Gina Lopez fights Philippine mining

The Philippines’ maverick environmentalist fighting the powerful mining industry, speaks with Veronique Mistiaen

Gina Lopez
Gina Lopez. Photo courtesy of Gina Lopez

‘We have the most beautiful country: 7,000 islands with coral reefs, mountains, rivers and forests with rare medicinal plants. We have the highest biodiversity on the planet. But our people are not benefiting from it. It is being destroyed because someone wants gold or nickel,’ says Gina Lopez in one long gulp, on a Skype interview from the Philippines.

Lopez, the country’s former environment secretary, has made it her mission to protect the immense biodiversity of the Philippines while, at the same time, promoting social justice – a daunting task in a country where big business calls the shots.

Within days of taking office, the fiery and fearless minister challenged the powerful mining industry, which is polluting the islands’ vital watersheds.

‘Yes, mining creates a few jobs and perhaps a few schools, and a few people enrich themselves, but thousands suffer and water sources are polluted for generations afterward. Mining is just greed and selfishness.’

The maverick daughter of one of the country’s wealthiest and most prominent families, 64-year-old Lopez is both an environmentalist and a philanthropist. She fled the Philippines in 1972 to avoid political persecution under the Marcos regime, but returned in 1986 after being educated in the US, becoming a yoga master, and then working with disadvantaged communities in Africa. In 2017, she received the Seacology Prize, awarded to those showing exceptional achievement in preserving island environments and culture.

For more than 15 years, Lopez has championed social and environmental causes, spearheading the clean-up of the Pasig River, which was choked by trash and sewage, and campaigning to save La Mesa Watershed, which contains the last rainforest in Manila, as well as a reservoir used by 12 million people for drinking water.

In 2010, on a visit to the Edenic Palawan Island, she discovered the destructive nature of open-pit mining. ‘When the chopper took me there, I saw a huge hole in the ground. I was horrified. The farmers and fishermen were crying. They couldn’t fish, they couldn’t grow food. And there were some 100 new applications for open-pit mining, so I set up the Save Palawan movement to oppose them.’

In 2016, Lopez was appointed as acting secretary of the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) by the then newly elected, authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte. She established the first-ever forums for consultations between the DENR and indigenous groups, and shut down illegal fish pens in the country’s largest lake. But her strongest actions were directed at mining operations.

The DENR had a reputation for feeble oversight of the Philippines’ lucrative mining industry. But during her 10 months in office, Lopez banned open-pit mines and moved to shut down more than half of the operations of the country’s mining companies, after audits showed massive violations against the environment and the law.

‘What is needed is greater realization and awareness of the damage some economic activities (mining, logging and rampant quarrying) inflict not only on our economic potential, but on our wellbeing as a people. What is needed is a total economic valuation (monetizing the costs, the benefits) of these activities and then asking the very pertinent question: is it worth it?’

Taking on the country’s mining industry cost Lopez her job in May 2017, when the Congressional Committee refused to confirm her appointment. Some members of that committee have strong ties to mining companies.

Many of the islands are still suffering from the effects of mining, and mining permits are still being filed in core protected areas. However, Duterte has restated his broad support for the ban on open-pit mining.

But inside or outside the government, Lopez has vowed to keep fighting to end ‘mining poverty’ and protect the nation’s environment. She has already started I LOVE (Investments in Loving Organizations for Village Economies), to help lift Filipinos out of poverty by building green businesses at the grassroots level.

‘I believe that through care of the environment and adequate marketing, communities can get out of poverty in record time. The mainstream performance indicators are way more impressive than that of mining, which has been going for over a hundred years and has nothing to show for it, except the enrichment of a few and the destruction for generations to come.’

Veronique Mistiaen is an award-winning journalist, writing about global development, human rights and the environment. @VeroMistiaen