MANILA (Reuters) - In less than 10 months, Regina Lopez ordered the closure of more than half the mines in the Philippines, canceled dozens of contracts for future projects and banned open-pit mining.
Her radical reforms eventually proved too radical even for a country with a strong anti-mining lobby led by the influential Roman Catholic Church.
Graphic - Philippine mine closures and policy timeline: tmsnrt.rs/2kCftpe
On Wednesday, lawmakers rejected Lopez’s appointment as environment minister.
“It was not my dream. It was a dream and a promise that we had for the country and it is unfortunate that business interests have in fact run the day,” a visibly distraught Lopez told reporters shortly after the outcome was announced.
“You’ll get clobbered...anyone who’s here if they have the guts and the courage to step on business interest you’ll get killed.”
Lopez’s reputation as a fiery environmental crusader was the main reason why President Rodrigo Duterte appointed her as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on June 30 last year.
True to form, she launched a mining review the following week, eventually suspending 10 mines before the year was over and warning 20 more were at risk of being halted for environmental breaches.
She raised the stakes in February when she ordered the closure of 22 of the country’s 41 mines. She followed it by cancelling 75 contracts for undeveloped mines and just last week banned open-pit mining, which she blames for causing extensive environmental damage.
“Truth needs courage. If I don’t act the truth and if I don’t act courageously a part of me will die inside. I have to be true to myself because I have to survive as a person,” the 63-year-old once told reporters.
Mining is a contentious issue in the resource-rich Southeast Asian country after past examples of environmental mismanagement, including a 1996 tailings leak at Canadian-owned Marcopper Mining Corp’s copper mine in Marinduque that contaminated rivers.
Popularly known as Gina, Lopez is the daughter of Eugenio Lopez Jr., the former head of media conglomerate ABS-CBN Corp (ABS.PS). Her family is one of the Philippines’ biggest business clans, with interests in property, power, manufacturing and construction.
At 18, she left a life of privilege behind in the Philippines, took a vow of celibacy and became a yoga teacher and missionary in Africa, living in slums among the poor.
She spent 11 years in Africa, during which time she married and had two children. But the marriage fell apart after eight years.
Lopez had no qualms about attacking the powerful and flouting convention, taking her cue from the country’s blunt-spoken president, Duterte, whose war against illegal drugs has led to the killing of thousands of people.
“If political survival entails my falling short of my principles, it is not worth it,” Lopez told Reuters in February.
Last month, she said Duterte had given her the go-ahead to work with communist rebel fighters to help rehabilitate and develop the country’s mining areas.
“If nothing is done now to preserve the country’s environment and natural resources, it will not be done ever,” Lopez said on Tuesday, shortly after lawmakers concluded confirmation hearings.
But she had struggled at the hearing to explain the legal basis for requiring nickel miners that remove their ore stockpiles to set aside an additional 2 million pesos ($40,000) per hectare of disturbed land on top of funds already set aside to repair environmental damage.
“We are a nation of laws and not of men,” said Congresswoman Josephine Ramirez-Sato, one of the members of the commission on appointments.
The left-wing group Bayan said Lopez’s ouster was a victory for “mining oligarchs”.
“An extraordinary chance to protect the environment and the rights of the people has been squandered,” it said in a statement.
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan