Duterte's controversial environment secretary out after Senate rejects appointment

Philippine lawmakers on Wednesday (May 3) voted to reject the appointment of Regina Lopez as environment minister.
Philippine lawmakers on Wednesday (May 3) voted to reject the appointment of Regina Lopez as environment minister.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - The Philippine Senate has rejected the appointment of President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial pick for environment secretary, the heiress-turned-missionary and activist Regina Lopez.

Ms Lopez had shuttered dozens of mines for a variety of infractions, driving nickel prices to a year high.

The Philippines is the world's top supplier of nickel ore and main supplier to China, the biggest market for the industrial metal.

Congressional confirmations in the Philippines typically happen only months after ministers start work. Lopez was appointed by Duterte on June 30 last year.

At the confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Lopez struggled to defend the legal basis for requiring nickel miners that remove their ore stockpiles to set aside an additional 2 million pesos (US$39,948) per hectare of disturbed land on top of funds already set aside to repair environmental damage, only saying that she wanted to help farmers in those areas, reported Reuters.

"I'm a very out of the box person," she was quoted as saying.

Duterte has largely backed Lopez's crackdown.

Congress's rejection of Lopez is the second dismissal of a member of Duterte's Cabinet. The same panel in March rejected Perfecto Yasay as foreign minister.

In her brief tenure as environment secretary, Lopez campaigned hard against mining companies she believes had been sacking the environment and evicting communities to shore up their bottom lines.

She once pointedly told a ranking congressman with a mining interest during one of her confirmation hearings: "Your brother is killing the mountain."

The mining lobby had pushed back, accusing her of making "arbitrary" decisions and imposing "unreasonable demands".

Recently, she was called out for declaring, "I love the NPA", referring to Maoist guerrillas fighting a decades-long war with the government.

Ms Lopez, 63, belongs to one of the Philippines' wealthiest families, with business concerns in media, property development, and, ironically, mining.

She has stayed away from the family business, and at one time opted to do missionary work instead.

Mining is a contentious issue in the largely underexplored Philippines after past examples of environmental mismanagement, including a 1996 tailings leak at Canadian-owned Marcopper Mining Corp's copper mine in Marinduque that contaminated rivers.