Philippines Plans To Shut 23 Mines Because Of Environmental Concerns
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In the Philippines, it's not just President Duterte who is stirring up controversy. His environment secretary this month shocked world markets by announcing the closure of 23 mines over environmental concerns. The Philippines is a leading mineral exporter. And as Michael Sullivan reports from Manila, the mining industry is not happy about it.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Ask Filipinos about former anti-mining activist Gina Lopez, and the polite word you hear is passionate. Here's a video Secretary Lopez put up on Facebook just a few weeks ago, after a helicopter trip over some mining areas in Mindanao.
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SEC OF DEPT OF ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCES GINA LOPEZ: We just can't - we can't allow it to go on anymore. We need to heal the hurt. We must heal the hurt.
TONY LA VINA: Yeah, well, Gina Lopez is Gina Lopez. She's not the normal secretary. And I don't really mind.
SULLIVAN: Tony La Vina is a former undersecretary at the Department of Natural Resources. He says Lopez's decision to close 23 mines was the right one. And he should know. He helped write the law.
LA VINA: We're not supposed to have mining operations in watersheds. That's a no-go area.
SULLIVAN: So how did they get there? Gina Lopez says...
LOPEZ: Corruption, corruption, corruption - regulatory agencies are seedbeds of corruption because you regulate. And so you sell the regulation so that you can make money. And that's what happens in this country.
SULLIVAN: Not on her watch, Lopez vows. And it's not just the mining interests. Lopez nixed a proposal from Nickelodeon's parent company, Viacom, for an underwater theme park off the eco-friendly island of Palawan.
LOPEZ: Hello, 400 hectares of underwater theme park - you're going to kill our environment, man. You know, people with money, they come in, and then they just do things. Like, the world is not here for you to rape.
SULLIVAN: Blunt, like the president who picked her - and, like him, not afraid to challenge the status quo.
LOPEZ: We're the top nickel producer in the world. And out of this we get .004 percent government revenue, not even 1 percent employment, .6 percent. And, you know, 82 percent of the net revenue goes to the mining company. Ninety-five percent of this 82 percent goes out of the local community. So how will we ever get our people out of poverty?
SULLIVAN: But here's the thing. Gina Lopez, she comes from a rich and powerful family like some she's taking on and acknowledges the seeming contradiction.
LOPEZ: I have no problem with wealth at all. And I have no problem with rich - I mean, I love the rich, no? They're my friends, no? But my issue comes is when you're - the way you are creating wealth creates suffering on the ground. I feel that's not acceptable.
SULLIVAN: She's got a missionary zeal. And she was one for nearly two decades, mostly in Africa - teaching, building schools and orphanages. After she came home, she ended up running the family foundation and became an outspoken anti-mining activist. And it's that last bit the mining interests find a conflict of interest.
RONALD RECIDORO: To put it bluntly, she hates the industry.
SULLIVAN: That's Ronald Recidoro of the Philippine Chamber of Mines. And it's not just bias he worries about.
RECIDORO: We'd like to point out that she has no experience, absolutely none. That's why we're really wondering why she got appointed in the first place. We don't think she's competent.
SULLIVAN: The industry warns the proposed closures will affect hundreds of thousands, a figure Lopez and others dismiss as wildly exaggerated. And she reckons she can replace them with more and better jobs.
LOPEZ: We are the number-one endemicity-per-unit area in the entire planet. Endemicity is when the biodiversity - the flora and fauna - can be found here and only here. I come from a business family. That's a huge business opportunity if I ever saw one.
SULLIVAN: Sustainable area development, she says, is the answer to lifting the poor out of poverty. The mining industry is challenging her ruling and is looking to President Duterte to help. So far, Duterte says, he's with Gina. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila.
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