OF his Cabinet appointees, Gina Lopez was one of the very few who fell outside President Rodrigo Duterte’s principle of selectivity. Unlike many of his other picks, she did not owe her appointment to old law schoolties or murky Davao connections. Norwas shea grasping campaign donor who had contributed millions. When she appeared before Duterte soon after he assumed the presidency, he named her to the post of environment secretary without a second thought. The environmental causes she passionately championed – biodiversity protection, reforestation, cleaning the Pasig River and its surrounding slum neighborhoods, producing science television programs for young children, demonstrably promoted social welfare and national development. Besides, Duterte had nothing against this particular oligarch whom he actually seemed to like. She threw herself into her new job with crusading fervor, purpose and integrity. Ten months later she was ousted. It’s a painful and depressing reminder of how egocentric trapo politics operates.
Had Gina Lopez not been a scion of one of the country’s most prominent families, her prospects of employment would have been very dim indeed. Studying at exclusive Catholic schools in Manila and Boston, and obtaining a slender master’s degree in development management from the Asian Institute of Management, doesn’t amount to much in the real world. Her decision to become a yoga missionary and wander about India and Africa would scare and disappoint most parents. In the real world, Gina’s resumé at this point would leave her with few career options except for, maybe, slumming on a beach in Goa smoking pot.
But an elite background throws open choices and permits certain privileges, most luxuriously of allis the chance to be as imaginative and unconventional as one likes. At the age of 18 she was smitten with the spiritual life, which in my book is a whole lot better than a life motivated by selfishness and greed. The meditation group she joined in her first year at college was, by her own admission, a transformative experience. “I remember entering the ashram… People were singing and dancing. When they sat for meditation I felt something,” she later said. “Tears rolled down my cheeks… I had a feeling of Divine Love. That changed my life forever.” It takes nerve to embark on life-long hippy adventures. Gina lived with impoverished communities in Kenya, taught underprivileged children, got married in Africa, a relationship that lasted eight years, and bore two children. When she eventually returned to the Philippines to figure out what else she could do, the elite background she had shunned was her safety net.
It has been said that the Lopez family do not waste their women. Gina, who has more than a touch of the prodigal daughter about her, was welcomed back into the family fold. She joined the family-owned ABS-CBN Foundation headed by her slightly older brother Gabby, where she soon emerged as a dynamic environmentalist. “I remain convinced that we can have a country without poverty if we take care of the environment and institute mechanisms wherein the community around benefits,” she has claimed. She helmed the Pasig River rehabilitation project, a cause everyone could get behind, and became a vocal critic of the mining industry, which has led her to her current impasse.
This brief foray into Gina’s biography serves to underline the fact that here was a person who, while at times has a tendency to lapse into mawkish idealism (see for instance her old columns in the Philippine Star), functioned on the strength of her convictions. It matters little whether Duterte fully grasped this aspect of Gina’s character. Despite his obvious belligerence toward climate change measures–recall his initial refusal to ratify the Paris Agreement, and his reluctance to scale down coal mining which he believes to be essential to the country’s development—hiring Gina Lopez enhanced his popularity and made him look sympathetic to environmental causes.In the end, he threw her under the bus.
During her brief tenure, Gina managed to get 75 existing mining contracts cancelled as well as scores of future open-pit mining projects and mineral production-sharing agreements. She shut down 22 mining firms and suspended 5 others. She publicly accused mining bosses of killing off mountains, taking “blood money” and evading taxes. It seemed to escape her mind that in a country where politics and governance beds down with private business interests, and where no head of state has ever found the will to rein in, much less stamp out the manipulation of public policy by elite families for their own private profit—the crony capitalism and rent-seeking activities which have so spectacularly succeeded in retarding national development—her actions would never be tolerated.
Had she been perhaps more appreciative of her own family’s long trapo heritage, one that can be traced back over several generations, and accounts for the incredible durability of the Lopez oligarchs, she might have exercised more cunning. At the very least, she should have taken note of the fact that the Philippines had now risen to third position in the Economist’s crony capitalism index. She certainly ought to have been more wary of presidential mendacity. But this is not where her instincts are at their sharpest.
The Commission on Appointments rejected her confirmation based on piffle. Allegations of incompetence, authoritarian tendencies, and misuse of funds, all sound preposterous. It is hardly just a point of propriety or delicadeza that those congressmen with mining interests ought to have recused themselves from voting.
Gina didn’t just clash with the mining industry and its stakeholders. She confronted the President’s big-time cronies and top financiers. “Money talks,” Duterte shrugged, which appears to be the long-awaited “go-signal” for mining bosses to get back to business as usual. Referring to Gina’s closure orders, Ronald Recidoro, legal adviser to the Chamber of Mines Philippines, remarked: “We will have to challenge those and have it reviewed or even revoked by the next DENR chief.”