A messy experiment

For many in the scientific and business community, the appointment of Gina Lopez to the helm of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources  was a risky experiment that has quickly deteriorated into an industry-wide mess. President Rodrigo Duterte recalled in his first State of the Nation Address how Lopez badgered him in the wee hours of the morning, ostensibly about her advocacy. Tired from the endless interviews, the then president elect asked her, seemingly in jest, if she could head the DENR.

 He sounded noncommittal at best, but news of her appointment quickly spread online. It was quite the scintillating story: Finally, a crusading advocate—not a politician—as the state’s top manager of natural resources and the environment. Duterte’s casual remark thus escalated beyond his control; to save face, he praised Lopez’s commitment to the environment. Even then, there were concerns about the risk in the experiment, fears that her first official act soon confirmed.

 She ordered a mining audit of all large-scale mines in the country, an exercise that later proved to be farcical at best. With no semblance of transparency or regard for protocol, the result of the audit was predictable: A slew of suspensions, closures, and cancellation of contracts, summarily killing an industry that is supposed to represent one of the economic pillars of the President’s avowed development agenda.

 Never mind the long-term economic disaster that this experiment will precipitate, the livelihood of a million people is in danger of being wiped out. Global prices of nickel had risen seven percent. Hundreds of community infrastructure projects are put on hold. Local government units and indigenous groups are in danger of losing millions in revenues and royalties. A plethora of lawsuits on possible breach of contracts hang over the DENR, possibly overburdening the already-troubled department.

Those watching by the sidelines inured to the emotional grandstanding in Lopez’s crusade can only sigh and agree with the President: What a mess!

What thus began as a slightly awkward case of experimentation in a highly knotty department as DENR is proving to be an exceptional failure. Nearly two dozen petitions have been lodged to the Commission of Appointments to reject Lopez’s nomination.

Unfortunately, the anti-mining propaganda, of which she has become the rallying point, is a well-oiled, well-funded machine. It is a campaign that relies on theater and spectacle, on simplistic good-versus-evil narratives, on well-produced and carefully choreographed materials that fire emotion over sober science, drama over facts. All counter-arguments are dismissed as corporate spin, the conversation framed anew in an us-versus-them storyline.

The campaign of Lopez has become a socio-political campaign cleverly crafted to build her persona as if she is a candidate running for a national position. Some speculate that this may be the hidden intent, a seat in the Senate.

The Commission on Appointments should discern the substance from the relentless racket and realize what many already have: The insanity must end, and the DENR must be brought back to the developmental track.

In the meantime, how do we rectify the egregious, seemingly irreversible mess?

A good place to start is the planned audit of mining operations nationwide led by the Department of Finance. The audit will utilize “a pool of experts”—an excellent idea going by the Lopez audits—and will begin next month with the first batch of 28 operational mines, 23 of which were shut down following the July audits.

 “The order of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to either shut down or suspend the operations of 28 mine sites across the country will cost 17 affected cities and municipalities in 10 provinces over P821 million annually in forgone revenues,” the finance department said.

 The fact-finding teams will be scientific in their approach and take into consideration legal, social, economic, and mineral development perspectives, hopefully going over and beyond the hard-line ecological stand of the DENR leadership. State universities, specifically professors and scientists, will reportedly play a primary role in the audit, allaying fears that private sector engagement can hijack and potentially influence the investigation.

 This way, government will credibly hold all accountability. The findings will then be submitted to the cabinet-level Mining Industry Coordinating Council, which can make the recommendation to the President.

 The clarity in the procedure should be reassuring. Observers have noted that due process was the first casualty in the appointment of a crusading environment secretary. Questions of jurisdiction were raised. The sanctity of contracts. Are we not a government of laws, some asked. Groups even described the case as a failure in leadership.

 A singularity of vision, while admirable in some contexts, will hardly work in an area as complex and multi-faceted as environmental management. What to some is political will is myopia to others. The engagement of experts to audit mines will hopefully put sanity back to this crazy mess.

Topics: Orlando Oxales , A messy experiment , Gina Lopez , Department of Environment and Natural Resources
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