INTERVIEW: How an Activist Minister in Philippines Took on the Mining Barons – by Fred Pearce (YaleEnvironment360 – October 5, 2017)

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Gina Lopez, who served as the Philippines’ environment chief, talks about her embattled, short-lived tenure and explains why it’s so difficult to rein in the country’s powerful and environmentally destructive mining industry.

Gina Lopez is the scion of a wealthy Filipino family that owns the nation’s largest media conglomerate. Yet despite her privileged background, she has followed an unconventional path — living in an Indian ashram, working anonymously as a missionary in Africa for 11 years, and ultimately becoming an environmental activist in her native land.

That work, especially her campaign against the Philippines’ corrupt and highly destructive mining industry, brought her to the attention of President Rodrigo Duterte, a controversial figure best known for ordering the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers when he was mayor of Davao City. In June 2016, Duterte appointed Lopez as Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources.

She did not waste time. She cracked down on illegal fishing, campaigned for renewable energy, and, most notably, banned open-pit mines and threatened to shut down more than half the country’s mining operations, saying their environmental destruction was wrecking the lives of farmers and fishermen in remote rural communities. But the powerful mining companies struck back, lobbying the country’s Congress and getting her thrown out of office last May.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Lopez, 63, who this week is receiving the Seacology Prize for her environmental work, describes the widespread damage caused by the Filipino mining industry, discusses why she still supports Duterte, and explains what drove her to take on the mining companies. “Before I took up the job, I decided to be true to myself,” she says. “If I had calculated and maneuvered, I would never have forgiven myself.”

Yale Environment 360: How did a radical like you get to become environment minister?

Gina Lopez: I had no plan to be in the government, but I had been campaigning against mines. I had visited many and I was horrified at the injustice, how the destruction of the environment damaged the lives of farmers and fishers. I had raised 10 million signatures to stop the mining. So when the presidential elections were coming up last year, I went to all the presidential candidates.

I showed them pictures of the environmental damage and gave them data from universities and research institutions. Out of all of the candidates, the one who came out unstintingly on my side was Rodrigo Duterte. When I showed him the pictures, he said, “You want me to kill them?” I said, “No, but, sir, I really love you. I’m giving you my support.”

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