Change of Heart


Environmentalists became excited when President Rodrigo Duterte affirmed
Environmental Secretary Gina Lopez’ decision to close down several mining companies for environmental violations. So just imagine their disappointment when the head-of-state recently had a change of heart on illegal mining.

The Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Gina Lopez cemented her status as a crusader for social justice when she announced early this month that her department is shutting down 23 mining companies which have broken various environmental laws. Many were skeptical and withheld celebrations, simply because they are aware of the influence that large-scale mining firms wield over the Philippine government. It was largely assumed that the decision would not hold against intervention by a powerful pro-mining lobby, the closure order could also be obstructed by politicians on the payroll of these mining firms.

Then the skeptics heaved a sigh of relief when the President himself, Rodrigo Duterte, publicly announced his support for the closure of the mines. Addressing the decision of Secretary Lopez, the Head-of-State called the environmental watchdog “pro-poor” and lauded her commitment to safeguard the plight of the people living in mining communities as well as the ecosystem surrounding such areas.

Duterte assured the public that he never “called [Gina Lopez] to slow down a bit” in her crusade against mining firms, while adding that his only condition was to make sure the process of shutting down mines was “fair and legal”.

It can be remembered that during his presidential campaign Duterte stated he would only support “responsible mining”, which means only mining firms that “uphold to the most stringent environmental standards” can stay open. In fact, one of the former Davao mayor’s most memorable attacks on his campaign rivals was when he accused Mar Roxas of being a coddler of illegal mining firms.

Shortly after his election, Duterte made several more comments that were antagonistic towards mining. In August, he boldly claimed that the nation “can survive without mining” and warned mining companies that they needed to “stop spoiling the land”. He followed up by calling mining a “sunset industry”, and that “whether legal or not, [mining] will destroy the country.

Judging by that rhetoric, one can hold a great degree of certainty that President Duterte will uphold that ruling of Secretary Lopez. Surprisingly, the order for the closure of the mines was blocked by the Duterte administration, citing that there needs to be “due process”.

In fairness to Duterte, the protests came from his other Cabinet members such as the corporatist Finance secretary Carlos Domiguez. Immediately after the closures were announced, the Department of Finance head was among the first to express skepticism over the decision.

Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella announced that the closure order would be halted to give the mining companies ample time to respond to the decision by the DENR. What for? Secretary Lopez came to her conclusion after seeing the mines in person and gathering evidence that the surrounding rivers and forest areas had been ravaged by their operations.

What other proof do the President and his Cabinet members want?

The mining firms were caught with their pants down, ruining the environment and violating the standards set in place for mining activities. If President Duterte was indeed serious about his campaign promise to only allow “responsible mining”, he would be as ruthless in implementing the closures as Secretary Lopez.

Duterte’s change of heart on the issue however, shows that he is not in full control over his decisions and that the handful of corporate lackeys in his team wield considerable power over him. If Duterte was indeed a champion of the poor, just as Secretary Lopez is, he would make the correct judgment – that illegal mining has been the primary antagonist of rural communities and of the environment and they need to be stopped.

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