IN THE past weeks, Department of Environment and National Resources Secretary Gina Lopez has taken on the nation’s powerful mining bloc by ordering the suspension of 23 mining companies and closing five others because they are operating on or near watersheds. She has also cancelled 75 mineral production-sharing agreements, 37 of which are to be found in Mindanao watersheds.
She has virtually launched a war against powerful business interests with these directives of closures and suspension and by the looks of it, the mining mafia have all been taken by surprise. They must have underestimated the spunk of the secretary, especially since they have enjoyed the patronage and support of the administrations before to do their bidding in the country's mineral rich areas.
It is easy to be taken by the cookie charm of the current Environment Secretary Gina Lopez. She is a refreshing change from the mafia-esque male occupants of the cabinet portfolio in the past who were either unrepentant crooks or technocrats serving the interests of environmental plunderers.
Here is an environment secretary who does not hide behind legal gobbledygook or doublespeak just so that she can skirt around the obvious importance of the business of resource extraction over the larger interests of the host community. Instead, she is unambiguous about where her allegiance lies, to the environment and the people who depend on its bounty.
Yes, she belongs to a family that has built their wealth and influence from the same business of resource extraction, sugar, energy, and mass media. But it is the bratty disposition presumably afforded by her old money ties that now makes her an effective and brave environment secretary.
Speaking before UP mining engineering students who are still so very young yet so easily cajoled to speak for big business interests last February 13, the brave secretary retorted to a student who expressed the right of miners to prosper in an interesting reversal of scripts: “Are the lives of farmers and fishermen not important? You really can’t tell me that they have not suffered… if some people benefit, but many people suffer, that’s not the way to go.”
She also revealed in the same forum that she has actually used her power as cabinet secretary to go beyond the recommended remedies by her very own Mining and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) department against violating mining firms. She said: “If there’s a violation, the cabinet secretary is within full rights to make a decision… They [MGB] just wanted to fine. But when you fine, the money doesn’t go to the people. It goes to the national treasury. What kind of penalty is that? Because I saw there were violations in [operating within] watersheds, I wanted them closed. Because you really cannot and must not do mining in watersheds.”
All these have made her the target of an ongoing character assassination before the Commission on Appointments where her position as cabinet secretary will undergo confirmation this coming March. The country’s Chamber of Mines has released a statement describing her actions as violations of due process and the upholding of contracts. The same group also expressed their opposition to her appointment to the cabinet.
The Chamber of Mines have turned to other officials in government by highlighting the loss of employment and investments as a result of these moves by Secretary Lopez. And their cries have caught the attention of a few government officials who seem to not agree with the brave secretary’s actions. Particularly concerned are the local government officials who are happy with the present state of things within their respective localities.
The administration’s finance officials have already done the initiative of placating the worried mining business executives by putting in place official venues where firms can dispute the closure and suspension orders. However, the president has recently expressed full support for his appointed secretary declaring that there is nothing he could do about the mine closures. But then again, he might change his mind again on this issue.
The fate of Secretary Lopez is now in the hands of President Rodrigo Duterte and how he regards the usefulness of a maverick cabinet official in the powerful and lucrative environmental portfolio. He already blinked and exposed that external forces can bend his will when he unilaterally canceled the peace talks with the Left. As an astute and keen politician used to compromise and negotiation, it will really come to whether, in his mind, it would be advantageous or costly to keep Lopez in his administration.
What happens to Secretary Lopez as the mining interest bloc increases the pressure on President Duterte is another litmus test as to where this administration is heading? Let us pray that the president is still at the helm and knows how to bring the nation to a state where people and environment do not take a back seat to profit and greed.