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Philippine lawmakers sack environmental chief

Environmentalists, bishops condemn congressional commission decision not to confirm appointment of Regina Paz Lopez

Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Updated: May 04, 2017 07:49 AM GMT
Philippine lawmakers sack environmental chief

Philippine Environment Secretary Regina Paz Lopez, whose appointment was rejected by legislators on May 3, closes her eyes in prayer during a church-sponsored activity in February. (Photo by Angie de Silva)


Church leaders in the Philippines have decried a decision by legislators to remove the environment secretary who has closed half the country's mines in the last eight months.

"This is a national disaster," Jesuit Father Joel Tabora, president of the Ateneo de Davao University, said in a post on Twitter. 

"The [Commission on Appointments] has betrayed the environment and the nation," said the priest, who openly supported Environment Secretary Regina Paz Lopez.

Under Philippine law, the commission, made up of 12 senators and 12 members of the Lower House of Congress, has to confirm the appointment of executive officials.

"There has been no one who has fought more for the environment, for the good of all than Gina Lopez," said Father Tabora.

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The Jesuit priest described Lopez as "one of the greatest environmentalists of our day to lead the [Department of Environment and Natural Resources]."

"The Filipino people and the common good has lost," said Father Tabora.

Legislators have repeatedly refused to confirm the appointment of Lopez, a staunch anti-mining activist who was named environment chief by President Rodrigo Duterte last year.

During her short stint in government, Lopez ordered the closure of 29 of the Philippines' 41 mines for damaging watersheds and for siltation of coastal waters and farmlands. 

Her decision, which followed audits of the mines, has caused an outcry from the mining industry.

"I have a bias for social justice and common good," Lopez admitted.


Expected decision

Environmental activists admitted the decision to sack Lopez was expected "given the powerful lobby of the Chamber of Mines and the vested interests of many politicians."

Father Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of the social action secretariat of the Catholic bishops conference, said the fight for the environment would not end with Lopez.

"This is not the end," said the priest. "The fight for the environment and the victims of mining will continue," he said.

Father Gariguez said the Filipino people should not re-elect legislators who voted against the  "environmental reform agenda" of Lopez.

Retired Archbishop Ramon Arguelles of Lipa, who lobbied for Lopez's confirmation, said the "treacherous elite" has prevailed over "honest concern for the welfare of the poor majority."

"We cannot rely on leaders who have no fear of God nor care for our country and people," said the prelate, adding that the poor "should unite and topple these traitors before our country is totally devastated."

Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos said the decision to remove Lopez was a test of Duterte's resolve to care for the environment.

"It will either strengthen or weaken the credibility and integrity of his entire administration," said the prelate.

He also urged environmental activists "to go to the streets" to support Lopez.

"[The failure to confirm Lopez] signals a clear and urgent call to us who care for our common home to mobilize," said the bishop.


Mining money behind rejection

In a statement, the Communist Party of the Philippines said it had lost a friend in its struggle to defend the environment with the rejection of Lopez's appointment.

"Big bourgeois comprador interests in the mining industry surely mobilized hundreds of millions of pesos and employed their vast political influence to ensure [the rejection of Lopez's appointment]," read a statement from the rebel group.

The rebels said the revolutionary forces and the people lost an ally in the mission to defend the environment and the livelihood of peasants and tribal communities.

They vowed to continue to implement "policies of the people's democratic government and carry out its orders to punish all plunderers and prevent the further destruction of the environment."

On April 20, Lopez announced a plan to enlist the help of rebel fighters in implementing projects in mining communities, especially in the southern region of Mindanao.

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