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Gina Lopez: Environmental activist in the Philippines

Gina Lopez: Environmental activist in the Philippines
19 Oct
Regina ‘Gina’ Lopez, an environmental activist, former Environmental Secretary to Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, and member of the business elite, has been awarded the 2017 Seacology Prize for her opposition to mining and work to improve ecosystems across the islands of the Philippines

The Philippines is blessed with unrivalled biodiversity, helped by the fact that we are an island nation. We have many endemic island species – species that cannot be found anywhere else. Open-pit mining, if allowed to continue in such ecological significant areas, could pollute the water, the air and destroy the long-term value of these places as sustainable resources for the people who live there, or for ecotourism projects. It is short-sighted.

Wherever there is mining, people suffer. Farmers and fisherman find it harder to do their jobs and health deteriorates. Pro-miners’ main argument is that it creates jobs, but at what cost? You create a few jobs so that thousands can suffer – is that the kind of economy you want to build? The suffering is for generations. After mining, water sources have to be detoxified generations afterward, something that the companies often neglect to do. Of course, it will create a few jobs and put up some schools in the beginning but there are other ways to work and to educate.

In Basay province, the toxicity is 500 times over the maximum level, and the mining stopped there in 1982. However, when I stood in front of a few hundred locals to talk about it, I was scared because they didn’t seem worried. Then I realised that it is probably because it is all they know. What happens when the generation that could remember fish in the sea and clean water are all gone? All the young people will accept this as reality as its the only one they have ever known – there is no reference point for when it was better for them. It is a shifting baseline, a death of consciousness.

miningMines in Luzon (Image: ABS-CBN Foundation)

Palawan Island was where I first discovered the destructive nature of open-pit mining. It is home to several indigenous communities such as the Molbog, the Batak and the Palaw’an people. Many live in poverty, despite the fact that it is breathtakingly gorgeous, the number one island destination on the planet. It has 40 per cent of the country’s remaining mangrove forests and 30 per cent of its coral reefs. It is also very mineralised. So when I arrived there were over 100 applications for open-pit mining, I set up the Save Palawan movement to oppose them.

From then, my opposition to mining drew a lot of criticism from the government. Many of our elected representatives have a stake in open-pit mining economy and do not want to see it banned in the Philippines.

When I was appointed as Environmental Secretary to President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, I dismissed 100 people from the department because they were involved in large-scale mining such as a huge project planned for the breadbasket of Mindanau. Then I cancelled the approval of 75 mines in the pipeline. After just ten months I was dismissed because they felt I did not follow due process for these actions, though I felt that I was upholding the people’s rights in the Philippine constitution. That was what was important to me.

Any development that is carried out in the Philippines has to be done with the constitution at its heart which says, in no uncertain terms, in many areas that social justice and common good is the way to go. Instead, the law is often used to support business interests, and where there is opposition, the military is used to support those interests.

That’s not to say that all forms of tourism are the answer. Any ecotourism development has to first and foremost answer the needs of the host community and its surroundings. We have an island called Borocay, which is one of our most popular destinations. But the people that live on the island are separate from it. That’s not the kind of tourism that we need. We need non negotiable commitment to people’s lives.

The prize money is going to be used to set up a new foundation called ILOVE – or Investments in Loving Organisations for Village Economies. It is based on the fundamental idea that local and environmental needs should be at the centre of new projects and investment. In the end, development that doesn’t truly care for people will eventually become exploitative.

Seacology is a US-based island conservation organisation, which awards the $10,000 prize each year to honour those who have shown exceptional achievement in preserving island environments and culture

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