lopez-DENR_CNNPH.png President Rodrigo Duterte: "I’d rather follow Gina Lopez than get ₱70B in mining revenue."  

Besides, one analyst pointed out, the playing field is already uneven. The mining industry is loaded with money and political influence — is it so terrible to have someone finally pulling for the other side?

Miners are just as guilty as Lopez of aggressively bearing down on their enemies. Every time the government has sought to introduce new regulations, it has been met with a flurry of threats: investors will pull out, jobs will be lost, the country will miss out on a spell of economic growth. When the previous administration pushed for an overhaul of mining taxes, the industry warned of doom and gloom too. Six years later, they’re still here.

Mining is an inherently long-term investment, and companies are adept at operating in unpredictable emerging markets. Then-Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima shrugged off opposition to the mining tax hike, pointing out that the minerals will remain even if the miners don’t. The government will allow mining when it believes the appropriate regulations are in place to ensure it is done safely and responsibly.

 

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The CA’s rejection of Gina Lopez may be final, but it’s in no way the end for her or her advocacy. You know what they say about the good ones. You can’t keep them down.

She was unready for the role, and perhaps lawmakers felt her passion was not enough to make up for her shortcomings, if not even a hindrance to her being an effective secretary.

It’s rare to see a public official with such a clear and compelling vision for her department. At a time when many in the world are still unconvinced about sustainable development, she is unwavering in her commitment: an investment in the environment is an investment in the future and the people.

 

But as many have argued, the DENR post may not have been the best choice for Lopez anyway. As a regulator, she would have had to balance both the environmental and mineral resource portfolios of the country. Lopez is an environmentalist through and through.

Should she decide to go back to the NGO sector, campaigning as she once did against local governments and miners, she will be back in her element. A powerful public speaker (and now choirmaster), with newfound popularity after her CA rejection, I have no doubts she can push for the same changes she had hoped for the DENR. Some have even raised the possibility of higher elective office down the road.

Maybe then she can prove she is ready, or maybe then the government will be ready for her.