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.

Gina Lopez

Gina Lopez

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.”

After he became president, I went back to him and asked him to stop the mining. He looked at me and said, “Why don’t you just become the environment secretary?” I felt that if I could stay true to my beliefs, it would be an opportunity to do good for the country. So I went for it.

“I began to take away the permits of mining companies that worked in areas like watersheds, where it was against the law.”

e360: But you got pushed out of office only 10 months later. What went wrong?

Lopez: One of the first things I did when I took office was a mines audit. Because the mining happens in far-flung places, nobody in power ever sees it. So I spent 16 million pesos on travel in military choppers to see for myself. And I took the media with me. For the first time, people saw what was going on. A lot of it was illegal. And I arranged interviews with farmers and fishermen. Their voices had never been heard before.

After exposing the problem, I began to take away the permits of mining companies that worked in areas like watersheds, where it was against the law. And I banned open-pit mining of gold, copper, silver, and mercury, because that is the worst. The pits are all near rivers and streams, because the pits flood and the mining companies have to pump the waste out and get rid of it. What is poured into the rivers gets really acidic. It poses huge dangers. Meanwhile, the pumping dries up peoples’ wells. I issued closure orders for 22 mines. People were angry, but I was just implementing laws that had been there for decades. They were just not implemented.

e360: So the mining companies ganged up against you?

Lopez: Yes. My appointment had to be confirmed by Congress. Mining funds political parties in the Philippines, so they are powerful. Members of the appointments commission owned mines that I had ordered to be closed. I knew I was stepping on very big business toes, but my family is also quite strong politically. It had even helped some of the [commission] members in their political campaigns. I was close to some of the senators and their families myself. That’s how it is in the Philippines. In the vote, some of the commission members supported me, but not enough. Before I took up the job, I decided to be true to myself. If I had calculated and maneuvered, I would never have forgiven myself. 

A nickel mine in Claver, Surigao del Norte, as seen during an aerial survey by Lopez's agency in 2016.

A nickel mine in Claver, Surigao del Norte, as seen during an aerial survey by Lopez's agency in 2016.

e360: Tell me about the mining companies.

Lopez: They are mostly owned by the country’s elite. And they can usually do what they want. The government is very weak. And the mines do not benefit the people. Wherever there is mining, the poverty level is higher than the national average. One of the worst mines was a copper and gold mine run by Canadians with local partners. It killed two rivers, and now 24 years later, those two rivers are still dead. The Canadians have gone back to Canada, and their Filipino partners went off and did another mine, which has done the same atrocious thing.

e360: What about Palawan Island? That’s always regarded as the most pristine. Are the miners moving in there?

Lopez: Yes. Palawan is gorgeous. There are five mines there already. One has turned the water of a river that you could once drink to a dark brown color. There are lots of mining applications for Palawan. Before I got involved, there were 100 mining applications. Now, that’s been cut down. I don’t think many of the companies would have the guts to do anything in Palawan right now.

e360: Do you have confidence in your successor, or do you fear that your work will be undone now?

Lopez: My successor is a military guy and has very little experience with the environment. That’s unfortunate. He’s being very, very careful, because he saw what happened to me. He will need to have the guts to step on business toes, otherwise they will continue to rape the country.

e360: What about the civil servants in the environment department? Will they carry on your work?

Lopez: When I was there, I shifted a lot of people, because I have no tolerance for corruption. I found out that some of my officials had given land to themselves. If this had been the corporate sector, I would have just said, “Get the hell out of here. I don’t want you here.” But in government there are processes. The people that I don’t like unfortunately are back in power. 

“The president has a bad reputation in the international media, but my experience with him is that he really feels for the poor.”

e360: What do you think about the president now?

Lopez: The president has continued to support me. He’s not in favor of mining that causes suffering. He has a bad reputation in the international media, but my experience with him is that he really feels for the poor. That’s why he stamps down on drugs, because his perception is that it jeopardizes the lives of our youth. I feel his heart is sincere and genuine in his regard for the underprivileged. That’s why I continue to support him.

 e360: But he boasts about having killed people, and sends out others to kill those involved in drugs.

Lopez: My foreign friends feel really, really bad about that. And I can understand. I’m not making any judgment. But having sat with the president in cabinet meetings, I know the drug thing really preoccupies him. He’s addressing it in a way that he found successful when he was mayor of Davao. His experience is that if you take a strong approach, people will behave. Davao is really peaceful now.

e360: Tell me about your upbringing. I think your father was imprisoned by President Ferdinand Marcos.

Lopez: I was fortunate to have a mother and a father who were spiritual and who came from principled and loving families. My family set up a media company, ABS-CBN, which has top TV channels and the newspaper Manila Chronicle. When Marcos was president, he required the businesses to give him 1 percent. We refused, and our media attacked Marcos. He didn’t take it lightly. When he declared martial law in 1972, he took over the TV station and put my father in jail.

After that, I went to school in Boston. I got involved in meditating. The Philippines is very Catholic, but sometimes there’s no experience of the divine. It is just rituals. When I went to an Indian ashram I had a profound experience. I ended up joining them. I became a missionary and I left everything. It was a very austere life. I changed my name. Nobody even knew I was a Lopez. I set up orphanages and schools. I lived in Africa for 11 years.

“I thought that, if I wanted to make a difference, it’s much easier when you have money and connections.”

e360: Why did you come back to the Philippines?

Lopez: When I got pregnant, I decided to come back to my old life among the Manila elite. I thought that, if I wanted to make a difference, it’s much easier when you have money and connections. In 1999, one of my staff suggested that we campaign for the reforestation of the La Mesa Watershed, which was a kind of wasteland in the Manila slums around a reservoir. La Mesa provided most of the city’s drinking water and contained the remains of the city’s only rainforest. Our campaign succeeded. Now it has been a protected area for 10 years.

After that, one of my staff took me to see the mines in Palawan and that hit me really deeply. Not just the environment, but how the poor — the farmers, the fishermen, and the indigenous people — all suffer when the environment is destroyed.

I have campaigned against coal plants, too, because their pollution damages agriculture, fisheries, and the health of the people. Why should we burn coal when our country has lots of sun, as well as geothermal and wind? When I was in the government, I supported some solar energy projects. So we’re getting there. 

e360: Global Witness says the Philippines is one of the three most dangerous countries in the world to be an environmental activist because there are so many assassinations. Have you ever felt in danger personally?

Lopez: No, never. I am part of the business elite. But 75 percent of those deaths here are connected to mining. One guy who worked for me in Palawan, a journalist called Gerry Ortega, was assassinated six years ago for his activism against mines. He was working with me on the 10 million signatures campaign. Palawan’s former governor, Joel Reyes, who is already in jail for taking bribes from mining companies, is also charged with being involved in Gerry’s murder.