Reading between the lines, it looks like the skids could already be under eco-warrior, Regina Lopez (photo), the Philippines’ Environment and Natural Resources chief who kicked a hornets’ nest last month when she ordered a mass mines shutdown. Her unilateral decision to fold 56% of the country’s mines sent world nickel prices soaring, mining shares on the Philippine Stock Exchange plunging, and opened a crack in the Cabinet as ministers raced to limit the damage.
The pit closures followed a nationwide audit of mines which were started last summer by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau – an agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) – on Lopez’s direct instruction. The strident green crusader had pledged to virtually decimate the country’s mining sector and she used the audit as the means.
Far from pursuing a national policy that took into account the wider interests of the industry and the economy, the closures – 23 of the country’s 41 mines, mostly nickel – plus the issuing of suspension notices for five more, was nothing short of Lopez pursuing a personal vendetta which sought to end mining in the Philippines. As she said at the time: “I visited the mines and I made my own judgment based on my own observations”.
And that statement, and others like it, could now seal her fate.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been put in an invidious position by Lopez; for while he too is concerned by environmental damage caused by mining, he cannot preside over a government where ministers pursue their own private agendas – which is clearly the case here. He also needs to maintain Cabinet cohesion if his ambitious plans for the economy are going to stand any chance of success. In that endeavour, there’s no place for divisive policies.
And so, when Lopez’s confirmation hearing finally comes up in the Senate – presently she’s DENR Secretary-Designate – we believe there’s a very good chance that her appointment will not be endorsed. That hearing had been rescheduled for last Wednesday, but was later postponed following a ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in which three senators lost their committee chairs and the Upper House’s President Pro-Tempore was replaced. A paler shade of yellow
Aside from mounting calls from the powerful mining lobby that she should not be confirmed, we base our conclusion on three revealing remarks – one made by Lopez; one by Finance Minister, Carlos Dominguez, who led efforts to calm speculation following Lopez’s bombshell declaration that more or less stated she was effectively closing down the Philippine mining industry; and one by Duterte himself.
Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, of the confirmation hearings Lopez said this. ”I strongly feel that we should not have any individuals there with strong business leanings which will influence and affect the decisions. I’m not accusing anyone. I’m just saying as a matter of policy. That’s the way it should be”.
Well, first of all, that’s a very rich statement coming from someone whose strong environmentalist ‘leanings’ have most certainly ‘influenced’ and ‘affected’ her decision to wipe out more than half of the Philippine mining sector – a move that threatens the lives of more than a million people; putting an estimated 195,000 direct and indirect mine workers out of work. Or in her view, is imposing such a ruthless order the privilege of a Secretary-Designate?
Furthermore, if senators with “strong business interests” were to be excluded, Lopez would be sitting in the chamber for the hearings more or less on her own. Surely, she must be aware that members have business interests. We know she’s new to government but she must have heard of SALN, the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net-worth – an annual register in which all members of Congress are required to declare a statement of their business and financial affairs. She should take a look at that. Excluding senators on those grounds would scotch the hearings entirely. There wouldn’t be anyone left to hear them.
But anyway, let’s assume what she actually meant to say was that senators with mining interests should not determine her confirmation. But that begs the question: what about senators with environmental interests or any who at any time have voted against pro-mining legislation? Should they be allowed to attend? To determine who was fit for the post?
Finance Secretary Dominguez who managed to set aside Lopez’s decision while a review of her findings is being carried out, confirmed that the reassessment of those findings would go ahead “even if the appointment of the environment minister who ordered the closure of over half the country’s mines is nor confirmed by Congress”. In short, her rejection by the Senate has already been factored in at Cabinet level.
Describing the reassessment as “an objective, science-based fact-finding review,” he left no one in any doubt as to how Lopez arrived at her conclusions – not that we needed that confirmed; Lopez’s anti-mines mission has been clear from day one.
Immediately following Lopez’s announcement of her unilateral decision to neuter the country’s mining industry, the Department of Finance issued the following statement. “Malacañang has swiftly moved to calm fears of massive layoffs in communities affected by Lopez’s sudden move to close down or suspend mining operations in 10 provinces across the country, after several Cabinet officials expressed concern over the detrimental impact of her decision, which she had apparently kept to herself and even excluded members of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) team that conducted the audit, as well as the panel that reviewed the audit findings”.
The earlier Malacañang statement referred to said this. “Members of the Cabinet have expressed their full support behind President Duterte’s decision to observe due process before implementing a directive of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources to shut down or suspend 28 mining sites across the country”. It added that the DENR move “has triggered outrage in communities hosting mining sites, as some 195,000 direct and indirect workers and their families, or a total of some 1.2 million people, would be adversely affected by the closure and suspensions of the mine sites”. Fallout from the mines
But it’s what Duterte told reporters on Monday that further leads us to believe that Lopez will not be getting the “full presidential backing” she previously boasted about for her measures. He stated clearly that he would not be interfering in the confirmation proceedings adding. “This is a democracy. There are processes to be observed”.
And, of course, he’s absolutely right. The president appoints, Congress confirms. If it didn’t, nepotism, for example, would be rampant in the executive. The Philippines would have a Cabinet like Angola’s or Gabon’s.
Equally as important though, is that the president cannot be seen to be backing one minister against another. Thus, he has no option but to step back and let the process take its course. Furthermore, national-policy decisions are taken by the Cabinet – again, in case no one’s told her, that’s how the Cabinet works. Policy is arrived at by consensus not by edict declared by a single member – in this case, a loose canon who solely wishes to pursue a personal agenda.
Certainly, there’ll be some who’ll charge Duterte with changing his stance on mining; that he’s not pro-environment. That will carry little weight though following his signing last week of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which offers a 70% reduction in Philippine carbon emissions by 2030. This has now been passed to the Senate for approval – The power and the furore
And so, given all that – the tremendous toll the ’Lopez Declaration’ would take on the mining industry and all those whose livelihood it provides; the influence of the mining lobby, whose repeated requests for an explanation of how she arrived at her conclusions were summarily denied; clear evidence that the Mines and Geosciences Bureau were not on board with her decision, even questioning it; and Duterte’s clear message that he must step aside and allow the democratic process to run its course, leaving Congress to decide, we believe that it will be difficult for the hearings to ratify her position.
The eco-princess, meanwhile, will remain adamant. This is a woman who’s used to getting her own way. If she doesn’t on an issue that is as personal as this, she’ll be left with just one option. To resign. Of course there will be cries for her not to – particularly from the green ranks of the eco-activists. But she’s become increasingly isolated within the executive branch and even in what for the moment might be referred to as “her department”.