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Rodrigo Duterte

Time to ‘do the right thing’: former yoga missionary takes aim at Philippine miners

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 2:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 3:47pm

After two decades as a yoga missionary, Philippine Environment Secretary Regina Lopez is unleashing her inner rage on the mining industry while aiming for Bhutan-style gross national happiness.

This is a golden opportunity to do the right thing ... Not everyone has the guts and the wherewithal to stand on big business’s toes
Environment Secretary Regina Lopez

Lopez has in recent months moved global commodity markets with a campaign to close roughly two-thirds of the existing mines in the Philippines, which is the world’s biggest supplier of nickel ore and a major source of copper.

For the 63-year-old, her sudden elevation by firebrand President Rodrigo Duterte to government last year after a lifetime of spiritual and environmental pursuits has presented an unexpected chance to bring about radical change in society.

“This is a golden opportunity to do the right thing,” Lopez, popularly known as Gina, told AFP in an interview on Wednesday at her bustling Manila office as she explained her determination to take on the mining industry. “Not everyone has the guts and the wherewithal to stand on big business’s toes. Right now I have that platform.”

Lopez casts mining in a sinister light, accusing powerful business figures and politicians involved in the industry of corruption and rapaciousness.

She insists mining is destroying the Southeast Asian archipelago’s ecosystem, and that the natural resources on offer can be used in much more sustainable ways.

“We have 7,000 islands and if we rape the islands ... and 95 per cent of the wealth goes out of those islands, we will never see the light of day,” Lopez said.

Lopez has ordered the closure or suspension of 28 mines which, if implemented, would leave just 12 in operation. She has also recommended the contracts of 75 planned mines be cancelled to protect watersheds.

Mining Inc is fighting back, with a public relations blitz insisting it is a law-abiding industry that generates billions of dollars for the economy and directly supports 1.2 million people.

It has appealed to Duterte, who has spoken fiercely against the industry but nevertheless also has many pro-mining figures in his cabinet, to over-rule Lopez.

It is also lobbying for a congressional committee to reject her nomination as environment secretary when it conducts a confirmation hearing next month.

“This is the first time we have opposed an appointee of the president,” Chamber of Mines of the Philippines vice president Ronald Recidoro told AFP. “We’ve had to because our existence is on the line. If she is confirmed the mining industry is finished, we are done.”

If Lopez survives as environment secretary and gets to serve her full six-year term, she has much bigger plans for remodelling the Philippine economy – and she is taking inspiration from the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan. The Buddhist kingdom famously pursues an economic development model of “Gross National Happiness”, which aims to balance spiritual and material wealth while taking into account the value of the environment and culture.

“I love the Bhutan model,” Lopez said. “They know if they kill their air, they kill their water, they will never ever be happy. And I find that quite enlightened.”

Lopez dreams of a Philippines in which its rich biodiversity is capitalised on.

“We have barely begun to scratch the surface of what our country can offer the world,” she said, citing sea sponges, shells and fruit she claimed could cure cancers. “And the exciting thing is biodiversity is endemic. It is specific and exclusive to the Philippines. That sounds like a really good business deal.”

Lopez has walked an unlikely path to becoming one of the most powerful women in the Philippines.

She belongs to one of the wealthiest families in the country.

But Lopez exchanged a life of luxury as a young lady for one as a yoga missionary with a spiritual organisation founded in India called Ananda Marga, or Path of Bliss.

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Lopez spent two decades in Africa, India and Portugal promoting yoga and helping the underprivileged, before returning to the Philippines to raise two children.

Back home Lopez earned a reputation as a passionate advocate for the environment, most notably with the charitable arm of her family’s ABS-CBN media empire.

In his inaugural state of the nation address, Duterte described Lopez as a “crusader”.

“We share the same paradigm: The interest of the country must come first,” he said.

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Many people overseas have a dark view of Duterte for waging a ruthless war on crime that has claimed thousands of lives. Duterte has said he would be “happy to slaughter” three million drug addicts, and Amnesty International has warned he may be overseeing crimes against humanity.

Lopez has a different perspective.

“He’s genuine. He’s the real thing,” she said. “His love of people, his courage, his humility, it’s real. And it’s in this dimension that we resonate.”