Ours is a country that worships the rich. Whether they are oligarchs or vice lords does not matter. Rich-worship is across-the-board and is not blurred along the source of wealth. Billionaires have a special place of their own: they are regarded as deities. Even the billionaire-miners.
Unlike in other countries, mining in our local context does not stir up a lot of controversies. Even when mine tailings spill into vast swaths of farming communities and cause widespread devastation all around, the state just slaps the mining entities on the wrist. On cases when the holding dams of toxic mining refuse burst into waterways and cause dislocation on a wide scale, the closure orders of the mining firms do not last.
Insofar as mining firms are concerned, it is about multiple chances. There is no such rule as “strike three and you are out.”
Ok, that leniency does not cover only the miners. The country’s rich bio-diversity is down to less than one million hectares of original timber stand (we call these virgin forest) because of the state’s pliable logging policy. How many mahogany courts in the developed world had we supplied with prime hardwood?
All forms of resource-extraction have been regulated with leniency by government.
Today, however, things have changed.
Gina Lopez, the DENR secretary and environmental sheriff of DU30, recently ordered the closure of 23 mining companies, including iconic names in the mining industry, mining entities that have been with us from time immemorial. Then, in another bold move, she cancelled 75 mining contracts for underdeveloped mines, including the $5.9 billion Tampakan gold and copper project in South Cotabato. No one in the contemporary history of the DENR has demonstrated the boldness of the new sheriff. She has a powerful argument: life and survival. Reckless mining means death and that should end.
Finally, the DENR gets a spine. And the result is a rare spectacle in this rich-worshipping country – billionaire-miners screaming and asking for support from their perceived allies in the DU30 cabinet. We have not seen this kind of policy implementation before and for those of us in the vulnerable class who used to feel that the billionaires in this country have always been spared from the slightest inconvenience by government policy, we are seeing a rare treat.
The screams of the billionaire-miners with closure orders seem to be as primal as the screams of those in the slum communities raided under Oplan Tokhang.
And the new sheriff, Ms. Lopez, seems unfazed, if not revelling in her newfound role as the scourge of the billionaire class. Ms. Lopez, it has to be pointed out, is the only true blue blood in the DU30 cabinet. She is an heir to the Lopez fortune.
Ms. Lopez is the rare type of blue blood who pushes the Marxists into a great conundrum. Is there really someone from the capitalist class who will work against the interests of the capitalist class? And as we said before, Ms. Lopez is not only doing that -she is having the time of her life doing just that.
The beef of the billionaire-miners is compounded by this fact. Ms. Lopez can be lenient to the miners, too. The review committee she formed to review the state of environmental safety of mining firms in the country offered the usual leniency. The committee, beholden to the old ways and the state’s traditional kid-glove treatment of mining firms, recommended two forms of punishment. First is fines, big and small fines. The second is suspension of the permits of the violators, pending the correction of the violations.
Ms. Lopez went beyond that. She ordered the closure of the more than 20 flagrant violators and suspensions for those with lesser violations. The order on the 75 mining contracts was a virtual death sentence. The power point presentations of Ms. Lopez seem to drive home the point that those closed should remain permanently closed before they inflict more damage on the environment.
A question worth asking in the aftermath of Ms. Lopez’s tough policies on the billionaire-miners. Will she survive the wrath of the miners?
Already, and as expected, the collected wrath of the miners was conveyed to the Commission on Appointments (CA), the bicameral body that screens and approves cabinet appointments of the President.
The influential Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, one of the few lobby groups with clout and power in the country, has fired off a passionate opposition to the CA, with a request to junk her confirmation.
The Chamber called her “ secretary-designate” which is not normal and which intention is to insult the new sheriff.
Metallurgy and geology students took up parallel actions, which essentially said “ No to Gina and Yes to Mina.”
The Chamber has everything: money, clout, media muscle, organizational capability, and most of all influence with lawmakers, whether these lawmakers are in the mining communities or not. Remember the fate of Sonny Alvarez? He was pushed out as DENR secretary by some lawmaker -protectors of resource extractors in Mindanao. Poor Sonny had zero chance against the powerful lobby against him.
Is Ms. Lopez tough enough to withstand the tsunami of rage?
That we do not know. But for the spine alone, and doing what has not been done before – which is to inconvenience the billionaire class – many feel she should be defended by DU30. Many secretly want to say this: We are with her.