Ultimately, what doomed Gina Lopez’s confirmation bid in Congress was her failure to understand what her real job was as environment and natural resources secretary. She wanted to continue being a one-dimensional environmental campaigner when she should have been balancing the interests of all stakeholders; her job demanded that she play referee, but she wanted to be a partisan.
I’ve always believed that there is room for someone like Lopez in the government, but not as secretary of DENR. An environmental crusader like her belongs in an independent state watchdog outfit patterned after the US Environmental Protection Agency, something that we don’t have, unfortunately.
The basic flaw in the DENR’s structure, which was incidentally exposed during Lopez’s confirmation hearings, is that the department has a split personality: It is in charge of exploiting our natural resources for the benefit of the people and to earn revenues for government, and yet it is also the regulator of this state-allowed exploitation.
The DENR gives permits for mining companies, for example. But it is also in charge of auditing them and making them comply with environmental protection standards.
This is an untenable situation. The ideal set up should let the DENR and its attached agencies continue their work of accepting and approving permits for mining and other exploitative industries.
And then, an EPA-like bureaucracy monitors compliance based on accepted environmental standards. Something like a Commission on Audit for the environment that will have oversight functions over the use of our country’s natural resources, from our forests to our fishing grounds to our minerals.
In the past, of course, DENR has been accused of favoring the mining companies and other big businessmen, including those who wantonly destroy the environment and plunder our natural resources. But that still doesn’t give Lopez the license to swing the pendulum back completely the other way; she should have addressed the problem of the regulator also being the permit-giver, of the bureaucracy that makes the rules also making sure that the rules are followed.
I agree with those who say that someone as passionate as Lopez about the protection of the environment was needed to shake up the DENR. But Lopez should have realized that the present situation at the department needed structural change more than just mine closures.
That she failed to appreciate this doomed her short stint as DENR secretary. Perhaps her replacement will understand the job better.
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Which brings us to the question of Lopez’s tactics. Because Lopez did not understand her job fully, she also failed to realize that she could have been less confrontational, the better to get the work she set out to do done.
I’m not saying she shouldn’t have audited the mining companies and shut down those that were non-compliant—far from it. What I’m saying is that if Lopez did what she did with a minimum of the unnecessary noise that she created, inside and outside the bureaucracy she was assigned to head up, she probably would have been confirmed.
But Lopez tried to be the Rodrigo Duterte of the DENR, minus the foul language (although she did get caught on record calling out a pesky newspaper reporter to her face for being such a “f—ing employee”).
Given that Congress and the Commission on Appointments are packed with people connected to the mining industry, Lopez could have done her work of demanding compliance while not giving her opponents any reason to depict her as someone unfit for the job she was seeking confirmation for. What purpose, after all, did pointing out that a CA member’s brother “killed a mountain” serve?
Duterte can be removed legally only by impeachment, a long and difficult process. Lopez’s appointment could be rejected by a mere majority vote in a CA that gave every indication that it was sympathetic to the mining industry, which is why she is now out of a job.
Whoever is appointed by Duterte to replace Lopez will have his job cut out for him: You can be tough and yet non-combative, a stickler for rules but ready to play nice in order to get the long-term results that you want.
I’m sure we have not heard the last of Gina Lopez, even if she is no longer in government. And when we do, I hope she will have learned valuable lessons from her short, unhappy stint as DENR secretary.
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Speaking of the CA, I think Senator Tito Sotto just ensured the confirmation of Social Welfare Secretary-designate Judy Taguiwalo when he made a tasteless joke more worthy of Eat Bulaga than Congress during yesterday’s hearings. By poking fun at Taguiwalo’s status as a single mother of two young women, Sotto made the DSWD secretary a sympathetic figure while proving once again that he is often just an insensitive, tasteless comedian.
So I guess Sotto’s cheap shot resulted in something good, after all. And because I support Taguiwalo, who is obviously a better, more accomplished person than Sotto ever will be, I’m actually glad the senator lapsed into his default comedian mode.