The new environment secretary said it was possible to strike a balance between mining and protecting natural resources, but added that he needed time to assess mine closures ordered by his predecessor.
President Duterte named retired Gen. Roy Cimatu, a former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, to replace staunch environmentalist Regina Lopez, a move welcomed by miners in the world’s top nickel ore producer but opposed by green groups who said he does not have a track record in conservation.
“There are countries where mining contributes a lot to the economy and environmentalists are not screaming,” Cimatu told Reuters in a phone interview on Tuesday.
“I think it can be done … (balancing) environment (protection) and responsible mining.”
Cimatu’s next steps will be closely watched by nickel markets for clues on whether the government will boost or constrict supply of the metal, shipped to destinations such as China to churn out stainless steel.
Cimatu, who described himself as “moderate and calm,” said while he did not have enough experience in environmental conservation, he was willing to learn.
His past experience with environmental protection was mainly during his days in the military when soldiers helped villagers plant trees and keep rivers clean.
The former special envoy of the Philippines to the Middle East said he has yet to take a position on decisions made by Lopez, including her orders to shut more than half the country’s mines and cancel contracts for undeveloped mines to protect water resources.
“I will not take any action on things that I haven’t seen or read or reviewed. I will look at them first,” he said.
Lopez in February ordered the permanent closure of 22 of 41 operating mines and banned open-pit mining last month.
Cimatu said he wants to meet Lopez to get her insight on policies.
“I admire her passion and love for the environment. I will be honored to meet her and try to get her insight in protecting the environment,” he said.
“I will do my job well for the interest of the Filipino people,” he added.
Prior to his appointment at the DENR, Duterte named Cimatu, 70, special envoy to help overseas Filipino workers in areas of conflict.
In fact, he was in Malacañang Palace Monday to sort out details of a planned trip to South Korea to help Filipinos there amid rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula. “I wasn’t expecting it. But he (Duterte) knows I’m very willing to serve the country in any capacity,” Cimatu said, surprised at his appointment.
As special envoy to the Middle East during the term of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Cimatu helped repatriate Filipinos caught in the 2003 Iraq war.
BIG SHOES TO FILL
Senators weighed in on Cimatu’s appointment hoping he would be as passionate for the environment as his predecessor.
Senator Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito said Cimatu has “big shoes to fill after Gina Lopez opened the eyes of the Filipino people on the dangers of mining abuse.” Ejercito hopes Cimatu “would not be intimidated by the mining giants” in the Philippines.
Sen. Paolo “Bam” Aquino IV said he hopes Cimatu would have the same zeal in fighting for the environment as Lopez.
Asked if they believe Cimatu could hurdle the CA’s scrutiny, Senate Majority Leader Vicente “Tito” Sotto III said Cimatu won’t be exempted from intense grilling from members of the bicameral body.
While Father Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines National Secretariat for Social Action, has reservations about Cimatu’s appointment, Surigao del Norte 2nd district Rep. Robert Ace Barbers is glad that Cimatu is replacing Lopez. “A nationalist par excellence, I am confident that he will use the law to further the interests of the people and promote sustainable developments in the country,” Barbers said.
Gariguez believes Cimatu is a “compromised choice” to appease the mining industry.
“He might have management capacity given his military career but he has no track record in terms of his stand on social justice, environmental protection, IP rights, and pro-poor development,” said Gariguez.
“We don’t need a DENR secretary who is a compromised choice to appease the mining industry,” he added.
This is the reason why he and other environmental groups, including 14 bishops are pushing for the reappointment of Lopez. They formalized their appeal in a letter submitted to Malacañang Monday.
LOBBY MONEY CLARIFIED
Meanwhile, Malacanang said President Duterte was not making a “pejorative” accusation about a supposed exchange of money when he said lobby money was behind the CA’s rejection of Lopez’s confirmation as DENR secretary.
The President has clarified that he was actually referring to the lobbying activity, a “legal” exercise to influence a certain position, according to his spokesman Ernesto Abella.
Duterte made the clarification during the Cabinet meeting in Malacañang last Monday after some lawmakers protested his “lobby money” statement as an affront to the integrity of the CA.
“We need to correct that. You know the President did say last night, that when he said ‘lobby,’ it’s not necessarily money. He corrected himself, he said, I mean he clarified himself,” Abella said in a Palace press briefing.
“When he said ‘lobby,’ people automatically assume there was an exchange of money but he said basically, he says lobby is a legal thing that you can actually exercise in order to persuade one’s particular position,” Abella said.
“He was clarifying last night it was not a pejorative accusation that money was transferred or money was exchanged,” Abella added. (With reports from Hannah L. Torregoza, Ellson A. Quismorio, Leslie Ann G. Aquino and Genalyn D. Kabiling)