May 9, 2017 / 6:43 AM / 3 months ago

New Philippines environment minister says possible to balance mining, nature

President Rodrigo Duterte administers the oath of office for the newly-apppointed Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu (L) before the start of the Cabinet meeting at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines May 8, 2017. Picture taken May 8, 2017. Malacanang Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines' new environment minister said it was possible to strike a balance between mining and protecting natural resources, but added that he needed time to assess mine closures ordered by his dismissed predecessor.

President Rodrigo Duterte this week named Roy Cimatu as replacement for staunch environmentalist Regina Lopez, a move welcomed by miners in the world's top nickel ore producer but opposed by green groups who said he does not have a track record in conservation.

"There are countries where mining contributes a lot to the economy and environmentalists are not screaming," Cimatu told Reuters in a phone interview on Tuesday.

"I think it can be done ... (balancing) environment (protection) and responsible mining."

Cimatu's next steps will be closely watched by nickel markets for clues on whether the government will boost or constrict supply of the metal, shipped to destinations such as China to churn out stainless steel.

A former military man who briefly headed the Philippine armed forces in 2002, Cimatu said he has yet to take a position on decisions made by Lopez including her orders to shut more than half the country's mines and cancel contracts for undeveloped mines to protect water resources.

"I will not take any action on things that I haven't seen or read or reviewed. I will look at them first," he said.

Lopez was removed last week by a panel of lawmakers that scrutinize Duterte's appointments, ending the 10-month mining crackdown she waged in a bid to better protect the environment.

Newly-appointed Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu poses for a photo before he was sworn into office by President Rodrigo Duterte (not in photo) prior to the start of the Cabinet meeting at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines May 8, 2017. Picture taken May 8, 2017. Malacanang Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters

Lopez in February ordered 22 of 41 operating mines to close permanently and in April banned open-pit mining.

SURPRISE APPOINTMENT

The 70-year-old Cimatu earlier on Tuesday said he could allow mining in the country as long as it was done responsibly, taking a more moderate stance than Lopez.

He said his past experience with environmental protection was mainly during his days in the military when soldiers helped villagers in planting trees and keeping rivers clean.

Duterte has said he met Cimatu in Davao City in the country's south many years ago. Duterte was mayor there for more than two decades.

Before Monday's appointment, Duterte last month named Cimatu as a special envoy to help overseas Filipino worker refugees, a role that Cimatu also played during the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when he helped repatriate Filipinos caught in the 2003 Iraq war.

Cimatu was surprised by his latest appointment, saying he was in the presidential palace on Monday to sort out details of a planned trip to South Korea to help Filipinos there amid rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

"I wasn't expecting it. But he (Duterte) knows I'm very willing to serve the country in any capacity."

Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Joseph Radford

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