Lopez admits consulting facial-algorithm experts, but says decisions on people are ‘evidence-based’

May 2, 2017 - 3:37 PM
Sen. Manny Pacquiao chats with Sec. Gina Lopez before the start of the final confirmation hearing on the DENR chief. SENATE PRIB PHOTO

MANILA – Are prospective appointees and candidates for promotion at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources subjected to some sort of facial feng-shui before Secretary Gina Lopez decides whether to give her nod to them?

The question was asked of the controversial DENR chief at the resumption of confirmation hearings by the Senate environment committee Tuesday, ahead of a plenary vote on her fate in the Duterte Cabinet.

Lopez appeared taken aback momentarily when Rep. Josephine Ramirez-Sato, a member of the CA environment committee chaired by Sen. Manny Pacquiao, asked her about information turned up by her own office’s research about this curious manner of vetting people.

Lopez quickly recovered and did not deny the information Sato received that photos of certain employees are sent to some group for “facial algorithms,” but allayed Ramirez-Sato’s concern that good, qualified people might be rejected simply on account of their face.

The DENR chief said she had “consultants” who had once done work for Apple and who help her. She pointed out that there are “18 facial algorithms” without elaborating how this could give anyone a good idea about a person’s fitness for a certain job.

Instead, she firmly assured Ramirez-Sato that “I never made decisions” that are “not evidence-based,” implying no one ever gets turned away on account of face.

New, arbitrary orders raised

The congresswoman from Mindoro Oriental let the matter go, as she was more focused on the substantive issues raised against Lopez by critics with regard to the secretary’s alleged penchant for arbitrary impositions and disregard for due process and rule of law.

Ramirez-Sato lauded Lopez’s avowed intention to help poor villagers whose farmlands might have been impacted by mining operations. However, she stressed, the DENR chief cannot unilaterally invent a new imposition, i.e., a separate fund that miners must give P2 million to, to compensate even those areas that are outside the legally designated “rehabilitation zones” for which the Mining Act already mandated a fund for.

Lopez had come under fire for issuing an order demanding that miners give P2 million to a separate fund for farms that are outside the designated rehabilitation zones. When businessmen appealed to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, a lawyer, the latter reminded Lopez her controversial order was still under review. In response, Lopez assailed Medialdea for interfering with her work.

At Tuesday’s hearing of the Pacquiao committee, Ramirez-Sato raised the danger that if Lopez is not stopped in her penchant for unilaterally issuing new orders outside the Mining Act, it could set a ridiculous precedent in other sectors.

Sen. Alan Pater Cayetano said Ramirez-Sato raised a valid fear in saying that, for example, the Tourism secretary could just tell the successful tourism companies to set aside funds for poor villagers around their resorts; for the Health chief to order rich private companies to fund a certain number of beds for the poor in rural hospitals.

Lopez hits back at Dominguez

Also at Tuesday’s hearing, Lopez assailed Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Undersecretary Bayani Agabin for prejudging her through the Mining Industry Coordination Council (MICC).

Given time to reply to some remarks made at the last confirmation hearing, Lopez said the claim of the two officials on supposed “facts” about the number of people who will lose their jobs and livelihood as a result of her policies may be deemed a prejudgment of her, because they did not even consider the audit report on the companies she had penalized.

The losses that Dominguez counted did not consider the damage that the erring players in the mining industry could cause, Lopez said.

She asked aloud if the touted economic gains from mining were worth the risk of government incurring a huge liability once the erring miners do their worst.

Best person for the job

“If nothing is done now to preserve the country’s environment and natural resources, it will not be done ever.” Lopez said this as she made her final push to persuade members of the bicameral body that she deserves to be confirmed as head of DENR.

On Tuesday, the CA finally decided to terminate the public hearings on Lopez’s appointment after conducting three hearings. The bicameral body is set to deliberate and decide her fate on Wednesday.

Lopez defended anew her decisions against erring mining companies, as well as the ongoing reorganization at the DENR. “I’m taking the opportunity to do the right thing because that opportunity may not come again,” Lopez told CA members.

Lopez had earlier ordered the closure of 22 mines and suspension of 4 others due to serious environmental violations. She also announced her plan to scrap 75 mineral production sharing agreements or MPSAs with mining companies operating within or near watershed areas.

She was assailed for her administrative order requiring suspended mining companies to set aside P2 million per hectare of “disturbed land” for farmers before they are allowed to transport their stockpiles.

Just recently, Lopez imposed a ban on open-pit mining. The ban covers “open-pit method of mining for copper, gold, silver and complex ores.”

Lopez assured CA members that whatever she does at the DENR are “within the law and government processes.”

She maintained it was part of her duty and obligation as DENR secretary to make sure that the “people are not adversely affected by mining.”

As for the ongoing reorganization at the DENR, Lopez said she was merely “reformulating” the agency “so things happen on the ground.”

Obsessing with mining?

Midway into the hearing, meanwhile, several lawmakers questioned Lopez’s seeming obsession with mining in the one year she has been at her post at DENR.

Cavite Rep. Tolentino pointed out that, for instance, the DENR has not moved on the serious problems of land titling.

Senator Cayetano questioned why Lopez keeps showing only the impact of mining and logging on nature, when the fact is that any place where there are people invariably gets subjected to environmental degradation.

He said the government is starting to have problems easing the anxiety of foreign investors. Whenever the Duterte administration goes to another country they run out of answers to the questions raised by business leader.

If, as she claims, she is for responsible mining, it’s time for Lopez to show as well the benefits of responsible mining on communities, he said..

Cayetano wondered aloud why Lopez does not seem to know key details that a DENR secretary is expected to know, such as the total land area of mining.

He questioned the mining audit conducted at Lopez’s behest and the administrative order where Lopez is accused of giving the law her own interpretation.

The DENR chief, however, insisted she is following the law.