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New life for her cause

Former Secretary Gina Lopez may no longer be in the Cabinet, but the cause she fought for during her brief tenure in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has gained new life with powerful backing from President Duterte.

In his State-of-the-Nation Address last Monday, the President declared that mining firms must clean up and repair the areas damaged by their mining operations. Those who do not do so, he said, will be “taxed to death” and the money raised will be used to repair the areas damaged by mining.

Secretary Lopez, it will be recalled, had ordered the closure of 23 mining firms and the suspension of five others for violation of environmental law and regulations. The closed mines, she said, were found to be illegally encroaching on watersheds, leaking their wastes into rivers. Many farmlands ceased to be productive because of the pollution.

The mining industry responded to the DENR action, with some members of Congress charging lack of due process in the closing of the mines. The country would be facing costly suits in international arbitration courts as the mining companies had invested considerable capital in their operations. The national government would lose R70 billion in annual taxes; local governments would lose over R441 million in real estate taxes, local business taxes, mayor’s permit fees, and other regulatory fees. Over 1.2 million workers would lose their jobs if the 23 mining firms in Secretary Lopez’s list would be closed down.

She lost the battle when the Commission on Appointments voted not to confirm her appointment. President Duterte bowed to the decision of the legislators in the commission and replaced Lopez with new DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu.

But President Duterte evidently realizes Secretary Lopez had a worthy cause for the environment and thus went all out in his SONA with an order to mining firms clean up, restore, and rehabilitate all areas damaged by their operations. “The protection of the environment must be made a priority ahead of mining and all other activities that adversely affect it,” he said. “You have gained much from mining. We only get about P70 billion a year. But you have considerably neglected your responsibility to protect and preserve the environment for posterity.”

The President went one step further. He said the country will – if possible – put a stop to the present practice of exporting Philippine raw mineral resources; instead it will seek to process the raw materials right here in this country into finished products. The Philippines today produces and exports 24 percent of the nickel used worldwide to produce steel, but we ourselves have no steel industry.

It may take some time before the Philippines can set up industries that will process our ores into finished products like steel. But we can immediately enforce the law and regulations protecting the environment. This, President Duterte declared in his SONA last Monday, is now the government’s non-negotiable policy.

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