Gina Lopez on being the ex-environment secretary

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Gina Lopez is no longer the environment secretary, but remains as fierce and intense an advocate as she was before taking the position. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Regina Paz “Gina” Lopez is out of Malacañang and is back in the private sector.

Yet the former environmental secretary — whose appointment has been rejected by the Commission on Appointments amid controversial policies and her alleged incompetence — seems busier than ever. After a prolonged interview with Pinky Webb on “The Source,” tail-ended by a brief session on Facebook Live, she sits with CNN Philippines Life, wary of the time. She needs to be somewhere else to give a speech or a lecture. It seems that even as she is out of public service, she is more in demand, she laughs.

She is still planning what she will do after her stint as environment secretary. For better or for worse, Lopez will be known for her unforgiving stance against mining, cancelling 75 mining contracts and closing 23 mines for operating near watersheds. After battling three appointment hearings, she might also be remembered for singing “I Believe I Can Fly,” seemingly defying the 16 lawmakers who voted against her. She has invited ardent support from environmental groups, but has also earned the ire of groups who allege violations of due process for her apparent failure to consult stakeholders in drafting her policies.

In a brief interview with CNN Philippines Life, the fierce advocate explains the motivation behind her bold policies, and why she feels so so strongly about her advocacy, even as she exits as one of the country’s most controversial public officials. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

"The problem with not being environment secretary is I’m no longer on top of the money," says Gina Lopez. With the amount of money in the department's budget, "we could have done an awful lot of good," she adds. Photo by JL JAVIER

Since you’re no longer the environment secretary, what were the limitations and disadvantages of that position?

One of the biggest limitations is … even if you have money, even if you have power, if you don’t have the right people, it’s not going to work. One, it’s the re-orientation of the organization from a purely regulatory to a development one, and then two, it’s hard to work in government because you have all these rules and regulations. You cannot make buwelo.

You consider the rules and regulations as more of a limitation?

Yes. In the private sector, you can just do what you want, and if people don’t perform, you can let them go. But here, there’s all these rules … that’s why I have all these consultants, because I can’t do things if I don’t have the people I need. But you cannot bring them in because these positions are taken up na, so you bring them in as consultants.

How did you think out of that? I’ve read somewhere that you said, you think out of the box …

Yes, I don’t like … It’s why I believe I can fly. [Laughs]

So the law should be interpreted …

With a heart. You have the laws, so why don’t you interpret the laws in a way that people can benefit? [In the same way that] you can interpret the laws in a way that the mining industries benefit. The example for me is the ₱2 million [trust fund], then we changed it to ₱2.25. They’re gonna make so much money. It’s over ₱10 billion pesos. What’s ₱2 million, compared to that? In the process of making that ₱1.4 billion, by selling that stockpile, if you have disadvantaged farmers, isn’t it your duty? You’re Christian, Catholic, it’s your duty as a human being to take care of the farmlands. And it’s there in the Constitution. So why are we making angal over these things? Why are our lawmakers, who are supposed to be protecting the people, making angal? We don’t need lawyers.

"Whatever the balance is, the end must be the common good. If balance means you balance it out with business interests and you sacrifice the common good, that’s not balancing. That’s a cop out."

Or instead maybe the lawyers should be more …

More heart-ful. Because you can have the law, and you can navigate the law. I was approached by Constitutional experts, and they say, “Gina, you’re backed up by the Constitution.” There are unjust laws, such as the Mining Law, and then there’s social justice. To bridge the gap, there are three ways: one is legislative, [second is] amendments, and the third way is executive action. If you subject the poor to a legal process, it’s the same thing as not helping them at all. Because they don’t have the lawyers … they’ll just suffer there forever. The mining companies and the wealthy can make lagay.

Even if we must have a preference for protecting the interests of the poor, how do you make sure all interests will be balanced?

Whatever the balance is, the end must be the common good. If balance means you balance it out with business interests and you sacrifice the common good, that’s not balancing. That’s a cop out. The common good must be the overriding … now to get to the common good, there are many ways to do it. Business is a good … you can do lots of businesses, I have no problems with business at all. But the commitment to the betterment of others must be non-negotiable. Once you kill the betterment of others, you’re killing the soul of the country. You’re killing the economic potential of the country, the consciousness of the country, ‘cause you’re saying it’s okay if people suffer this, as long as you benefit. I mean, is that really the kind of country you want to have? If you don’t address this [at] a consciousness level, I don’t think our country will see the light of day. And the fact that our lawmakers are remiss in this kind of consciousness is very seriously disturbing.

What’s the state of consciousness about our environment in the Philippines?

There’s a lack of awareness on the integrated-ness of the environment. The impact of the environment is like a domino effect. They’re saying the mining companies are just in one place, that’s not true at all. You’re in one place, you fuck it up there, and you’re everywhere. The impact is everywhere. The need to be aware of the massive impact on our environment is necessary.

"The key sustainable way [to protect the environment] is to let people benefit from it," says Gina Lopez. "‘Cause if they don’t benefit from it, they will destroy it." Photo by JL JAVIER

You said we must shift to a developmental approach in protecting the environment. Can you expand on that a little bit more?

The key sustainable way [to protect the environment] is to let people benefit from it. ‘Cause if they don’t benefit from it, they will destroy it. For example, in our forests, we have biodiversity, and one medicinal plant can give us US$ 25 million a year. But where are the benefits of our medicinal plants going? To foreigners. Our nata de coco is patented by Japan. Our ampalaya with eggplant is patented by America. Our ylang-ylang, which is endemic to us, is patented by a French company. So if this continues, the ones benefiting from our resources are foreign interests or business interests. So why will the poor take care of that when they’re not benefiting? But if we can maneuver that our communities are benefiting from our biodiversity, they will protect our forests, because they are going to support our families through that. And that’s why I don’t like mining at all, because mining ravages our biodiversity for the benefit of a few and sometimes foreigners at that. It’s really, really wrong.

Do you think you have more leeway now, not being the environment secretary, to push for your advocacies?

The problem with not being environment secretary is I’m no longer on top of the money. [With the amount of money in the budget,] we could have done an awful lot of good.

There’s criticism directed at you, which says that you’re a good environmentalist, but a bad regulator. Do you think that’s a fair comment?

I don’t know. If a regulator means to follow the laws, [and] our laws have never been followed, I regulate and follow the law. If regulating means giving in, and not following the law … I mean, at the end of the day, we have to think of the common good. And in the Constitution, it says that if the property has a social function, and if that function is not used well, which is for the community, for the common good, it is the duty of the State to intervene. And everything that I’ve done … the mining audit itself is backed up by the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Forestry Code, the Watershed Code, by seven laws. So the big question is, why did the regulators before never implement those regulations? Who is the bad regulator? Me, who is implementing those regulations, or they, who never implemented the regulations? What are the regulations there for, if [they’re] never going to be implemented? Everything I did was fulfilling the law. The violations were according to the regulations. I’m just implementing the regulations. So if you call me a bad regulator because I’m implementing regulations … then I think you need to re-identify the meaning of regulation.