Remembering Gina Lopez

| 6th September 2019
Activist and former Philippine environment secretary Gina Lopez has been awarded the 2017 Seacology Prize

Activist and former Philippine environment secretary Gina Lopez has been awarded the 2017 Seacology Prize (c) Seacology

We remember activist and former Philippine environment secretary Regina “Gina” Lopez .

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The Philippines prides itself in being one of the most biodiverse places on earth.

It comprises some 7,000 islands in the tropical Western Pacific, so it comes as no surprise that environmentalist Gina Lopez was driven by an awe of her country's many natural treasures. 

She told The Ecologist:“We are a country of beautiful volcanoes, mountains, rivers, and corals. It's absolutely spectacular.This was back in September 2017, when she won the Seacology Prize, a $10,000 annual conservation prize. After fifteen years of activism she certainly earned it. 

Planting saplings

Lopez died this month aged 65, following multiple organ failure after losing the battle against brain cancer. A public memorial service was held over two days in August in Manila.

She was mourned by many, not least the ABS-CBN Foundation, a social development organisation of which she was chairperson for many years.

The foundation described Lopez as “champion for environment, child protection and the disadvantaged.

“She exemplified a life of service to humanity with a deep desire to improve people’s lives, rallied for social justice, and sought to bring hope and change to poor communities.”

Instead of flowers, the organisation decided to bid her goodbye by planting 130 saplings at the La Mesa Eco Park, the reforestation of which was one of Lopez’s projects.

Mining ban

Prior to environmental activism Lopez worked with vulnerable children. On Valentine’s Day back in 1997, Lopez founded the country’s first child protection helpline Bantay Bata 163, which is still used today. 

But Lopez is perhaps most widely recognised for getting open-pit mining banned in 2016, when she briefly served as environment secretary. Despite her history as a radical activist, Lopez was appointed Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) when President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in June 2016. 

Bold actions indeed, inspired by witnessing the mines’ disruption to nearby people and nature, she explained when we spoke in September 2017. 

Lopez said: “Putting these open pits in a place a beautiful as the Philippines is disgustingly horrible. If you have any sense of aesthetics, how can you do that! And when you learn that there are communities there whose lives have been disadvantaged, your heart breaks." 

Lopez ordered 23 mines to shut down and many others to delay or suspend their operations. She cancelled 75 contracts to mines which she said posed a threat to nearby water supply. 

Financial liability

The temporary ban also affected three planned major mining ventures worth a combined $8.9 billion. President Duterte has since warned the miningindustry that he is considering banning open pit mines permanently.

And the fight is far from over. More recently, Philippine copper and gold producer Philex Mining Corp announced in August that it is seeking strategic partners for a long-delayed $1.1 billion mine project - stopped so far by the ban - in the south of the country, that it hopes to fully develop by 2022.

The Philippines is the world's top producer of nickel ore and the main exporter to China. 

But the open pit mines are wreaking havoc on the island ecosystems and have a terrible effect on the local communities. The mines resemble large man-made sinkholes, collecting water and becoming toxic over time unless managed correctly.

Lopez said: And all of these open pit mines are near rivers and streams. All of them. They are going to be there for all eternity. They will have to be detoxified on a regular basis, otherwise they will turn acidic. And all of these open pits will be a financial liability to government for life.” 

Health impacts

Travelling from village to village, Lopez took it upon herself to document how mines destroy the environment, gathering evidence as she went. She also shared it with her 700,000 followers on Facebook.

She said: “I would go around with the media and take footage myself. People were shocked at the pictures.”

Money was the driving force: “There are just a few businesspeople that control politicians. That's how it is.” 

And it is not just about crops. People at nearby villages are at risk of being poisoned. Mercury poisoning linked to an open-pit mine near the city of Puerto Princesa, Palawan, has already been detected, as revealed by a study by the Department of Health.

Exposure to even small amounts of mercury can cause kidney failure and neurological and behavioural disorders, according to the World Health Organization.

Big business 

Taking on mining has been an uphill battle which arguably cost her the job in government. As Lopez herself put it: “You are stepping on very big business toes.”

But she was willing to take the consequences: “I’m going to do the right thing and let the dice fall where it may,” Lopez famously said after issuing the ban.

And so it was perhaps not that surprising that in May 2017, after just ten months as environment secretary, Lopez was voted out of office by the members of a congressional commission on appointments — some of whom had ties to the mining sector. 

Lopez said: "The resources of one land are destroyed for the business interests of a few… it is social injustice."

But lobbying against the heavily polluting open-pit nickel mines was not her only triumph. 

Early life

Lopez established the first ever forum for consultations between the DENR and indigenous populations and shut down illegal fish pens in the country’s largest lake. 

Her efforts as chair of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission led to the cleanup of at least 17 tributaries in the badly polluted Pasig River and nearby urban streams, and she was leader of the Save Palawan Island movement. 

However, while a defender of the under-privileged, Lopez herself grew up far from such disadvantages. Born on 27 December, 1953, Lopez was the second of seven children of a wealthy family who founded ABS-CBN, now the nation’s largest media conglomerate.

In later years, Lopez worked as the head of its philanthropic arm, the ABS-CBN Foundation.

Her early life looked very different to her campaigning years. Before going into politics and activism, she spent time at Indian ashrams, taught yoga and helped build orphanages in Africa, where she lived for eleven years as a yoga missionary in her twenties. This was also where she met her now ex-husband with whom she had two sons.

Philanthropic plans

Lopez described herself as spiritual” and grasped the first opportunity to talk about things like love and the importance of community spirit.

She remained a keen yogi and said she used meditation to understand the suffering of others and connect with the environment. She said that through mindfulness: “You feel more. You can feel the pain of others. You can feel the destruction of the environment.” 

This includes acknowledging the critical need for resistance to climate change, she said, which is already staring us in the face.” 

She was very worried about the future: "There's nothing we can do about it. The typhoons are going to come. The storm surges are going to come", she said as she spoke about how “crucial” protecting the mangrove and bamboo ecosystems is in preparing for the inevitable flooding.

Despite her worries, she was full of solutions and had big philanthropic plans for the coming years when we spoke in 2017. Perhaps she knew that time was running out not just with respect to climate change but also in her battle with cancer.

Economic potential 

In particular, Lopez saw a lot of potential for the economy beyond extracting the earth’s resources.

Through her organisation I LOVE (Investments in Loving Organizations for Village Economies), she worked to lift Filipinos out of poverty by building green businesses such as eco-tourism.

Lopez said: “I want to give hope by showing people working together…  I want to prove that economies based on a genuine empathy and concern for the other is actually very good for economic flow, peace and order.

“I'm very determined to make that happen.” 

This Author

Sophie Morlin-Yron is a freelance writer based in London. She writes about the environment, tech and innovation. She tweets @sophiemy.

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