Reining in the Philippine Mining Industry

Justina Yu, the mayor of an obscure town in Davao Oriental Province, has had a passion for the environment since she moved to a rural town in Mindanao on her wedding day five decades ago. In her new home she had a view of a mountain that she felt was calling her, watching it shrouded by mist, and she was drawn to protect it.

In doing so, Yu has become a small but significant harbinger for a danger-speckled movement that under President Rodrigo Duterte has taken on new life – protecting the environment, particularly against unregulated mining. Her father in-law was mayor then, succeeded later by her husband, and she had heard people coming to their family home talk about the wealth that could be mined from the mountain, the gold, nickel and copper buried there. She served coffee and listened.

A teacher by profession, she began to read up on climate change and became obsessed about saving her world in the little-known San Isidro town in a province that forms part of the resource-rich but unruly landscape of eastern Mindanao – which today faces degradation, insurgency and tribal politics.

She became mayor herself in the 1990s at a time when mining in the region was setting its tracks in areas widely occupied by non-Muslim ethnic groups that claimed their land as ancestral domain. Mayor Yu would have none of the trouble. She had to run for office again, she said, because she couldn’t trust others to save her precious Mount Hamiguitan and leave it untouched.

Being an environmentalist in the Philippines can be deadly. On Feb. 15, Mia Manuelita Mascarinas-Green, a 49-year-old lawyer in Bohol, became the 112th environmentalist to be murdered since 2000 when she took on a case against a resort owner over land use. She was the 12th killed since last July when she was shot in her car as her children watched.

Undeterred, Justina Yu has succeeded in having her mountain designated a world heritage site, the first in Mindanao, which was recognized by UNESCO just three years ago. The mayor has succeeded in banning mining, logging and illegal fishing, and has forbidden plantations for banana exports that she said would have cut down the coconut groves.

Her crusade, a small voice in the wilderness, is a campaign similar to perhaps a few other pockets of local government units around the archipelago but it is a battle that could be drowned out or left to its own devices. Because it has taken so much time to fight off temptation and bigger powers, small-time leaders like Mayor Yu have found their voices amplified by the current environment secretary.

Gina Lopez, appointed Secretary of the Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources by President Rodrigo Duterte, has been facing off Congress for her confirmation and the industry group the Chamber of Mines, which on March 12 filed graft and unethical behavior charges against her for ordering the suspension and closure of several mining operations. The hearings are about to set the course on whether Lopez, whose family is one of the country’s richest oligarchies, will be able to do what she says “the right thing.”

President Duterte said the country could “live without” what the Chamber of Mines estimates at PHP70 billion (US$1.39 billion) in excise taxes contributing to the country’s economy.

“I would rather follow Gina,” he said. And of the president, she says often in her interviews and public gathering, “he’s the real thing.”

It isn’t clear how Congress will take the cue and how far this fight will go in view of the fact that some of Duterte’s key supporters funded his presidential campaign out of their mining interests. The mining bloc launched a social media war when Lopez ordered the closure or suspension of 28 out 40 mines and the possible cancellation of other mining contracts in watershed areas.

Secretary Lopez raised the stakes head on. She is talking big, posting on her Facebook page videos and testimonies of an alternative world to destructive mining and other ills to the environment. She wants to turn the department upside down from a regulatory body to one that she said would harness development, setting aside the old timers for her own team of experts.

This isn’t the first time that the mining sector was caught off-guard and then recouped. It lost a landmark Supreme Court case in the early 2000s when a tribal group asked to stop a multimillion-dollar copper exploration covering border towns in four provinces in Mindanao. Within just a year the high court overturned itself when the chamber of mines hired a prominent lawyer to take their side.

Mining has been an enormously controversial issue due to past practices of exploitation, combined with nationalist calls for patrimony and fair and equal economic shares in a country that has to rely on foreign conglomerates for the machinery and investment to begin surveys and explorations.

In having chosen Gina Lopez, the president has put the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the hands of “an environmentalist and committed natural resources conservator, who cannot be manipulated and bribed,” said opinion maker Solita Monsod of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “My gut feel is that … she will leave the Philippines better off.”

Not everyone shares blanket approval of Lopez, who, in the scheme of things, may see this as a baptism of fire: if she wins, it will bring victory to an administration which has been at the losing end of political scores elsewhere (his foreign secretary was rejected by the commission on appointments for lying that he had been an American citizen). If she loses, she could always go back to her crusade under the wings of her family-owned foundation.

The fight to save the country’s environment – one of many issues attached to poverty – has been a dangerous one. Lopez’s friend and fellow advocate Gerry Ortega was shot dead six years ago on the island of Palawan. Last month it was Mascarinas-Green.

Some say Lopez has carried her crusade to the extreme and are turned off by it. To lesser-known crusaders cut out of the same cloth – allies like Mayor Justina Yu – it doesn’t matter, because the boldness to speak out has raised her platform to a level that will make her neighbors understand what she’s been doing all these years.

Tucked away in Mindanao, the town of San Isidro will have Lopez to be proud of. It is classified a third-class municipality that gets a yearly allotment of PHP100 million pesos from the central government, which Mayor Yu says is not enough to get everything she wants done for her programs and infrastructure. Despite that she gets support from private donors and her basic services are in place.

“Even if it’s poor, we’re ready for anything,” she said. And if it's any consolation, scientists have named after her a species of pitcher plant --Nepenthes Justinae -- found on her favorite mountain.