The recent dismissal of the environment minister renowned for her staunch anti-mining stance shows the simmering squabble between climate campaigners and mining interests in the Philippines. Ana P. Santos reports.
The fight for environmental protection in the Philippines has faced a setback with the recent downfall of the Southeast Asian nation's outspoken environment chief, Regina Lopez, who earned the ire of the mining industry after accusing it of corruption.
Even President Rodrigo Duterte, who enjoys widespread popularity, said he was helpless to save Lopez from being dismissed by a panel of lawmakers - the Commission on Appointments (CA) - scrutinizing her appointment. Duterte suggested "lobby money" influenced the decision.
Lopez was handpicked by the president to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), claiming that her passion for the environment made her a natural choice for the post. The president's pick was widely applauded by environmental groups, but less by the business sector.
"It's a pity about Gina (Lopez). I really liked her passion," Duterte said about the CA's rejection of Lopez's appointment. "This is a democracy and lobby money talks. I do not control everything."
Unsurprisingly, the mining industry welcomed her dismissal, while environmental groups were scathing in their criticism.
'Senators and congressmen who voted as a block are influenced by business interests. It's ok, I'll let it go,' said Lopez
Following the decision, Greenpeace protesters blocked the entrance of the DENR office to send a clear message: DENR is not open for business. They sat cross-legged on the ground, their waists were chained to the steel gate and their arms locked together by black tubes.
Observers say that Lopez had no chance at all of being confirmed. "She didn't have a political strategy and relied just on the president's support. In the end, that was not as strong as expected," environmental policy expert Antonio La Vina told DW.
"Chips were called in by the mining companies but bribery itself would be far fetched," added La Vina, who previously served as DENR undersecretary.
Lopez has blamed "big business" for her rejection, saying many who voted against her were representing mining interests.
"People with business interests should not be sitting in the CA. But then again, that's difficult because mining money funds political careers," Gina Lopez told DW, reacting to the rejection of her appointment. "Senators and congressmen who voted as a block are influenced by business interests. It's ok, I'll let it go," said Lopez.
A staunch conservationist, Lopez faced strong opposition during the 10 months she served as environment secretary - a period when she ordered the closure of over 20 of the nation's 40 mines and cancelled the contracts of dozens of others. Lopez also said the Philippines was "unfit for mining" because of its unique ecosystem.
"We saw the rejection of her appointment as a direct and shameless affront to the sanctity of the confirmation process. The Philippine government continues to be controlled by business interests," Vigie Llorin, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Philippines, told DW.
A key sector
The rejection of Lopez's appointment was a victory for the mining sector. Mining groups had run high-profile campaigns to have the CA reject her, arguing that she was endangering the livelihoods of over one million people that rely on the industry.
But they denied allegations that "lobby money" was involved in the body's decision.
"It is insulting to insinuate that a legislator voted a certain way because he or she was paid. It implies that the ethics of our legislators are very poor. It is also arrogant to assert that, because it implies that there is a 'bought' side and a right side," said JB Baylon, vice president for corporate communications of Nickel Asia Corp.
While the mining sector accounts for a mere three percent of exports, the Philippines is the world's largest supplier of nickel and a major source of copper. Mining stocks tumbled after Lopez ordered the closure of about two-thirds of the country's existing mining activities and banned new open-pit mining operations.
The measures would have meant the closure of a planned copper project in the southern part of the country, one that would have been among the world's biggest projects.
According to Baylon, shutting down mining operations was an extreme move. Currently, quarterly audits serve as a means for the government to manage business interests and environmental concerns.
"These quarterly audit reports result in sending notices to mining firms if they have committed violations. That is the process laid out in the law. This is what should be strengthened. There is no room for irresponsible politics," Baylon stressed.
Lopez did implement mining audits and sought to make them more comprehensive, said a DENR official who asked not to be identified. "She thought that the previous (mining) audits did not capture all concerns, particularly the impact on farmers and water bodies.
"Above all, she strictly implemented penal provisions of the mining law, calling for suspension and closures instead of remediation measures," the source added.
Lopez's approach was seen as extreme, but was well received by the public who supported her call for social justice for the poor.
Duterte appointed Roy Cimatu, former Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to replace Lopez as acting DENR secretary.
The appointment was welcomed by the Chamber of Mines, a federation of corporations engaged in various extraction industries.
"We hope that his appointment finally answers our long-held call for a DENR secretary who has a balanced appreciation for environmental protection and natural resources management," the Chamber of Mines said in a statement.
At his inauguration ceremony last week, the new secretary Cimatu didn't announce any major policy moves, simply stressing the need to "follow the law" and to "safeguard our resources."
"I intend to listen to all the voices out there and make full use of our powers and resources to ensure that these various concerns, some of which often times clash, will be properly and judiciously addressed," he was quoted by Reuters as saying.