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DENR does ‘tokhang’

You could call it the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ version of “tokhang,” the controversial police campaign to visit suspected drug users in order to convince them to mend their ways. Except that the police appeared to have a real basis for identifying those involved in the drug trade, while DENR doesn’t even want to disclose how it went after the mining companies that it shut down last week.

Let’s make this plain at the start: If the mining companies ordered shuttered by Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez violated the law, then by all means, they should be shut down.

But Lopez, who ordered the closure of 23 mining sites across the country and the suspension of five others, also needs, at the very least, to declare the specific violations that precipitated her action. Sadly, Lopez refuses to release the results of the purported seven-month audit that she conducted on the mining industry, on which the closures and suspensions are reportedly based.

Because of the lack of disclosure, Lopez cannot even say how 12 other mining concerns that were also audited by her department’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau passed the audit. And if Lopez really intends to be fair to the two million or so Filipinos dependent on mining for their livelihood, according to the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, she will reveal the results of the MGB evaluation.

But how can Lopez be expected, at this late date, to be transparent about the audit when she did not even make the officials of the MGB attend the press conference she called last Feb. 2, during which she announced the closures and suspensions? And what is the real role of a former undersecretary of DENR who used to head up MGB in the previous administration, but who was removed by President Rodrigo Duterte—only to find his way back as a “special consultant” of Lopez, who put him in charge of the mining audit?

According to Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers, whose province has been one of the hardest-hit by the Lopez closure orders, former MGB head and Undersecretary Leo Jasareno, who is now the secretary’s foremost adviser on mining, should be instead haled to court for granting the same mining permits (as MGB head) that he advised Lopez to close. “How can Jasareno advise Lopez on mining, in the first place, when he was the one who gave these companies their permits?” Barbers asked.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Lopez herself, telling journalists her reason for not disclosing the audit results of her very own “tokhang:”

“I don’t have to have you privy to the processes on which I make my decisions,” Lopez said. “What I’m sharing with you are the principles on which I stand by, and I truly hope you share the same principles because you’re Filipino. I’m not going to show you…because I don’t want anything complicated. Just leave it already, I’ve made my decision and accept it. Don’t try to make things complicated.”

I don’t know if Duterte appointed Lopez to be DENR secretary or if he made her queen over all she surveys. At the very least, Lopez can be accused of trying too hard to become the “Punisher” of the mining industry—even if the punishments she metes out should never, ever be questioned.

* * *

Despite Lopez’s faux-regal position on the closures, not all of the Duterte administration is backing her up. The silence of Duterte himself on Lopez’s precipitate action is also telling; Duterte is known to declare his displeasure about something without ever feeling the need for a Cabinet member to do the job for him.

What I do know is that Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, one of the most senior Cabinet members and a trusted Duterte adviser, has expressed concern over the adverse impact of the closures in three areas. The closures and suspensions, Dominguez said, will cause the loss of many thousands of jobs at the mining concerns, wreak havoc on the fiscal conditions of local governments that rely heavily on the taxes and fees paid by the mining companies, and even put a damper on the national economy, particularly the country’s gross domestic product.

In exports of nickel (a raw material used in the production of steel) alone, the Philippines is ranked as the world’s number-one supplier. In 2015, the Philippines produced about 24 percent of the nickel consumed worldwide, according to the Morgan Stanley investment house.

Data released this week by the US Geological Survey placed overall Philippine nickel production for 2016 at 530,000 tons, or 21 percent of total global output. And the mines that Lopez ordered closed account for half of the country’s nickel ore output.

Again, nobody is asking Lopez to rescind her closure and suspension orders. She only has to explain the basis for her decision.

If she can produce the results of her audit and is able to defend them, then she will silence her critics. (She need not worry about how complicated they are; if they make sense and are based on real evidence, they will be upheld.)

But if the Duterte administration can suspend “tokhang,” the President’s centerpiece campaign, because of alleged abuses, it should also revisit Lopez’s extrajudicial killing of an entire industry. And it is Lopez’s responsibility to disclose the results of her audit and her basis for the closures and suspensions.

Actual lives and livelihood—to say nothing of billions in actual investments—depend on it.

Topics: Jojo Robles , Department of Environment and Natural Resources , DENR , tokhang
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