“It’s like witnessing a rape. You can’t protect it. There’s too much money to be made tearing it down.”
Thomas Friedman on environmental destruction Hot, Flat and Crowded
TO the credit of President Duterte, his administration does not approach policy decisions in a wishy-washy manner. It turns the task into something existential and fateful.
Life or death, in the battle over the death penalty bill. Servility or independence in the crafting of Philippine foreign policy.
In the riveting confirmation hearing of Environment Secretary Regina “Gina” Lopez, which will come to a head today, it is a choice between 1) saving the earth, or 2) killing a mountain.
This is how a policy debate should be – open and confrontational.
The Lopez appointment was just one of a score of appointments that President Duterte made at the start of his presidency in July 2016. It should have been as humdrum as the others, but such is the humongous lobby of mining magnates and other bigwigs of the extractive industries, and so strong is the profile of Gina Lopez as an environmentalist, that her appointment spiraled into a brawl at the Commission on Appointments (CA).
The knives have been drawn, and the briefs of each side have been laid out in the media. Each side has its retinue of supporters and retainers. It’s almost like the drug war; you cannot avoid seeing or hearing it. Filipinos who have no opinion or side in this issue are rare.
Environment: natural resource or raw material
It should never be a choice between mining and the environment. That is a false and onerous choice. Mining extracts minerals from the environment, which merely allows it.
There are industries—fossil fuel, mining, timber—that are so vital to an economy, that government accords it as much importance as the environment.
Before the environment became a hot-button contemporary issue, there was a traditional policy debate on whether the environment should be viewed as a natural resource or a raw material. Environmentalists and conservationists think natural resource; miners and financiers think raw material.
First, some definitions:
Natural resources are resources that exist without the actions of mankind. On earth, they include: sunlight, atmosphere, water, land (including all minerals) along with all vegetation and animal life that naturally subsists upon or within the above identified characteristics and substances.
Natural resources may be further classified in different ways. Natural resources are materials and components (something that can be used) that can be found within the environment. Every man-made product is composed of natural resources (at its fundamental level).
A raw material, also known as a feedstock or unprocessed material, is a basic material that is used to produce goods, finished products, energy, or intermediate materials which are feedstock for future finished products.
One example is crude oil, which is a raw material and a feedstock used in the production of industrial chemicals, fuels, plastics, and pharmaceutical goods; lumber is a raw material used to produce a variety of products, including furniture.
CA body under scrutiny too
Gina Lopez is the one on the dock in the confirmation hearing today. But the members of the appointments commission might as well be on the dock themselves; their integrity as gatekeepers for government posts will be under scrutiny.
Some will pay a price, or earn a retainer (30 pieces of something?).
You know the stakes are high from the way DU 30 is lobbying hard for his environment secretary. He declared that he is ready to forego the P70 billion in taxes that mining pays in taxes, in order to keep Lopez and her total commitment to protect the environment. He counsels that the nation should earn the money elsewhere, and in a less catastrophic way.
This complements Lopez’s move to suspend 23 mining companies, and cancel 75 mining agreements, and her well-known spiel about mining ‘s destructive impact on the environment and its meager contribution to the economy.
The mining lobby has mounted a strong counter-attack. It has assembled a lengthy lineup of oppositors to Lopez and equipped each with prepared statements against her appointment. They include the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP), legislators (who hail from provinces hosting mining activities and are invested in mining ventures), academics for hire, bureaucrats, non-government organizations, journalists, and entire media organizations (some owned by known mining executives). Together they have unfurled a concerted campaign to block Lopez’s confirmation.
Their principal strategy is to question Lopez’s competence as environment secretary, her alleged failure to give mining companies due process, and to raise questions about her family’s alleged rival business interests.
Issue by issue, barb for barb, sound bite for sound bite, it has been a whale of a contest.
When the mining lobby questioned her competence, Gina fired back. She told CA vice chairman Rep. Ronaldo Zamora of San Juan, that his brother has been mining for two decades and has killed a mountain. She all but accused the congressman of being invested in mining himself.
The image of killing a mountain resonated. Zamora and his brothers now have questions to answer about their mining activities. Their failed bet on Mar Roxas in the 2016 presidential elections is not lost on Duterte.
All the publicity against Gina appear puny compared to the widespread unpopularity of mining and the public opposition of the Catholic Church and other churches to mining. The fact that the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 allows mining in the country is no defense; it only leads to the demand that the Congress should now repeal the law.
When citizens learn that mining contributes less than one percent to the gross domestic product (GDP), they put two and two together. They ask, why are we allowing mining to destroy our environment? What does the country get in return?
There is no good answer. When you have seen a mountain and an area that has been mined, you do not forget.
The quote from Thomas Friedman in his 2008 book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, is apposite: “It’s like witnessing a rape. You can’t protect it. There’s too much money to be made tearing it down.”
A victim of rape
Our natural environment, our God-given heritage, let us face it, is a victim of rape. It is not all the doing of mining. Logging and over- fishing have also done their share.
But mining has been the most devastating, the most merciless, and the most guilty.
This is why President Duterte, after viewing by helicopter the mined areas of the archipelago, sounds like the alter ego of Gina Lopez. He is grieved by the flattened mountains, the clearings in the forest areas, and the rivers that have been ruined. He sounds close to proclaiming a war on mining, as a follow-up to the war on drugs.
Mining can never win a public relations war against the DENR and the environment. Not in our archipelago. Not among our people.
If the Commission on Appointments blocks Gina Lopez’s appointment as DENR secretary, it will be the CA’s disgrace.