I DO not doubt that Gina Lopez has her heart in the right place.
But this is not all that we need in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). This position is not merely about taking a strong stand against mining—and doing eco-tourism projects to prove that there are other ways of earning from the environment. It’s not merely about promising to clean the Pasig River—no matter the settlements that live off it. It’s not just about putting out money for the La Mesa Watershed Reservation.
If this is all we’re looking at, then Lopez does not qualify for this job. Her family’s business interests just make things worse.
Conflicts of interest
According to its website, the Lopez Group of Companies has interests in broadcasting, cable TV, power generation and distribution, telecommunications, banking, and property development. Its hands are dipped in nation’s basic needs and services such as electricity and water, oil and manufacturing, all of which impinge upon and impact the environment.
It is clear Lopez cannot even do a Mark Villar, he who promised that the Villar Group would not engage in any government project while he is Public Works Secretary. Her family is just too politically embroiled she would have a hard time proving that her family will not gain from her position in the Duterte Cabinet.
As chairperson of the ABS-CBN Foundation, Inc. (AFI), Lopez herself is in fact complicit in the environmental impacts of her family’s businesses.
We might think there are no impacts of course. You forget that with a cultural empire like ABS-CBN, even information can be controlled in favor of one of the most powerful oligarchies in the country.
In the news: cases
In 2013, Lopez herself got embroiled in two controversies for her “environmental” work.
A Commission on Audit Report (COA) for the years 2004 to 2009 revealed that the AFI had unilaterally decided to get another 15 percent over its 30 percent share in the La Mesa Eco-Park’s net income. The Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) states: 40 percent to MWSS, 30 percent to the Quezon City government, and 30 percent to the AFI (Business World, 17 Nov 2014).
Another COA report alleged that instead of “removing rubbish,” the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), headed by Lopez, had “created more junk … bungling its P17.7-million cleanup of Metro Manila’s biggest waterway. COA said that millions of pesos worth of recycling equipment had been rendered junk because the PRRC had only one working materials recovery facility (MRF) out of the 10 recycling centers it committed to build over the last four years (Inquirer.net, 3 July 2013).
In 2010, the residents of Bangkal, in Makati, were put at risk by a leak in one of the Lopezes’ pipelines. “The Supreme Court issued a Writ of Kalikasan and temporary environmental protection order (TEPO) [ordering]FPIC to “cease and desist from operating the pipeline” (Philstar.com, 20 June 2010).
In 2001, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) reported that the newly-built Powerplant Mall at the Lopezes’ Rockwell development buried a “deadly pond of toxic waste that had been produced by the 40-year-old, 130-megawatt thermal power once operated by the Lopez-owned Manila Electric Company.”
The report alleges: “10 minutes’ drive from this newest playground of the rich is Barangay San Joaquin in Pasig City, … entombed in reinforced concrete underneath a parking area the size of four basketball courts, [there are]4,300 cubic meters of soil and 14 cubic meters of liquids contaminated with cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which had been used for Rockwell’s power plant transformers” (PCIJ website, ©2001).”
Experts say there is no guarantee that this won’t leak out through the soil and cement at some point.
Lopez’s ‘straight’ answers
These cases seem few and far between, but even Lopez would agree that environmental problems have long-term effects.
For example: in Jan. 2016 the Makati City government declared three barangays still at risk from the Lopez’s 2010 pipeline leak. Dr. Carlo Arcilla, director of the National Institute of Geological Sciences (NIGS) of the University of the Philippines “warned that returning residents of the condominium in Barangay Bangkal remain in danger of contracting lung cancer due to benzene contamination and the polluted groundwater caused by the leakage in 2010, [with]roughly 400,000 liters of leaked petroleum products remain underground, contaminating the soil and water beneath Bangkal” (The Standard, 2 Jan. 2016).
In 2012, forced to respond to this issue, Lopez said “her family was currently spending hundreds of millions of pesos to fix the unfortunate accident” (Rappler.com, 3 Mar 2012).
It is this attitude about money that is in Lopez’s responses to the COA reports on the La Mesa Watershed project and the PRRC.
In 2013, speaking on ABS-CBN, she said about the MWSS allegations on La Mesa funds: “They have everything, I don’t get anything for me. It all goes to their land. We’ve put in P300 million over and above on government property, without asking anything back in return. … The only thing I ask is 15 percent because how can you run an organization, an enterprise if you don’t have admin cost? … 15 percent, that’s like peanuts. We do the auditing. We do the finance. We do the HR. 15 percent admin fee? I mean, that’s really inexpensive” (18 July 2013).
About bungling the P17.7 million cleanup of the PRRC: “We’ve shifted several key positions in top management. I felt that we could have done a better job. But you know, I’m not even paid for this. Not one peso. I’m the chairperson. I’m not supposed to be running operations but never mind because I’m the chair, I’ll take full responsibility” (18 July 2013).
This attitude is alarming because for someone who speaks of volunteering for the environment, she sure keeps pointing out how much money she (and her family) have put out, and how she’s doing this for free. Asked about money, the tendency is to be defensive.
In 2014, after columnist Butch del Castillo asked her questions about the COA report on La Mesa, she replied: “Why don’t you look at the bigger picture—we’re saving a lot of people from poverty and trying to make the air you breathe a lot cleaner, but you insist on nitpicking! Who hired you to ask me these questions? The mining companies?”
No, not at all the response we expect from anyone involved in environmental work. And certainly not from a government official.