A harsh environmental crackdown on Philippine mines has not only put pressure on companies and workers in one of the country's most important industries, but also sown seeds of discord within the government itself.
At the center of the controversy has been Environment Secretary Gina Lopez. The Commission on Appointments, a body tasked with confirming cabinet appointees, decided March 9 to defer its decision on Lopez. This came on the heels of Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay being forced to step down after the commission rejected his appointment for misrepresenting his U.S. citizenship. The focus has now turned to Lopez, who faces growing criticism over her policies. The commission is expected to reopen hearings in May.
Lopez was named to the post in June by President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office at the end of that month. She immediately suspended the operations of two nickel mine developers in the northern province of Zambales, citing environmental destruction and a violation of laws. She went on to audit 41 mines across the Philippines, closing or suspending 28 operations -- effectively halving nickel output in the country.
Some of this was expected from the moment she was named environment secretary. Though Lopez's family runs a major Philippine conglomerate, she herself is known as a devoted environmentalist and a longtime opponent of coal-fired power plants.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines in a February statement strongly criticized Lopez's "inherent bias" against the mining industry and questioned her qualifications. The group estimates that the mine closures and suspensions will reduce mineral output by an equivalent of 70 billion pesos ($1.39 billion) and government tax revenue by 20 billion pesos, while placing 67,000 jobs at risk.
Criticism has emerged within the government as well. "Our primary concern is the revenues of the municipalities," said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Duterte's right-hand man. Dominguez has also called on the Mining Industry Coordinating Council, which he co-chairs, to launch a three-month review into the mining audit ordered by Lopez. "There was some kind of failure in the discharge of due process," he said.
But Duterte has long railed against the pollution caused by mines. "We can live without it," he has said of the tax revenue from mining companies, claiming he can find the money elsewhere. For now, he is defending Lopez for acting in the public's interest.
Duterte has proposed an economic strategy centered around infrastructure development. But in his last nine months in office, he has sometimes announced extreme measures out of the blue. He could still change his mind. Still, he may be risking his popularity if the crackdown on the mining sector starts to impact the Philippines' booming economy and foreign investments.