Encomiums flowed freely from top government officials and sundry politicians in the wake of the passing of former environment secretary Gina Lopez.
Among those who paid tribute were members of the very institutions that made sure her forthright, take-no-prisoners brand of environmentalism would not prosper or become official policy, by soundly rejecting her appointment to the DENR post in May 2017.
Lopez faced an uphill battle at the powerful Commission on Appointments (CA) from the outset, with her controversial orders to close down 23 mines and suspend five others, and to cancel 75 contracts for mining projects in watersheds. Despite being reappointed by President Duterte twice, the CA nixed her appointment after only three hearings.
Much has been said about Lopez’s storied life. At 18, she turned her back on privilege as the daughter of one of the country’s wealthiest families, to become a full-fledged yoga missionary. She would spend the next two decades living among the poor in Portugal, India and Africa, where she said she learned the quality of persistence and the value of hardship.
“When one doesn’t have much, one treasures every little bit. I lived as the poor lived, so I learned how not to be wasteful,” she wrote in Rogue magazine in 2016.
This life-changing experience would help her find her calling. She took over ABS-CBN Foundation Inc. (now ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation Inc.) in 1994 shortly after she returned to the Philippines. She then established Bantay Bata 163, a hotline to protect disadvantaged and at-risk children, which in 1997 bested 187 countries from around the world to receive the United Nations Grand Awardee for Excellence.
In 1999, Lopez established Bantay Kalikasan as the foundation’s environmental arm to extend aid to victims of natural calamities. It was through her work in Bantay Kalikasan that Lopez led the rehabilitation of the 2,700-hectare La Mesa Watershed and the development of the La Mesa Ecopark.
In 2010, she was appointed head of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC). Under her leadership, PRRC relocated informal settlers and cleaned up the tributaries of the Pasig River, paving the way for the revival of the Pasig River ferry service.
She also launched the antimining Save Palawan Island movement, gathering 10 million signatures over four years to support the campaign. For these environment-related works, Lopez was awarded $10,000 as part of the 2017 Seacology Prize.
While her work in these fields is much lauded and well-remembered, only a few now recall that Lopez was also a trailblazer in championing local children’s television. She pioneered Educational Television (ETV), which aired 16 educational television programs over 15 years, and put in place video libraries in 10,000 public schools.
Children who grew up in the 1990s would remember these educational shows under the ETV program: “Sineskwela” (science), “Math Tinik” (math), “Hirayamanawari” (values), “Bayani” (history) and “Epol/Apple” (English)—virtually a now-bygone golden era of kids’ TV programming that benefited millions of Filipino children, and a thrust that deserves to be revived. (A study by the National Council for Children’s Television in 2015 showed that 48.7 percent of 4,395 children surveyed have access to TV and watch an average of three hours per day, particularly from 5-10 p.m.) Lopez was the first Southeast Asian to be honored the Unesco Kalinga Award for her work in “Sineskwela.”
Lopez took on advocacies that broke down the walls of her comfortable upbringing to the extent that it made many people uncomfortable and, at crunch time, cost her a Cabinet job. But “[I] decided to be true to myself,” she said when she accepted her appointment as environment secretary. “If I had calculated and maneuvered, I would never have forgiven myself.”
In her confirmation hearing before the CA, Lopez was asked what made her “extreme.” She replied: “I’m a very out-of-the-box person… so I can do anything and everything, but my non-negotiable commitment is to our people and the principles of integrity. I’m never gonna budge there because something in me will die.”
From the environment to social causes to children’s TV, the fearless, out-of-the-box spirit of Gina Lopez made the nation’s life considerably richer, even if many times it didn’t know it or was slow to recognize the value of such causes. The Philippines, now among the world’s environmental hotspots, has just lost perhaps its fiercest eco-warrior — at a time when it needs her kind the most.