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A decision on environment & natural resources

WHEN Congress resumes its sessions on May 2 and the Commission on Appointments returns to considering President Duterte’s cabinet appointments, the great debate on mining and the environment will resume as Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Gina Lopez returns to face the commission.

She and three other cabinet members who were bypassed when Congress adjourned last month – the secretaries of Agrarian Reform, Social Welfare, and Health – have been issued interim appointments so the regular operations of their departments can continue unimpeded. But the controversy surrounding Lopez is such that she faces a real test when May 2 comes around.

Secretary Lopez closed down 23 mines, suspended five others, and cancelled 75 mining permits last month, drawing tremendous opposition from supporters of an industry that gives the government some P70 billion in annual revenue. The Mining Industry Coordinating Council is now reviewing her decisions, but the secretary insists it has only recommendatory powers.

In an interview with the Manila Bulletin last Monday, she said the present system is unfair to the country. Eighty percent of the proceeds from mining operations goes to the company, she said, and most of it leaves the country.

Meanwhile, she said, rivers are destroyed and surrounding farms get polluted.

And yet, she said, the communities could earn much more from the natural biodiversity of the country.

She cited communities beginning to benefit from projects making use of the natural resources and beauty of the land – eco trails, firefly watching, a butterfly garden, island hopping for tourists from here and abroad. India, she noted, has built a great pharmaceutical industry based on its plants.

The secretary said she believes the Philippines can earn more from its biodiversity than from mining. She said she has allocated the bulk of the DENR’s R29-billion budget to massive reforestation, green projects to avert climate change, ecotourism. “If we are going to make choices, why don’t we make the ones that benefit the people the most?”

she asked.

Secretary Lopez said she is no longer sure if she gets to keep her position in the DENR. She said she has about ten organizations supporting her, but there are at least 20 opposing her in the Commission on Appointments.

How it will ultimately vote on her appointment will depend to a great extent on how strongly President Duterte, other administration officials, and their allies in Congress share her view of how the country’s great natural resources are to be developed and utilized. To many today, her view may seem too idealistic. But it would be most unfortunate if Secretary Lopez’s battle for the environment would come to an end in the Commission on Appointments next month.