MANILA — Gina Lopez, a former environmental activist who introduced a broad crackdown on Philippine mining companies after she was appointed the country’s environmental secretary in 2016, died Monday at age 65.
Her death, from multiple organ failure, was confirmed by the ABS-CBN Foundation, a social development group in which she was the longtime chair.
The outspoken Lopez landed the job of acting environment secretary when President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016. And she wasted no time in going after major mining companies that she said had flagrantly violated the country’s environmental laws.
She ordered 23 mines to shut down and about five others to suspend operations. She also canceled 75 lucrative contracts for mines that she said threatened watersheds.
In moving to halt the operations of 28 of the country’s 41 mining companies, she was taking aim at businesses that accounted for about half of Philippine nickel production, which environmentalists said had left rivers, rice fields and watersheds stained red with nickel laterite.
“I’m going to do the right thing and let the dice fall where it may,” Lopez said when she canceled the mining permits. “And I am going to hope that maybe these politicians, even if they’re funded by mining money, must have love for God and country in their hearts.”
But Lopez’s swift assault on the industry faced stiff opposition from influential mining groups, and she was forced from her job when the Philippine Congress denied her confirmation to the post just 10 months after Duterte appointed her. While Duterte is best known for his bloody antidrug campaign, he has spoken out against abuses by the logging industry and mining companies.
“What a waste,” she said after she was forced out. “Everyone would have benefited from the management and care of the environment.”
Salvador Panelo, a spokesman for Duterte, called her one of the country’s “most passionate cabinet members, whose environmental advocacy and legacy remains unparalleled to this day.”
“She fiercely fought powerful interests in the mining sector, as well as in industries having negative effects on our ecology,” he added.
A scion of the family behind the country’s storied ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp., Lopez was the longtime head of the ABS-CBN Foundation, the broadcaster’s charitable arm, which spearheaded various notable environmental projects.
Until Lopez took the job of environmental secretary, advocates say that government corruption had for decades let Philippine mining companies skirt environmental regulations, resulting in deforestation, flattened mountaintops and heavy metal contamination of water and soil.
After her brief foray into government, Lopez continued with her environmental advocacy, promoting sustainable tourism in the Philippines before she died, according to the ABS-CBN Foundation.
“What I do is I follow my heart and right now, my heart wants to do this,” Lopez said, according to ABS-CBN.
Born Dec. 27, 1953, Lopez was the second of seven children of Eugenio Lopez Jr., the former chairman and chief executive of ABS-CBN, and Conchita La’O.
She had described her childhood as carefree, and she later studied in the United States, where she discovered meditation.
She became a yoga missionary with the Ananda Marga religious sect and served in Europe and Africa. In the early 1990s, she returned to the Philippines to join her family and was appointed the head of the family corporation’s charitable foundation.
At the ABS-CBN Foundation, she oversaw many diverse projects, including rescuing children from domestic violence and promoting educational television. But it was the danger that mining operations posed to human health that drew her greatest attention.
Calling any mining operation in a watershed dangerous, she said allowing such activity was “like saying that gold and nickel are more important than the water that our people drink.”
2019 New York Times News Service