Gina Lopez, Philippines Environment Secretary Who Closed Polluting Mines, Is Dead

Gina Lopez was beloved by people everywhere for her courage. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Only the good die young. I learned today that Gina Lopez, the former Philippines environment secretary, died today of brain cancer at the age of 65. Two years ago, on assignment for Mongabay and China Dialogue, I spent several weeks with Gina in the Philippines as she fought to preserve her position in the face of reckless opposition from that country’s mining industry. She’d ordered most of the country’s open pit mines shut down because of rampant water pollution and land degradation. She also started a government-sponsored campaign to halt illegal forest cutting. And she elevated the cause of protecting the country’s magnificent marine fauna and flora to a national priority.

For some reason, perhaps because I was an American journalist, she was candid with me about her life and the political trial she was enduring. Gina had already proven her eco-activist bonafides as director of her wealthy family’s foundation. She cleaned up parts of the Pasig River and started an eco-park to preserve a forested watershed near Manila.

Gina knew that her tenure as environmental secretary would be short, which is why she went so hard at closing polluting mines. During lunch at her home she told me, “When your business goes against the common good that’s a problem. When your business interest goes against the very future of our country that’s the problem that exists. I’ve been at this a long time and no one really listened to me. Now I have this position and everyone is like, “Wow. She’s making sense.”

Gina Lopez toured polluted mine sites by helicopter. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Her fearlessness resulted in mining safeguards that still stand and attracted global attention. In December 2017, she won the $10,000 Seacology Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious conservation awards, for her “exceptional achievement in preserving island environments and culture.”

Gina’s life is an inspiration. She’ll be missed by me and so many others who admired her.

— Keith Schneider

My articles on Gina Lopez:

Gina Lopez, a “Crusader,” Sets Philippines Water, Mining Safety on Unexpected New Course

Gina Lopez, Persistent Philippine Environment Secretary, Is In Trouble

Gina Lopez: A Philippine Political Story

Philippines bans new open-pit metal mines

The rise and fall of Regina Lopez, the Philippines’ maverick environment minister

The Philippines, a nation rich in precious metals, encounters powerful opposition to mining

Profile: Regina Lopez is pushing for a new green politics in Asia

Regina Lopez: Update From The Philippines

Me and Gina following lunch at her Manila home in May 2017. (Photo/KeIth Schneider)

Lessons From The Garden

Gardens are life. The lessons they convey about joy and sadness, care and diligence, love and insight are magical. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

BENZONIA — The tiger lilies are fading. But the pink blossoms of the rose of Sharon began to bloom this week. So did the blue blossoms of the butterfly bush.

It’s mid-August. Just as in every month since early May when I raked the leaves out of the gardens, taking care not to injure the yellow daffodils, flowers are coming into view while others slip away.

Odes to gardens and gardening almost always are exuberant in their enthusiasm for the sun’s generous light, the dark soil that lodges in fingernails, the stress-relieving pact with the ground and the seasons that calm the heart and strengthen the muscles.

This ode is a departure. It’s an elegy for gardens and their lessons for living a life of committed, caring relationships.

Boxwoods frame the flowers of the front garden. (Photo/Keith Schneider)
Front garden. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Gardens, for instance, are useful in understanding marriage. You send a garden a pulse of love, they’ll send it right back. The more diligence, loyalty, love, and work you devote to caring for a garden the more beautiful are its flowers, the more colorful its shrubs and trees, the healthier its soil. A garden, like your spouse, appreciates constant affirmation. Disregard a garden for too long, say two weeks, and the trouble just mounts. Weeds grow. Wilt takes hold. Insects tote diseases that damage entire sections. The garden, like marriage, begins to dim. The damage can take months to repair.

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Steve Sawyer, A Titan of Environmental Activism

Steve Sawyer, one of the great environmental activists and strategists of our era, died July 31 from cancer. It came as a shock. Steve was a classmate at Haverford College, a friend for 45 years, and a heroic figure to me in our shared allegiance to safeguard Mother Earth.

Though his years were too short, what he accomplished in 63 has few peers. He was an important figure in stirring attention to the Earth’s deteriorating condition and rallying public support for solutions, first as a senior leader of Greenpeace and later as a top executive in the international wind energy sector. During the four decades of his work to limit industrial pollution, protect natural resources, and defend communities in peril, Steve played an outsized role in elevating environmental protection from a backbench civic issue to a top tier global priority.

All this occurred because Steve had grit and heart. He set big goals and was driven to reach them. He could grump and laugh in the same breath. He was engaging, trust inspiring, committed and dedicated — to his wife, his children, his work, his friends, and to his wire frame glasses and the beard he sported all of his adult life. To his guitar, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. He never lost his New Hampshire accent. It was easy to see how determined he could be. Steve’s distinctive stride, big steps and shoulders hunched forward, was that of a man set on staying grounded and balanced, like a ship captain dominating a deluge.

Steve Sawyer in Auckland where French agents bombed the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. (Greenpeace photo)

His life’s work began as a Greenpeace canvasser in 1978, after graduation from Haverford. He quickly climbed into the top tier of executive leadership — serving as director of the U.S. office in Washington in the 1980s, and later as Greenpeace’s international director.

His tenure is unmatched at Greenpeace. In 1981, he led an engine conversion — drills and other power tools in hand — to replace the old engines on the Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace’s activist ship, with new diesel engines used on buses. As one of the few salaried Greenpeace staffers he shared his paycheck with volunteers.

He also helped to convert the Warrior to a sailing ship in 1984, just in time for a Pacific voyage in 1985. Among the many campaigns that Steve led was evacuating nuclear testing refugees from their contaminated Pacific atoll, challenging France’s underwater nuclear testing, and safeguarding whales and other marine creatures from nuclear dumping and energy development. Most importantly, he masterfully elevated a scrappy activist environmental group into a titan of global influence and action on climate change and almost every other signal threat to the planet’s people, animals, and plants.

Starting in 2007, following 30 years at Greenpeace, Steve was named the first general secretary of the Global Wind Energy Council, the Brussels-based trade group that he founded. In that role he shaped the mammoth adoption of wind as a credible source of electricity, a solution to climate change, and an industrial sector capable of employing millions around the world. He brought that message to international capitals, including Beijing, where party officials paid close attention. In the decade that Steve led the organization, wind energy generating capacity around the world increased nearly eightfold, from 74 gigawatts to 539 gigawatts, or about 8 percent of total worldwide electrical generating capacity. Almost 200 gigawatts were generated by China, by far the world’s largest wind energy producer.
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Will Americans Defend Our Democracy?

President Trump in Salt Lake City in December 2017 to announce two national monuments will shrink by 2 million acres. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY. — During the first week of March 2016, nine months after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, the Russian Federation’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), opened their online assault on American democracy. The Russian military intelligence unit began to hack, according to Robert Mueller’s special counsel report, “the computers and email accounts of organizations, employees, and volunteers supporting the Clinton campaign, including the email account of campaign chairman John Podesta.”

By April 25, according to the Mueller report, Russians had stolen 70 gigabytes of data. On July 22, WikiLeaks released a horde of stolen insider details about Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the media just three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

During the same period, another Russian intelligence unit was busy establishing social media groups and seeding American social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Instagram, with messages that lied about Clinton but were favorable to Trump. According to the Mueller report, the Russian accounts made over 80,000 posts and “these posts reached at least 29 million U.S persons and may have reached an estimated 126 million people.”

The consequences of what turned out to be the most damaging attack ever by Russia on the United States is not in dispute. Clinton’s run for the presidency was damaged by massive amounts of misinformation. Donald Trump’s campaign received an unlawful mega-boost from a foreign power.

The Mueller report says neither Trump nor his aides participated in the online document thefts. But they actively encouraged their disclosure and dissemination, even after The New York Times, on July 26, 2016, disclosed that Russian intelligence was the source of the stolen campaign documents.

Washington during March For Our Lives demonstration. A display of constitutionally-protected citizen activism in March 2018. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Just a day later, on July 27, candidate Trump urged more such disclosures during a news conference in Florida. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. And five hours after that call to arms, said the Mueller report, Russian intelligence aimed their hacking expertise at Clinton’s email accounts.

Now America faces a cultural and political reckoning, one of the singularly momentous choices of this century. Trump vowed at his inauguration to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The question the country must answer is this: Does President Trump’s encouragement of the Russian election interference, and his unsuccessful campaign to impede the public assessment of what occurred, represent a violation of his oath of office?

I spent several days last week driving in Alabama and listening to local talk radio hosts express their clear conviction that Trump is innocent of any managerial mishaps. Conservative supporters of Trump are satisfied to let him skate. I also heard a select number of progressive voices tell me that actively pursuing more Congressional investigation was politically impulsive, even dangerous to Democratic candidates in the 2020 election cycle. A good number of Democrats also are prepared to let the president slide.

But what occurred in 2016 with Russia’s election interference, and in 2017 with the president’s effort to impede an investigation, is an egregious violation of the public trust and national security. A sacred rite of Democracy, free elections, was violated by a foreign antagonist. The Russians did not aim a missile or fire a shot. But their expertise in asymmetrical warfare, in data gathering and online messaging, succeeded in causing ongoing social division and poisonous political turbulence in the United States, and to some extent around the world. Rather than marching to the front lines of defense, the American president retreated to the dark hollows of lies, deceit, and cowardice.

His supporters are satisfied with the president’s behavior. But every other American must hold the president and his supporters in Congress accountable. That includes the Democratic leadership. How can they allow their 2016 presidential candidate be savaged by a foreign power without a powerful response? The credibility of their party and US democracy is at stake. The House must hold hearings on impeachment. The country must replace Donald Trump as president.

Heroes of the Ohio River Valley

Attorney Jennifer Garrison helped working people earn “life changing money” with a novel oil and gas leasing tactic. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

MARIETTA, OHIO – My definition of a hero is someone who defies convention, dares to challenge the powerful, does well by the public good, and deepens their own sense of purpose. I’ve crossed the paths of a number of these select individuals over the years, written about quite a few of them, and earned sufficient trust to call a handful of them my friends.

Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior in the 1960s — one of the greatest conservationists in our history, a legal warrior for victims of the American atomic bomb making industry — was a close friend before he died in 2010. Jim Olson — dean of environmental lawyers in Michigan who’s preserved miles of rivers, cleared pollutants from lakes, conserved great stretches of forest and wild habitat and helped me start the Michigan Land Use Institute in 1995 — is a dear friend.

One of the regions of the United States that enchants me with its singular influence on the American economy and culture, and the way industry, community, and nature form an uncommon heritage along its banks, is the Ohio River Valley. I’ve spent some time now getting to know its features, writing about its industries and cities, and learning about its citizens. Here I salute three, among others, as heroes.

Jennifer Garrison is a lawyer, a former three-term Democratic member of the Ohio House of Representatives, and the developer of a novel oil and gas leasing strategy that earned about 1,000 eastern Ohio landowners $300 million in income from development of the Utica shale. I met Garrison in Marietta, Ohio in 2012, soon after she’d convinced working families who owned land and controlled their mineral rights to join together and lease their minerals in large multi-thousand-acre blocks. This tactic defied the common method by drillers to single out and negotiate leases, one by one, and take advantage of rural families inexperienced in valuing bonuses and production royalties.

Nice touch. Jennifer Garrison framed this New York Times piece I wrote about her work in 2012. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Garrison’s cooperative unified approach provided mineral owners considerable influence in gaining much higher value for their minerals, and much larger signing bonuses and royalties, for agreeing to let fuel developers set up drilling rigs and production platforms on their ground. Garrison’s leases also included safeguards for land and water that went well beyond state requirements for fossil fuel exploration and development.

I visited with Garrison this week in her office in a renovated 19th century home on Third Street. She’s thinking about retiring from her legal practice, expressed disappointment that none of her grown children plan to live near Marietta, and might set up a landowner rights organization. Campaigning in the public interest is in her blood. She laughed and said, “I know how much work that will be.”

In my travels along the Ohio I met two other people that merit inclusion in my gallery of heroes. One is Ron Payne, former mayor of Owensboro, Kentucky, who led that city’s campaign to rebuild its riverfront and downtown business core. In the process of enacting a tax increase, and recruiting state and federal investments that raised $125 million, Owensboro also succeeded in attracting about $150 million in private investment that has remade the city into one of the most innovative and thriving places on the Ohio River.

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