BELOW THE LINE
By AMBASSADOR JOSE ABETO ZAIDE
There were never two things about Regina Paz LaO Lopez. As President Rodrigo Duterte’s putative Secretary of the Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR), she renewed the license of 12 mining companies, and cancelled 26. She didn’t need the job; the job needed her. On the opposite side, the Chamber of Mines boasted that she wouldn’t get past the Commission on Appointments (CA); Goliath mining companies would gang up against her.
Gina Lopez was scandalized at how we ravage nature’s endowments. She professed love for the environment and our natural resources as the only driver to save our country and our planet. Mining concessions are a privilege with appropriate conditions, not a right. She spelled it black or white, passionate not about what is hers or ours, but what belongs to future generations.
Together with two wizened newshawks, I joined Gina Lopez on a private flight to Butuan. I saw close-up this lady to the manor born, who had begged for alms for Ananda Marga, become the moving spirit to save the environment. Our first stop at the Philsaga Mining Corporation in Agusuan del Sur, which produced 120,000 to 130,000 ounces of gold. Mining companies are mandated to set aside 1.5% of their earnings for a Social Management Development Fund. Philsaga is role model, using the annual P125-million SMDF not only in its host area, but in neighboring districts. (A monkey on its back — informal miners who operate above the ground or pan for gold. The company buys their produce, thereby avoiding risk of tailings by improper handling.)
Gina Lopez was the star at one stopover, whipping up everyone like a cheerleader with catchwords like “environment” and “social responsibility.” Seeing how she played the crowd which hung on her every word, I suggested that if she fails to clear the CA, she could run for the Senate and top the polls. But she demurred that she is unaccustomed to quid pro quo.
We overflew open pit mines left tiwang-wang after miners had sucked out their treasure. Next stop at the Manila Mining Corporation (MMC) in Surigao del Norte, with almost 2,000 hectares of prime mineral lands. Its application for additional 4,850 hectares was put on suspended animation, after two leaks of tailings. (MMC avers that new technology precludes the same tailings disaster. It tried without success to persuade the DENR secretary to grant clearance, on the promise that MMC would bring in more foreign investment. A Chamber of Mines board member also vowed sustainable mining.) Miners would be more persuasive if they show restoration of open-pit sites.
On the putative study by a government inter-agency council to lift the ban against open-pit mining, Lopez asked who bears the consequences when the open pit takes in water which turns toxic. Those affected point out that the loss of mining jobs and revenues could lead to increased criminality, further exacerbating the insurgency problem. Lopez promised to provide jobs to affected workers under DENR’s “green economy” program. This was not reaching for the stars…when so much of the resources are endemic. She ticked off nature’s blessings of Philippine flora species preempted by foreign interests:
- Patented by Yves St. Laurent: Ilang-Ilang, for perfume exported to Europe.
- Patented by Japan: Nata de coco; sarong, lagunen, and takip kuhol (Centella Asiatisch) lowers blood pressure, rejuvenates, vs. dysentery, fever, headache; saluyot, anti-stress tablet; banaba (Lagerstroemia Speciosa) vs. fever, diarrhea, diabetes, and purgative (Itoen KK).
- Patented by USA: Philippine sea snail (Conus Magus) for toxin SNX 111 painkiller stronger than morphine (NeurexCorp.); Philippine tee tree (Taxis Sumatrana) source of cancer-curing Taxol (University of Philadelphia); ampalaya, Vitamin A rich vegetable, and ampalaya + eggplant as cure for diabetes (Cromak Research Inc).
The ill-starred stint of Gina Lopez as environment secretary came to its predictable end when the CA rejected her appointment with finality on the third hearing on 3 May 2017. Senators who voted for her were saddened, but deferred to the majority. Senate Minority Floor Leader Franklin Drilon said the Liberal Party voted as a bloc for her confirmation. Senator Loren Legarda, an environment advocate, lamented the loss of a DENR secretary who could lead with “the passion, integrity, and political will to implement our environmental laws.” Some others shed crocodile tears.
Where is a prophet know in his/her own country? But Gina Lopez wasn’t one to sulk and lick her wounds. On 5 October 2017, she was chosen for the Seacology Prize by the David Bower Center in Berkeley, California, for her work protecting the unique habitats and cultures of islands. As a notable exception and to manifest their esteem for the year’s awardee, Seacology Founder and Chair Dr. Paul Cox, Vice Chair Ken Murdock, and Executive Director Duane Silverstein — all four of them — flew in to honor the 26th prize awardee in her home country. On learning of the award, she matched the prize money to double the energy to preserving island environment and culture. She said, “The Philippines is a country of 7,107 islands, and I hope this award will affect the entire country. And because the Philippines has so many diverse ecosystems, and so many animals and plants found nowhere else, saving our islands has direct global impact as well.”
I cull from the citation on the Seacology Prize in 2017: “It takes uncommon bravery to speak out for conservation. Powerful interests often oppose people who defend their island’s environment. Every Seacology Prize recipient faced resistance, personal sacrifice and risk. Gina Lopez’s circumstances are unique and stand out when compared to many former recipients. She has been fortunate to have the benefits of education and opportunity. But she has used those advantages to speak and act for people who are not as fortunate. People without a voice, whose environmental circumstances and way of life are threatened.”
A tad long for epitaph for Regina Paz (“Queen of Peace”?) LaO Lopez, environment warrior who passed away at 65. But I couldn’t think of anything more deservedly fitting.