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MANILA, Philippines – "You don't want to meet in May?" Gina Lopez asked lawmakers one Wednesday afternoon, as the powerful Commission on Appointments (CA) was wrapping up a two-hour confirmation hearing on her appointment as the Philippines' environment secretary.
The hour was getting late, but the commission heard only two of Lopez' 23 oppositors that day, March 8. Lawmakers were debating among themselves when to continue the hearing, when the secretary suggested to meet again in May.
"Because I'm proposing here a possibility of area development which might even get our country out of poverty, and a way to use our agricultural resources to benefit our people. If we do it in May, from now to May, I'll be able to do something, and I'd like to invite the members of the Commission on Appointments, for example, to go to Zambales," she added.
Meeting in May, of course, meant getting bypassed by the CA, since Congress was scheduled to take a break by mid-March. But Lopez was determined to show the commission that she can "kickass a green economy" in 28 mine sites affected by her closure and suspension orders.
True enough, the CA bypassed Lopez during Congress' last day of session on March 15, but not because they wanted to visit the mine sites with the environment secretary.
Instead, members of the commission wanted to give Lopez a chance to respond to some issues raised by her fellow Cabinet member, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, before the CA in a March 14 meeting.
In that two-hour meeting with the commission, Dominguez' statements raised more questions on the mining audit: Did Lopez fail to consult stakeholders? Is her plan to rehabilitate affected mine sites and develop them for ecotourism really feasible? Will she consider the input of the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC), which she co-chairs with Dominguez?
Lopez already raised before President Rodrigo Duterte her concerns regarding the P50-million MICC review which she called a "usurpation" of the environment department's mandate.
But environmental lawyer Tony La Viña believes Lopez has to be more "inclusive" before making her final decision on the mines. The environment secretary, he added, could've communicated "a way forward" during the CA hearings.
"At first, the MICC [review], I thought, was a way forward. Why did she change her mind? This is her decision to make, but having an intermediate group, [via] the MICC review, makes it more conclusive, [as it] allows stakeholder inputs," he told Rappler.
La Viña found Dominguez to be "clearer on the way forward."
During the confirmation hearing, Lopez was armed with her usual props: PowerPoint presentations showing the environmental effects of mining, and her plans for the affected mine sites.
Lopez was quick to admit she's not a technical person as she answered these questions with the help of her undersecretaries and consultants.
CA member and Occidental Mindoro Representative Josephine Ramirez-Sato said her tough line of questioning drew her flak from bashers who told her she's "advancing the interest of mining companies."
class="blob-full" style="position:relative;" style =" width: 40%; text-align: left; " "If a secretary cannot confine herself or himself to the provisions of the law which she is bound to implement and to respect, then there's a problem."
But Sato said during an interview with Rappler, "Trabaho lang, walang personalan (It's just work, don't take it personally)."
"I hope a lot of people would understand that sometimes, ayaw 'din naming pahirapan ['yung secretary-designate] pero parte nung trabaho namin e. Hindi 'yung pagpapahirap, [but] we are looking at it from a different point of view, we are asking you these difficult questions because we would want you to shine. We would want you to prove to us that you are capable."
(I hope a lot of people would understand that sometimes, we don't want to make things hard for the secretary-designate, but it's part of our job. Not that we want to make it hard for them, but we are looking at it from a different point of view, we are asking you these difficult questions because we would want you to shine. We would want you to prove to us that you are capable.)
Sato, the CA member who asked Lopez about watersheds and MPSAs, said her questions were meant to look into not only the secretary's competence, but also her ability to implement laws on environment and natural resources.
For instance, Lopez in February declared all functional watersheds in the country as "no-go" zones for mining, but Sato challenged this definition at the CA hearing.
"It is specifically stated in the law that mining activities or mining permits cannot be granted on proclaimed and critical watersheds. That means all other watersheds can be, you know, subject of mining activities. It is not that I agree with the law. She said that the definition of watersheds has been there for the past 20, 30 years, and I agree with her," Sato told Rappler.
She added: "If we need to revisit and redefine a watershed, then fine, but you as a secretary, being a member of the executive branch, cannot add or deduct anything from the law. You are confined to the provisions of the law. So that's what I was asking her about, that it would be an arbitrary act on her part to declare that all watersheds cannot be a situs for mining activities."
The same, she said, is true for the cancellation of MPSAs, an agreement that government "cannot terminate unilaterally."
"You have to confine yourselves to the conditions or the provisions of that agreement. That's my point. Because if a secretary cannot confine herself or himself to the provisions of the law which she is – under her oath as a secretary – bound to implement and to respect, then there's a problem. It's not only Gina Lopez – it holds true to all nominees for a Cabinet secretary."
The tough questions, Sato said, were meant to allow nominees to prove they are capable and competent to be a department secretary.
On March 9 – the 2nd day of the confirmation hearing – Lopez and Sato faced off again, this time on ISO 14001 Certification as a standard for responsible mining.
When Lopez said her standard was social justice, Sato asked the environment secretary not to talk about her own standard but the standard set by law.
For La Viña, the standards Lopez used are actually standards within the law.
"The law requires you to protect the environment, the law requires you to be environmentally just, there's nothing wrong with that. And your technical standards in fact are the ones that must conform with the law. That's basic [in] environmental law," he added.
The environmental lawyer said there's also nothing wrong with Lopez' legal definition of her role as environmental secretary. In fact, he said environmental justice and social justice are in the Constitution and in all laws on the environment.
"Gina Lopez did not invent something new. That's all in the Constitution. The Constitution says the state shall protect the right of the people to a sound and healthy environment in accordance to the rhythm and harmony of nature. That is so clear. That's environmental justice. That's climate justice. That's your number one standard."
He added: "In fact, your other standards, including your legal standards and technical standards, can be struck down because they do not meet the standards of environmental justice and social justice."
Passion 'not enough'
It was with the same frankness during press conferences that Lopez told CA vice chair and San Juan City Representative Ronaldo Zamora that his brother "totally killed a mountain."
"We respect her passion, we even admire her for that, but being a secretary, passion is not enough. You have to respect the law, you have to know the bounds of your authority, and that's basic in a democratic society," Sato told Rappler.
For La Viña, the questions at the CA hearing were all predictable, given the "very strong lobby against her (Lopez)." He said what was missing were questions on other environmental issues.
"Is she good for climate change? Is she good for biodiversity? Is she good for reforestation? Is she good for air and water pollution? Those are bigger issues for me than mining," he added.
After being bypassed by the CA, both Sato and Senator Manny Pacquiao – chair of the CA committee on environment and natural resources – believe the President will reappoint Lopez, given his unwavering support for his environment secretary.
While Lopez still have a chance to get confirmed by the CA? Pacquiao said her chance is only 50-50 at this point.
La Viña agreed: "I would say if Duterte abandoned her, she has no chance, but because Duterte totally supports her, fully supports her from what I see – I always just assume that Duterte means what he says – because of that, I think Gina might have even a 55% chance of passing. Only because of Duterte. Otherwise, I don't think she has a chance."
Will these odds change between now and May?
"I'd say my advice is just be yourself and see where it takes you, because I don't think you can change someone like Gina Lopez. She's one of a kind," La Viña said.
But he also urged the "free-spirited" secretary to be open to others' inputs.
"At this point...if other actors – the President, MICC, colleagues in the Cabinet – come in, she should also respect that, but also by being herself. It's important to listen as well," he added. – Rappler.com
Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.