Gina Lopez isn’t your average environmental crusader. Born to a wealthy family that owns the Philippines’ largest media company, ABS-CBN Corporation, she hobnobs with the very mining barons whose business practices she’s fighting. As a young adult, however, Lopez eschewed the family business. She spent some 20 years abroad, much of it as a yoga missionary in Africa, before returning to Manila and assuming a position with the ABS-CBN Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the family media company.
In 2016, Lopez, by then a well-known activist, was tapped by the newly-elected president, Rodrigo Duterte – a man better known for his bloody war on drugs than his love for the environment – to direct the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). To say Lopez hit the ground running as environment secretary would be an understatement. On her first day in the position, she issued compliance audits for the Philippine’s 41 hard rock mines, a bold move as head of an agency long-known for its ineffectiveness. And she didn’t stop there. During her brief tenure with the Duterte government, Lopez also addressed water pollution, fought illegal logging, and launched the first consultations between DENR and Indigenous groups.
Lopez was never confirmed for the DENR post. Ten months in – shortly after she enacted a countrywide ban on new open pit mines – she was rejected by the House-Senate committee on confirmations. Committee members included politicians with ties to the mining industry. Despite the loss of her government title, Lopez continues to work for the environment. She recently founded ILOVE, an organization that invests in green economic development at the local level. Last year she was awarded the international Seacology Prize, which honors an Indigenous islander each year for their work to preserve the environment and culture of their country.
In an open and effusive conversation in December – one peppered with the occasional hyperbolic claim – 64-year-old Lopez acknowledged that the attention she received due to her ouster from DENR has provided her a global platform. Lopez seems genuinely committed to using that platform to continue to fight for the environment and social justice in the Philippines. She did, however, come across as cavalier about President Duterte’s brutal anti-drug campaign that has resulted in the murder of an estimated 12,000 Filipinos. Then again, given that Duterte has responded to critics of his drug war with threats, maybe that’s to be expected.
Can you tell me about yourself and how you first became involved in environmental work?
I meditate. I’ve been meditating for 40 years already. And the spiritual path results in an affinity with nature, and in an ever-increasing empathy with people.
And I have zero tolerance for corruption. I don’t like injustice at all. When the money that very, very rich people want to make becomes more important than the water that our people need to drink, that really gets to me. That’s how I got into it … I have not a single doubt in my mind that we can get our country out of poverty. The key is to take care of the environment.
You know, the Philippines is 7,000 islands, and we have the highest rate of endemism per unit area on the entire planet. Can you imagine? Seventy percent of what’s found here can be found only here. The world’s densest forests are in this country. These are our gifts to the planet. Why would we kill our gift to the planet just because somebody wants more money when they don’t even need it? It’s disgusting.
When you first started as environment secretary, what was it like transitioning into a government position?
The biggest difference was that I had so much money! In the NGO [world], I didn’t have the money that I had in government, which is crazy. I had huge amounts of money and like 14,000 employees.
The realization I have had after DENR is this: It’s not the money that makes the difference. You know what makes the difference? It’s the heart. If your heart really cares for others. If your heart has empathy for others. If you have that, you’ll make a difference like no other, even if there’s not much money.
So that’s why I’ve started an organization called ILOVE (Investments of Love Organizations for Village Economies). Because I believe love is the foundation of economic growth. And I don’t mean love like, “I love you,” that sentiment. It’s like love as a force, as a force of caring for others, a force of empathy. I think it’s really powerful. What I want to do is build the country from the bottom up. Because I got really popular [when I was] rejected from DENR, so I’m riding on a crest and I’m maneuvering all the support into building green models on the ground.
You initiated compliance audits on all the big mines on your first day. How did you decide to take such a strong stance right from the beginning?
My selection as DENR secretary was really quite unusual, because I already had set views and everybody knew it. Before I went to DENR, I had successfully raised 10 million signatures to stop mining in biodiverse areas. In fact, I ended up in this position because during election season I went to all the presidential candidates to make sure, in case they got elected, that they realized what mining was doing to the country. And all of them were a bit iffy with their reaction. But Duterte, when I showed him pictures of the environment and the suffering of the people, he looked me straight in the eye and he said, “You want me to kill them?” And then I looked him in the eye and said, “Sir, I really love you.”
So that’s how it began. I knew without the slightest doubt the suffering that mining had caused. So naturally on my first day I said I’m going to audit all the mining firms.Â Because they are clearly not following rules and regulations.
You’ve been very vocal about the connection between the environment and social justice. Could you tell me a bit about how these issues are connected in the Philippines?
I have statistical data that shows that the environment affects the soul. In areas where I’ve cleaned up the creeks and made the place more beautiful, 97 percent of the people have more peace of mind, 97 percent of people are happier. You can probably validate that yourself. When you’re stressed, you go to a place which is beautiful and healing and peaceful. The world in which you live, the world that surrounds you, ultimately affects your soul.
I even think love is the way to address the drug problem. I think the strong approach has its merit, but I think left at that alone it’s not going to be sustainable. Because if you look at where all the killing has happened, it’s always in places that are dirty, and ugly, and poor. And when you change the living environment of the place, there’s a direct impact on human consciousness.
And that’s why I’m into the environment, because of the impact on people’s lives. And if you keep the environment beautiful, there’s tremendous economic potential for ecotourism. For me, the path for this particular country, for the Philippines – with 7,000 islands, with mountains and volcanoes and corals – is to keep the environment beautiful, to nurture it, to explore it. And then to maneuver systems so that the people who live there benefit from it.
When you started as secretary you took a very firm, independent stance. Do you ever wish you’d taken a more conciliatory stance to prolong your time in the position?
I’ve been asked that question many, many times. But this is the reality that existed. The head of the commission of appointments in Congress belongs to a family that owns five mines. And mining money funds political campaigns, as I think it must in the United States. What happens is politicians are indebted to the funder. In the Senate there were like three or four whose political campaigns had been funded by big mining companies.
So, I had to make a choice. The thing here is that I was in this amazing position to talk about what was necessary for the country. I own a media company, but it’s nothing compared to [the attention you get] when you’re cabinet secretary. My god! I’d go in a room and talk and I’d see all these cameras, and I’d [wonder,] Where are all of these people coming from? And all of a sudden, when I talk, people go like, Oh, she’s cabinet secretary, she must know what she’s talking about. I was somebody that had credibility because of the position.
I saw the spectacular opportunity I had to talk about what happens in this country. And if I had not taken that opportunity because I was calculating [about losing the confirmation], I would never have forgiven myself. Because even if I had played soft, I still don’t think I would have [been confirmed]. What’s happened now is the whole country knows. During my confirmation hearing, I had 40 million views on my Facebook – just unbelievable! And 99.9 percent were in my favor.
What’s it been like to have that wave of support?
All of the sudden people are saying, Wow, somebody can stand in the face of big business. I mean, it’s unbelievable. It was really, really good. So, I’m glad I did that.
And now the mining companies are [better] behaved and getting their act together. I put a ban on open pit mining, which is one of the reasons [the commission] rejected me. Because the pits are going to be there forever – forever, forever, forever and a day. And you know what happened? The president maintained the ban [after I was gone].
You know what would have happened if they’d lifted the ban? My god. Duterte is really gutsy. He’s a little bit like Trump, but he has more principles. He doesn’t care about anything or anyone. If he wants to do something, he’s going to do it, he doesn’t care what people say or think.
And my experience of him is that he really cares. He’s a little eccentric, but his heart really cares for people. And the reason why he’s gone on the drug thing so heavily is that he just has this perception on the drug thing, and thinks that’s the only way to do things. I’m not saying what’s good or bad, but the guy is gutsy.
Duterte is very pro-environment, but given his deadly war on drugs, did you feel conflicted about working with him because of that?
This is my perception: If you go at him [directly], he’ll just put up all these [excuses] and that’s just not the way to handle him. He’s reasonable, and if you talk to him and go to him another way, you actually make him see the light of day. What I’m doing now is just that. We’ve taken a community where there used to be a killing every day. We’re getting the private sector, and the national plumbers association, and the architects association to fix it up and really make the place nice and beautiful and lift up the economy there. I feel if that does well, it could really show the way forward without having to fight.
I don’t know. I just feel that the way to “handle him” is to work with him … I never felt conflicted, because my experience of Duterte was that he really cares. I have a problem when people are really cruel.
The Philippines, like a lot of places, can be a really dangerous place to be an environmental activist. Some 90 environmental activists were murdered between 2010 and 2015 alone. What it will take to make the Philippines safer for environmental advocates?
Government. It’s government’s responsibility. They don’t go down heavily on the deaths of environmental activists … because they are poor. If my family didn’t own the media, I’d probably be dead by now. But the fact is, people will do things when [the public won’t find out about it]. Even here, the media is owned by mining interests. The two largest dailies have mining influences. The mining money is everywhere. So, what happens is, people don’t know about [the poor activists murdered]. It’s government. It’s really, really, really government. If the government were to come down hard on the deaths, [they’d be] sending a message.
You mentioned that you feel protected by your connection to the media, but have you every feared for your safety because of your environmental advocacy?
I have security. But, I don’t know, fear is not in my vocabulary. And the support for the environment is actually overwhelming. And I don’t even fight with the miners, because the elite of Manila, it’s not a really big group. I know everyone. I know the owners of the mining companies, and many of them – is it all? – most of them, are my friends. I say, Why do you do this? And I’m working now with two mining companies because they passed the audit. I don’t want to fight with anyone. In fact, I’m working with them.
Do you think the environmental movement is gaining momentum in the Philippines, and in Asia more broadly?
I think so. Because people are more awakened now. But government has to come down stronger, that’s what I feel. It’s difficult for government to step on business interests – you get eaten up alive – but they just need to be stronger. I feel that it’s government’s duty. And it’s in the constitution. It says it’s the duty of the state to intervene when the common good so dictates. It’s there word-for-word in the constitution. So it’s the duty of government. And it says that the Filipino has a constitutional right to healthful ecology. They just have to implement the constitution.
What do you think the prospects of greater implementation are?
The hopeful thing there is that Duterte really has no fear, and if he thinks there’s something wrong going on, he’s going to go into it. So I’m hopeful because he has zero tolerance for corruption. That’s why I like him. He doesn’t like corruption at all, and he’s gone down heavy even on his friends, on mayors, governors, you name it. There’s no sacred cow where he’s concerned.
What are your thoughts about President Trump? Are you concerned about Trump’s denial of climate change, and his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord?
Yeah, of course I am concerned. I wonder if Trump is like Duterte, you talk to him and you can [work] things out. But I’m not comfortable with his lack of concern for the environment, and the fact that he says one thing and does another.
Has it been hard for you to see your successor, Roy Cimatu, move into the position, given that he doesn’t seem like a strong environmental advocate?
He was asked out of the blue by the president [to fill the position]. He’s a four-star general, so his background isn’t in the environment. But he’s been quite friendly with me. I have a good relationship with him. He doesn’t have the experience that I had. But the good thing here is that he’s a general, and in the military; they obey the boss.
And do you think he’ll end up being effective in his role?
I think somebody with more environmental experience would be more appropriate. You know, somebody with an understanding of ecosystems. He’s on a learning curve.
Did you see any conflicts of interest between your role as environment secretary and your family’s business interests?
No, zero. Thank god they’re not into mining. The family’s actually into renewable energy.
What kind of renewable energy?
Geothermal. We have the biggest geothermal operations in Asia, I think even in the world.
What are you most excited about going forward?
ILOVE. It actually gives me a lot of joy. Because now I have the time. When I was in DENR, I was stuck with admin. My joy now is I don’t have the admin. I can count my staff on my fingers. What makes me really happy is making things happen on the ground. That’s also my skill. I can connect the dots. And I communicate.Â I feel that if I’m able to come up with models that show that taking care of the environment actually [helps] the economy, – and I will do it – that it actually has performance indicators in health, in happiness, in peace and order, it just might show the way for the country to go.
Oh! Starting January, I’m going to have an hour and a half before a prime-time show on Sunday. What that will do is, all these models that I’m coming up, I can put them on TV! My god! It’s exciting. You know it’s show business, but it’s a way to sell the message.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Zoe Loftus-Farren is the managing editor of Earth Island Journal
We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.