Photo by JL JAVIER for CNN PHILIPPINES
Regardless of your opinion of Gina Lopez and her less than orthodox ways of getting her message across, you can’t deny that the woman has more cojones than a lot of her male counterparts in Philippine politics. It has been a few weeks since Lopez’s controversial rejection by the Commission on Appointments, ignoring the fact that she was appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte himself in light of her dedication to safeguarding the country’s biodiversity, efforts in cleaning up the Pasig River, and dedication to the well-being and livelihood of the nation’s poor.
But we aren’t here to debate over the fact that she was denied formal appointment after 10 months as interim Secretary on the basis that she “did not meet minimum qualifications for the job.” Instead, let’s talk about everything that has happened since the rejection, and how this could prove to be another disastrous chapter in the fight to preserve the country’s environment and natural resources.
In less than a year in office and with President Duterte’s support, Lopez kept busy by taking on the mining industry, one of the most detrimental to Filipino lives and to our environment, by banning open-pit mining, shutting down more than 20 mines, suspending five others, and cancelling 75 mining contracts. This caused a plunge in mining stocks, and led the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines to openly oppose her appointment—even going as far as to lobby to overthrow most of the regulations passed under her tenure. Their argument was that her actions would leave thousands jobless.
But let’s look at the numbers: In the afternoon after her rejection by 16 out of 24 members of the CA, mining shares skyrocketed, with some companies reporting increases in stock by as much as 18%. Mere days after, a mining firm cut down thousands of trees in a protected watershed area of Palawan without a permit, and has since banned even local authorities from entering the area. These instances, as well as others that may not have reached mainstream media reporting yet, make the message very clear: Mining money talks, and having Lopez in position may have been the last thing standing in the way of mining companies laying complete waste to our natural resources.
In defense of Roy Cimatu, the man who has taken formal appointment as DENR Secretary, he has vowed to immediately investigate these cases. But we all know that “investigation” is not the same as taking action. Cimatu has, since his appointment, vowed to uphold the laws regarding mining in the country and continue the crackdown that Lopez started, but only time will tell if the Palawan incident is a one-off or if other firms will follow suit now that Lopez is out of office. Regardless, what’s left of the country’s forests may not survive another lapse in upholding these regulations, despite decades of reforestation efforts.
While Cimatu has a point that irresponsible mining is not the only threat to the Philippine environment, we must still take into account the rapid rate of deforestation in the country. It would be easy to posit that instead of focusing on the staggering Php 70 billion in revenue brought in by mining, we should redirect our efforts to developing our agricultural sector, but we can’t have one while the other exists. If irresponsible mining is to continue, what land are the people to till? What land is left to cultivate once the mining companies are done stripping it bare and leaving bodies in its wake?
It cannot be denied that mining affects millions of Filipino lives and livelihood—not just the 1% that holds stock in the industry. There is only so much that is reported to the people, and we have to hope that Lopez had her reasons for the closure, suspension and rejection of mines and contracts during her tenure. With this in mind, there is no assurance that our rainforests and other natural resources, not to mention our people themselves, will be safeguarded against the illegal and unethical practices by companies that have a stock in the country. What good are jobs and the meagre income they bring to these families if they are not sustainable? Wouldn’t it be better to cultivate the agriculture industry instead, where rather than risk life and limb our countrymen will have a livelihood that they can pass down to their children?
Cimatu has openly stated that he is still learning the basics of his new position (ironic, taking into account the basis for Lopez’s rejection by the CA) and that his attention will be divided between regulating the mining industry, cleaning up Laguna de Bay, and addressing pollution and solid waste management. It is with no small amount of trepidation that we look upon this next chapter, especially with growing concerns of sustainability and global warming.
Everyone knows that our rainforests are vital to our nation’s well-being. With our islands so close to the equator, we’re already feeling the effects of deforestation with record-high temperatures and the rising cost of produce. In a few months, we may encounter debilitating large-scale damages caused by storms, especially for our countrymen in the provinces, which will be more prone to floods and landslides if the mining sector’s abuse continues, not to mention the loss of crops and tree nurseries. There is nothing quite so staggering as staring at bald mountain tops and meeting the people that the environmental degradation affects directly.
A lot of us have grown desensitized to the blatant greed in our government. It is one thing to have our hard-earned money lining the pockets of the corrupt, but quite another to leave us bereft of a living, breathing, healthy environment once their terms are over.
It took 10 months for Lopez to put a brief stop to some of the most important threats to our environment, the effects of which have yet to even trickle down to a majority of Filipinos. It may take even less time for these actions to come undone, or for things to take a downward plunge that will take us decades to recover from.