May 3, 2017 / 9:13 AM / 3 months ago

Philippines environment minister ousted over anti-mining campaign

Philippine Environment Secretary Regina Lopez speaks during a news conference shortly after lawmakers rejected her appointment as Environment Secretary, 10 months into her term in office, at the Senate in Manila, Philippines May 3, 2017.Erik De Castro

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine lawmakers ended a 10-month crusade by Environment Secretary Regina Lopez on Wednesday, forcing out the eco-warrior whose mining crackdown was backed by the president but led to demands for her removal by miners.

The rejection of Lopez by the Commission on Appointments is final and a mining lobby group immediately said it would seek a reversal of her measures, while President Rodrigo Duterte's office said he would respect the decision.

Lopez characterised her campaign as a fight against greedy miners who were threatening public health and damaging nature in a country better known for mountains and beaches than resources.

The 63-year-old daughter of a media mogul who left her privileged Philippine life behind when she was a teenager, had ordered the closure of more than half of the mines in the world's top nickel ore supplier and last week banned open-pit mining.

"It is the constitutional right of every Filipino to a clean and healthy environment. It was a dream and a promise we had for the country and it is unfortunate that business interests have in fact run the day," Lopez, who at 18 took a vow of celibacy and became a yoga teacher and missionary in Africa, told reporters.

Duterte picked Lopez because of her record as an activist dedicated to the poor, whose previous initiatives had included reforestation, safeguarding areas of biodiversity and cleaning up the Pasig river that flows through Manila.

News of her removal led to a slump of more than 2 percent in nickel futures on the London Metal Exchange, with traders saying that suspended nickel mines could be reopened.

Yeb Saño of Greenpeace Southeast Asia said the removal of Lopez, which lawmakers on the appointments committee voted 16-8 in favour of, "shows how destructive industries continue to hold Philippine lawmakers by their necks."

'Out to Kill'

The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines said it would seek to undo Lopez's moves when a new minister was appointed.

"Those have no legal foundation," Chamber spokesman Ronald Recidoro said. "There were no proper consultations held. And more importantly it's really out to kill the mining industry."

Lopez has become the bane of big mining companies, accusing them of earning "blood money", while contributing little in tax.

She ordered the closure of 22 of 41 operating mines in February and cancelled dozens of contracts for undeveloped mines in the fifth-most-mineralised country in the world.

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel said Lopez's removal was a lost opportunity and told Reuters he hoped her replacement will "have some of her characteristics and passion."

Lopez, the second member of Duterte's Cabinet to be dismissed by Congress, said her replacement would "get clobbered" if they ran afoul of business interests and said those who voted her out had "lost the moral ascendancy".

Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said no replacement had been lined up yet, but did not rule out the possibility of another role for Lopez in the administration.

Confirmation hearings in the Philippines often take place long after ministers start work on their portfolios.

Manny Pacquiao, a champion boxer and head of the committee that held the widely-watching hearings, announced the outcome "with sadness in my heart", leading a succession of lawmakers who took to the floor to praise her campaign.

"No matter how several big people may be against Gina, she will always stand on what is morally and environmentally right and righteous," said Pacquiao.

Additional reporting by Karen Lema in Manila and Melanie Burton in Melbourne; editing by Alexander Smith

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