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No Free Lunch

Gina’s grit and guts

Not a few people thought that former Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary Gina Lopez was an oddball, even crazy. You would indeed be seen as such if you were a scion of one of the country’s richest families, but on reaching adulthood, decided to turn your back on fame and fortune, and chose to spend your life away from the comforts that the family’s wealth and stature guaranteed. In an op-ed tribute in another paper, veteran journalist Tony Lopez muses: “As an 18-year-old heiress in 1972, Gina had everything going for her — great wealth, great power, great organization. Instead of rushing headlong to join that organization, Gina left it.” He admits to thinking she was crazy as he interviewed her and asked her “why someone of her stature of wealth, power and prestige would abandon it, hie away to faraway places like India, Portugal, Africa, in search of her soul. Instead of making the family fortune grow, she did things like yoga, meditation, praying upside down and Ananda Marga.”

Many years later, her “craziness” was to be displayed in public as she single-handedly jousted with big business titans in a memorable forum on the economic and ecological effects of mining, organized jointly by Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Management Association of the Philippines, and Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines. Emotions ran high on both sides, and having witnessed her then, I have come to describe her as an authentic environmental warrior: one who took on the most formidable of opponents — many of them friends of her own or of her family — even to the sacrifice of these friendships, as she pursued her higher crusade against irresponsible and environmentally degrading mining activities in the country.

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Gina was single-minded about her intense opposition to irresponsible mining and to open-pit mining in particular, and while I tried to reason with her about taking extreme positions, crazy or irrational is not how I would describe her as I witnessed her pursue her crusade firsthand. It was clear to me that her passion was informed and inflamed by hard evidence. More than once, she asked me to join her for a meal, wherein she would show numerous photographs she had taken herself, of various mining operations having led to hectares of carved-out forests and kilometers of severely discolored waterways. Her anger and anguish at all these was infectious, and her sincere empathy for aggrieved fellow Filipinos in affected communities was palpable.

Weeks before she called on then newly-elected President Duterte and found herself appointed into his Cabinet, she showed me studies supported by ABS-CBN Foundation’s Bantay Kalikasan on the total economic valuation of environmental impacts of mining operations in Bicol, Mindoro and Palawan. She wanted me to help assess the soundness of the analyses. These were carefully researched studies undertaken by interdisciplinary teams from Palawan State University, Bicol University, and Mindoro State College of Agriculture and Technology, by scholars with postgraduate degrees in fields such as agriculture, forestry, marine biology, health science, economics, accounting, sociology and anthropology. While she would consistently be emotional in delivering her message, hers was an evidence-based advocacy and crusade, which is why she managed to win much support, not the least from the President himself. For this, she was privately grateful, her close associates have told me, and saw him as a valuable ally in her cause. But in the end, her adversaries prevailed, and got her out of the job.

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Gina leaves behind a legacy no one else can match. Last I directly heard from her was when she invited me repeatedly, still as environment secretary, to join her with others in field visits to various mine sites. She wanted us to see for ourselves what later motivated her to issue her controversial ban on open-pit mining. For one reason or another, I failed to make it to any of them. I still wish I had been able to join her, even once.

God bless Gina Lopez’s soul. I am certain that her guts and grit have earned her God’s favor, and His warm embrace into His bosom of eternal bliss and peace.

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