Government News Analysis

Lopez not confirmed

DENR Gina Lopez
Philippines DENR Gina Lopez fails to receive confirmation from Commission on Appointments

No surprise, Gina Lopez’s appointment as head of the Philippine Government’s environmental agency – the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) – has been rejected, leaving the country’s mining sector relieved and eco-activists irate.

Meanwhile nickel prices on the London Metal Exchange (LME) leapt by 2% on the news as buyers gambled that the country’s nickel mines – the Philippines is the world’s largest nickel producer – would soon reopen. In February, when Lopez announced the mine closures, three-month delivery for the metal on the LME shot from US$250 a ton to US$10,500. Following the Commission’s decision, there’s also likely to be a healthy uptick for mining stocks on the Philippine Stock Exchange today.

Here’s the background to all this. In February, Lopez ordered the closure of 56% of the country’s mines following a nationwide audit of the industry carried out on her instructions by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau. It was Lopez’s personal interpretation of those findings, however, that caused the shut down of more than half of the Philippine mining sector. “I visited the mines and I made my own judgment based on my own observations,” she said at the time.

Briefly, yesterday the 25-member Commission on Appointments – composed of representatives from both chambers of Congress, under the chairmanship of Senator Manny Pacquiao – decided that in handling her controversial mine-closures programme Lopez had exceeded her authority. And her unilateral decision which imposed gouging fines on mining companies – running contrary to the 1995 Mining Act – seems to be what finally sealed her fate.

She had demanded that all suspended mining firms open “trust funds” in which they should deposit payments of PHP2 million for every hectare of land disturbed and a further payment of PHP1 million for each shipment before stockpiles could be removed. In effect the mine owners were being held to ransom.

Her only defence for this was that it was for “the common good”; that the country’s laws and industry regulations could be brushed aside. “There are things higher than rules, like the common good,” she told the Commission.

That would have been enough for most panel members, among them Senator Alan Peter Cayetano. Addressing her he said: “You cannot invent fees or entitlements without congressional authority. You cannot arbitrarily come up with an amount and impose it on business”.

And of course for a country that lives by the rule of law he’s right. The damage that does to the country’s image – not least as an investment destination – is incalculable, even if Lopez does see herself as a latter day Robin Hood.

It was always clear, however, that lawmakers would not condone this sort of cavalier behaviour. As The Volatilian™ said on 5 March – An unconfirmed result – “Reading between the lines, it looks like the skids could already be under eco-warrior, Regina Lopez … we believe there’s a very good chance that her appointment will not be endorsed”.

We’re not going to dwell on the minutiae of the Commission’s deliberations – we have the result, that’s sufficient. It’s what comes next that’s important.

Duterte, a big supporter of Lopez and a kindred spirit where the environment is concerned, says that he accepts the Commission’s decision. Effectively, he’s drawn a line under a damaging issue that had led to a split in his Cabinet. Unfortunately, however, we believe eco-activists, Lopez’s hard-line supporters, will not take such a philosophical view and are likely to parade their anger if not on the streets certainly on the Internet.

They’re also likely to fiercely object to Lopez’s replacement – whoever it is. The fact is that many of Lopez’s supporters are not necessarily Duterte supporters. While Lopez backs the president’s War on Drugs, for example, many of her fans don’t. They come from the progressive wing of the Left (as does she) – but unlike her, many view Duterte with suspicion. For example, they opposed Duterte’s approval for the burial of former president Ferdinand Marcos in the Hero’s Cemetery at Taguig, Metro Manila last November. Simply put, their loyalties are to a new order of communism.

And this brings us to Lopez’s possible next incarnation – for as one door shuts another door opens and there’s a good chance that we’ve not seen the last of Lopez in the public sphere. We believe there’s a good chance she’ll re-emerge – and fairly quickly – with a role in the government’s peace effort with communist rebels; more specifically as an advisor in talks with the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) – a progressive Left coalition which counts among its members, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPC) and its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).

In many ways it’s a role she could pull off; she has credibility with the NDFP as a rebel in her own right, she’s committed to many of their goals – alleviating poverty in particular – and is hard to the Left politically. She’s also keen to work with the coalition.

In April, CPC founder, Jose Maria Sison, invited Lopez to join the peace talks between the NDFP and the government to discuss peace and environmental issues. Her reaction was effusive: “Wow, sure” she told a local radio station back then.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is also likely to look favourably on this initiative – he respects Lopez; in many ways they’re kindred spirits – and could well co-opt her to the government peace panel for renewed talks with the NDFP. In any event, it’s likely that Duterte will try to find some position for her in his administration.

Lopez, meanwhile, might have other, longer-term goals in mind – like making a run for the Senate in 2019. She doubtless has the funds and a ready-made political machine from among the myriad of Left organisations – from student organisations to trade unions to rights groups to indigenous-people’s groups. She could also expect plenty of support from the politically powerful Philippine Roman Catholic Church which is probably the strongest anti-mining lobby in the country – and as such a big fan of Lopez.

She also has a few problems; not least, a graft complaint filed against her at the Office of the Ombudsman in March. Essentially she’s being cited for ‘pay-to-play’, for allegedly lobbying on behalf of EcoGlobal Inc – a French company with offices in Makati, Metro Manila – to be awarded a US$100 million contract by the Department of Energy.

In the meantime, the question is who will take over at the DENR? Who will Duterte nominate as her successor? Right now there aren’t too many names in the hat and Presidential Spokesman, Ernesto Abella, has said that as yet no one has been lined up for the position.

But one name that is being tossed around – and very seriously – is that of a 37-year-old lawyer from Mindanao, Mark Tolentino, whom Duterte endorsed as his PDP-Laban party candidate in last May’s elections when he made an unsuccessful bid to become the mayor of Cabadbaran City, the capital of Mindanao’s Agusan del Norte province.

But the connection between Duterte and Tolentino doesn’t end there; they are also fellow alumnae of San Beda College of Law and brothers in Lex Talionis Fraternitas – the college’s exclusive fraternity. Its full title is Lex Talionis Fraternitas: Sodalitas Ducum Futurorum – Latin for Law of Talion (or, Retaliation): Soidarity of Future Leaders.

Despite those bonds, however, the problem is, one of the criticisms leveled again Lopez was that she had little understanding of the mining industry. And that could be a problem for Tolentino also.

The only other name that’s emerged so far is that of geologist Mario Luis Jacinto whom Duterte appointed as DENR Undersecretary and head of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau just one month after he took office. He also gave him effective control of the Environmental Management Bureau.

Jacinto is the choice of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP) which it’s understood has already put his name forward to be considered for the post. It was the COMP, an industry-wide association, which led the charge for Lopez’s rejection claiming that the audit was both unfair and illegal and that she lacked knowledge of mining.

This has been a very contentious issue and so before any decision is made for any new appointment, the government will probably want to give time for the dust to settle.

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