Gina Lopez, environmental champion
A woman ahead of her time, Gina Lopez reminded us that we need to take courageous actions and speak inconvenient truths, if we are to save our natural heritage and, indeed, our planet. While she could have lived a luxurious life or adhered to “feel-good environmentalism,” she took the path of most resistance, boldly campaigning against the destructive practices that are at the root of our environmental crises.
I only encountered Gina Lopez twice: once during the campaign to stop a proposed open-pit mining project in Lobo, Batangas, and again when she and her undersecretary Art Valdez were holding dialogues with civil society groups. “I can sense the love of mountains in you,” she told me in her inimitable yogic fashion. “We need more young people to be passionate about the environment.”
Those encounters were short, but her work and her force of personality loomed larger than life for myself and other environmental advocates for whom she represented hope in a seemingly losing struggle. “If only Ms Gina Lopez would hear about our predicament…,” locals all over the country would tell me, viewing her as a champion against the corrupting influence of mining interests, and of initiatives that are often met with little support.
Some of Lopez’s projects are well-known — the reforestation of La Mesa Ecopark, the rehabilitation of Pasig River — but she also worked quietly in many other places. “We in Sibuyan Island are very grateful for her intervention,” climate change advocate Rodne Galicha tells me, narrating her support for their grassroots antimining campaign and eco-tourism initiatives that remain beneficial to their island today.
In doing so, she also served as a role model for environmental advocates all over the country. “She showed me that anyone, from the acutely marginalized to even the extremely privileged, can be an environmentalist, and that we can all take bold steps in our lives,” says Karina Reyes-Antonio, a Filipino-Australian who left her life in Sydney to be part of the Palawan-based Centre for Sustainability PH, a conservation organization she now leads.
“I grew up in a bubble,” Lopez once wrote, acknowledging her Forbes Park childhood, but also recounting how her later experiences as an Ananda Marga yoga missionary in Africa shaped her environmental philosophy, views on social justice and her own way of life. “I lived as the poor lived, so I learned how not to be wasteful.”
This ethos would be reflected in her leadership at the ABS-CBN Foundation, which—unusual for a corporate foundation when she took the helm in the 1990s—she used as a platform to advance her advocacies not just for the environment but also for children, including the impactful Bantay Bata 163 rescue hotline and the unforgettable Sineskwela TV show.
Ever the idealist, Lopez accepted the post of DENR secretary, knowing that she would face stiff opposition were she to hold her ground on her antimining stance. “Tell your brother he killed a mountain,” she defiantly told a lawmaker during her Commission on Appointments hearings. Who today will have the same courage to speak ecological truth to political power? Ultimately, her opponents — they were legion — successfully blocked her confirmation, but not after she had offered a vision against which we will measure her successors.
Some say she could have been more circumspect in her actions, mindful of due process and the realpolitik of a president whose dark side she failed to see or call out. Others point out that she was a “good crusader, but a poor manager.” But while her praxis and intersectionality can be questioned during her 10-month tenure, her principled conviction — which she maintained even as she battled brain cancer — can only serve as a continuing inspiration not just in activism but also in public service.
At a time when environmental activists are themselves an endangered species — the memory of her friend Gerry Ortega comes to mind — surely, we would have wished her to live well beyond her 65 years. But now, more than ever, is the time to recognize the urgency in her unfinished work. Gina Lopez may be gone, but we must continue her legacy by confronting the ecological crises of our time with the same courage and passion.
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