* Minister says Duterte has given go-ahead to her plan
* Nickel miner unsure whether Lopez's plan will work
* Lopez says NPA rebels "really not bad people"
* Philippines is world's top nickel ore supplier
By Enrico Dela Cruz and Manolo Serapio Jr
MANILA, April 20 The Philippine environment
minister said she has been given the greenlight by President
Rodrigo Duterte to explore an unorthodox strategy to
rehabilitate and develop the country's mining areas: recruit
communist rebel fighters to help.
The plan of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary
Regina Lopez, who has ordered the closure of more than half of
mines in the world's top nickel ore supplier, may be tough to
carry out given the decades-long conflict between the New
People's Army (NPA) rebels and the Philippine government that
has killed more than 40,000 people.
Lopez, an environmentalist-turned-regulator, believes it can
"What I've seen with the NPA, they just really want to get
people out of poverty, they're really not bad people," Lopez
told reporters on Thursday. "We might have a situation where
miners work with the NPA. We must come from the same page."
NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the
Philippines, earlier this month agreed to a temporary truce with
government, the first time both sides have agreed to a joint
ceasefire since November 1986.
Lopez said she's initially looking at working with NPA
rebels to develop a mining province in southern Mindanao island,
and had asked Duterte's permission at a recent cabinet meeting
and "he gave a go-ahead."
Duterte's spokesman, Ernesto Abella, said "that needs to be
verified" when asked to respond to Lopez's claim that Duterte
has cleared her to work with the rebels.
Miners are unsure whether Lopez's strategy will work.
Mining contracts "are granted by the government, not by the
NPAs. So, in what capacity could we work with the NPAs? I don't
know," Dante Bravo, president of Global Ferronickel Holdings Inc
, told Reuters. Global Ferronickel is the Philippines'
No. 2 nickel ore producer.
The Philippine Army did not immediately respond to a request
Lopez waged a crackdown on the Philippine mining sector
shortly after taking office in June last year. In February, she
ordered the closure of 22 of the Southeast Asian nation's 41
mines to protect water resources and later cancelled dozens of
contracts for undeveloped mines.
Duterte backed Lopez's mining crackdown, himself angered by
years of environmental harm he said miners have caused. Late on
Wednesday, he reiterated his support for Lopez, who has said she
wants the country to be "mine-free".
"I asked how can we do that? We have to amend the law.
There's a mining law which allows mining," Duterte said.
"But I agree with Gina," Duterte said, calling the minister
by her nickname.
Duterte reappointed Lopez this week after lawmakers deferred
a decision to confirm or reject her appointment before Congress
went into recess from March 18. Hearings on her confirmation
resume on May 2.
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. and Enrico dela Cruz; Editing
by Tom Hogue)