Philippine environment chief dumped as miners triumph

Karl MALAKUNAS
Philippine Environment Secretary Regina Lopez, who was sacked on May 3, 2017, gestures during an interview on February 22, 2017

Philippine Environment Secretary Regina Lopez was sacked on Wednesday when lawmakers rejected her appointment, in a big victory for the mining industry which she had accused of corruption and abuse.

Lopez sent shockwaves through the industry during her 10 months as environment chief, seeking to shut down roughly two-thirds of the nation's existing mines and banning any new open-pit operations.

However, despite public support from President Rodrigo Duterte who had threatened to shut down the mining industry completely, a congressional body rejected Lopez's appointment.

"If you want to be confirmed, don't go against big business," an angry Lopez shouted during a long press conference after the ruling.

"It's wrong when lawmakers don't stand up for the rights of every Filipino, but rather big business. It's really very wrong."

With the Philippines being the world's biggest supplier of nickel ore and a major source of copper, Lopez's campaign had impacted global prices.

Lopez had sought to shut down 28 of the nation's 40 mines and cancel the contracts of dozens of others.

Last week she also announced the ban on open-pit mining, which would have sounded the death knell for one of the world's biggest planned copper projects in the south of the country.

Mining Inc had run a high-profile campaign to have the Commission on Appointments reject her, arguing she was jeopardising the lives of 1.2 million people who were dependent on the industry.

It had strong supporters in the congressional commission, with its vice chairman, Ronaldo Zamora, a former director of Nickel Asia, the country's second most valuable mining company.

Zamora's older brother, Manuel, is the current Nickel Asia chairman. Like all mining stocks, Nickel Asia's share price rose on Wednesday after Lopez's sacking.

Another opponent of Lopez was Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, a former mining executive whose family has big investments in the industry.

Dominguez took the unprecedented action of testifying against a fellow cabinet member when he told the commission hearings that Lopez should be rejected.

The Chamber of Mines released a statement on Wednesday thanking the commission for its quick decision, which it said was "the beginning of a new chapter for the mining industry".

Global nickel and copper prices fell by just over 2.0 percent each in London trade on Wednesday, with financial services company Commerzbank saying concerns in the market about prolonged supply cuts in the Philippines had been allayed.

- Outrage -

Environment groups expressed outrage, arguing Lopez's rejection showed Duterte had misled with his pledges to lead a government for ordinary Filipinos rather than the elite.

"The rejection demonstrates the continued control of powerful destructive industries such as mining in the country's legislative houses, and the reform promised to Filipinos is a sham," the Green Thumb coalition, grouping dozens of environment groups, said in a statement.

"It clearly shows where the heart of the Duterte administration is, and clearly it is manifested with big and powerful mining companies."

Duterte is popular among many Filipinos for his man-of-the-people image and he frequently rants against business titans.

The Philippines has one of the biggest rich-poor divides in Asia, with one quarter of its roughly 100 million people living below the poverty line.

Duterte's spokesman released a muted statement on Lopez's downfall, praising her work but saying the president had already begun looking for a replacement.

Congress rejecting a president's cabinet appointment is extremely rare in Philippine politics.

But, despite Duterte's ruling coalition having a majority in both houses of congress, Lopez was the second of his appointments to be rejected.

Perfecto Yasay was in March dumped as foreign secretary when the commission on appointments ruled he had lied in congressional hearings about him holding American citizenship.