MANILA – The Commission on Appointments rejected Wednesday (May 3) the confirmation of the ad interim appointment of Regina Paz Lopez as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), capping a long, tumultuous tenure that had her wrangling with the mining sector and some of her fellow Cabinet members.
Senate President Koko Pimentel, also co-chair of the bicameral CA, officially declared Lopez’s rejection after a report from the chief of the CA’s environment committee, Sen. Manny Pacquiao, that his panel had voted against confirming Lopez.
Hours before the CA’s much-awaited verdict, Lopez was slapped with a fourth complaint against her acts as DENR chief, this time a graft charge filed with the Office of the Ombudsman by miner Citinickel, which accused her of illegally requiring private business to transact with an NGO which she supposedly controls.
Pacquiao expressed regret over the CA vote, addressing Lopez at one point to say “I truly admire your passion and love for the environment,” but adding that all must respect the CA vote, which was taken after long deliberations that gave all stakeholders a chance to hear everyone else.
Pacquiao said: “With sadness in my heart this committee through this plenary is terminating this confirmation, not in the way i would have wanted to,” but because of the verdict of the majority, which he respected.
Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said Malacañang Palace was saddened by the rejection of Lopez, the second Cabinet member to face CA rejection – the first being Perfecto Yasay for the Department of Foreign Affairs.
However, Abella said, the Palace recognized the democratic process in which the confirmation process was undertaken, and respected the outcome.
“It is with deep concern that CA has seen fit to reject her appointment. On the other hand, it’s a democratic process so we respect their decision and so we would just like to – at this stage, we’ll leave it at that.”
Lopez can no longer be appointed again to DENR, said Abella, but there remains the possibility she could be appointed to another position.
He said the contributions of Lopez to the ecological system are acknowledged.
As of now, the Palace has not picked a replacement for Lopez, said Abella. However, he said, lawyer Mark Tolentino, whom the PDP Laban CARAGA chapter had endorsed for DENR secretary, could be among those to be considered.
Abella could not say how many were on the President’s shortlist for new DENR chief.
Senators for Lopez
Before the CA committee approved the Pacquiao panel’s motion to disapprove her appointment, senators in favor of her leadership of the DENR issued statements explaining why Lopez could have been the best Environment chief that the country could ever have.
Sen. Vicente “Tito” Sotto III was the first of the CA members who opposed the commission’s report.
“I wish to manifest that I am not supporting the committee report,” Sotto said.
He was followed by Sen. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan. “We would likewise want to place on record that we voted for the confirmation of Gina Lopez because we believe in in her.”
Pangilinan was followed by Sen. Loren Legarda, who expressed frustration because “we let pass for my much beloved DENR the chance to be led by someone who has the passion and integrity to implement our environmental laws.”
Rushed controversial policies
In the past few weeks, Lopez had stepped up her rollout of certain controversial policies, the last being a ban on open-pit mining, conceding that she had no idea what her fate as Cabinet member would be after Congress returns from its long break on May 2.
Much of the Pacquiao committee’s final hearing in May 3 focused on these policies which Lopez defended as her own judgment call to protect the environment and poor communities living in mining areas, but which CA members said create bad precedents because she was resorting to her own interpretation of the law.
One such imposition was for miners to contribute P2 million to a new fund even for villages outside the predetermined “rehabilitation zones” as defined in the Mining Act.
“Ang malalaki at malalakas ang kalaban ni Secretary Lopez ang nagkaroon ng malaking impluwensya. Alam naman natin na marami s’yang nasagasaan,” said Jaybee Garganera national coordinator of Alyansa Tigil Mina.
Yeb Saño, Executive Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said:
“The rejection of Gina Lopez is a rejection of change. Her rejection as DENR Secretary by the Commission on Appointments is very disappointing and worrying, and shows how destructive industries continue to hold Philippine lawmakers by their necks… As a country with scarce forests left, and with dwindling natural resources, turning to extracting minerals as a solution to poverty is superfluous at the very least, and glaringly reveals the short-sighted mindset, if not corrupt interests, of our politicians. With mining having a serious impact on our water resources, the situation demands that we weigh which is more important: money or life. The next major battle will be fought over water, not gold. And Ms. Lopez has chosen right: she must stand proud over those who choose the foolish and obtuse option of trying to solve poverty by destroying the environment.”
The Alyansa Tigil Mina said in a statement:
“This is a tragedy for the environment as well as for the rights and welfare of our people. Secretary Gina’s rejection is a betrayal of the people, and specifically of mining-affected communities who are protecting their lives and livelihoods by resisting destructive large-scale mining.”
Hundreds of Lopez supporters, including those who came from far-flung areas in Mindanao who trooped to the Senate on Wednesday expressed sadness and disappointment over the CA’s ruling.
“Palagay ko po nagdesisyon itong malalaking ito na kailangang pigilan si Secretary Lopez,” Garganera said, adding that at least five CA members allegedly had “direct links” with mining firms.
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