Gina Lopez, Persistent Philippine Environment Secretary, Is In Trouble

Gina Lopez has pursued an aggressive campaign to convince miners to follow environmental law and to protect watersheds.
Gina Lopez has pursued an aggressive campaign to convince miners to follow environmental law and to protect watersheds.

There is really no puzzle why Gina Lopez is struggling to hold onto her job as the Philippine secretary of the environment. On her first day in the post last July she dispatched inspectors to see how faithfully the country’s 40 large hardrock mines, 27 of them nickel ore producers, adhered to national environmental law and regulation.

The Philippines is one of the world’s largest nickel ore producers and exporters. Global nickel ore prices soared on the news of Lopez’s order, with the expectation that the country’s go-go industry would be shackled. Mining stocks plunged.

In August, with early findings in hand of rampant air and water quality violations, Lopez suspended operating permits for 10 mines, most of them nickel producers. Lopez said her concern for Philippine watersheds, the “madness” of rapacious open pit mining, and the consequences to rural communities justified the audit campaign. “I want to make it clear I have no beef with the mining industry,” Lopez said at a news conference. “But I am vehemently against the adverse effects that may happen, that are happening in some of the situations.“

Lopez then took on coal miners and the coal-fired utility sector, which accounts for over 40 percent of the country’s electrical generating capacity. She called on her government colleagues to put coal-fired power aside and more aggressively pursue the 7,700 megawatts of renewable generating capacity that were proposed in a 2015 government plan.

“I’m going renewable because it’s for the Filipino people,” she said to reporters. “If they benefit, well, other people can also benefit. My thing to the businessmen, go renewable so you can also benefit.”

The Philippine Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi wasn’t so enthusiastic. “We cannot just discount coal,” Cusi fired back.

It is not at all clear, though, how much longer Lopez’s green crusade will survive. Nine months after she joined the Duterte government, Lopez’s mine audit program certainly produced globally important results. With evidence of wanton disregard for safeguards to air and water, Lopez ordered 26 mines closed. She also suspended 75 of the country’s 339 mining licenses.

One of the affected projects is the proposed $US 5.9 billion Tampakan copper and gold mine on the southern Island of Mindanao. Lopez’s orders mirrored similar recent directiives to control mining pollution. In 2014 the National Green Tribunal shut down northeast India’s coal mines in Meghalaya. Earlier this year El Salvador banned gold mining.

Called Before A Review Panel
I first became interested in Lopez last summer when I heard about her appointment and learned about President Duterte’s green streak. In her first months in office Lopez exhibited a passion and fearlessness that is all too rare among the world’s environmental secretaries. With Duterte’s consistent applause her position appeared secure.

But in March, following months of protest from mining executives and other critics, her job security began to be weighed by a high-profile legislative group that reviews presidential cabinet appointments. After two days of questioning, the 25-member Commission on Appointments, which includes legislators backed by the mining industry, declined to approve Lopez as environment secretary.

The Dibagat River exemplifies the magnificent freshwater resources that Gina Lopez is determined to safeguard.
The Dibagat River exemplifies the magnificent freshwater resources that Gina Lopez is determined to safeguard.
Continue reading “Gina Lopez, Persistent Philippine Environment Secretary, Is In Trouble”

Out of Disruption a Global Awakening

A national demonstration occurred spontaneously to protest the ban on Jallikattu, the harvest festival sport of "bull taming." Photo/Keith Schneider
A national demonstration occurred spontaneously to protest the ban on Jallikattu, the harvest festival sport of “bull taming.” Photo/Keith Schneider

CHENNAI, INDIA — The last time I can recall a civic awakening as big, gallant, and well-intentioned as the mammoth demonstrations occurring here in the capital of Tamil Nadu, and in American cities this weekend, I’d just turned 14 years old. On April 22, 1970 the United States celebrated the first Earth Day. Twenty million Americans participated. It was a day that led to environmental safeguards and new principles of managing the planet that have only grown stronger in the 47 years since.

As I write this at dusk the sound of chanting and drums carry across the crowded, low rise city. Not far from the hotel is Marina Beach, a long stretch of wide and warm sand along the Bay of Bengal that since Thursday has been the staging ground for festive demonstrations that, depending on the hour, attract 600,000 to one million people. The carnival atmosphere has lured parents with children, unescorted women, and working people — groups that typically do not participate in big street demonstrations.

Big demonstrations also were held in the United States. From what I read and hear from friends who participated on Saturday, people discovered similarly inspiring energy and behavior in the mammoth protests to rebuke President Trump.

Last night as I traveled back to Chennai from Coimbatore, one of Tamil Nadu’s biggest cities, it occurred to me that the big demonstrations here and in the United States, and the Trump inauguration, are tied together. Here’s how.

Marina Beach in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, was epicenter of eight days of demonstrations to support cultural strength. Photo/Keith Schneider
Marina Beach in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, was epicenter of eight days of demonstrations to support cultural strength. Photo/Keith Schneider

Both Trump’s election victory and the outbreak of civic resistance reflect the epic clash of competing ideas about how to thrive in a turbulent century. Trump is now the most visible emblem of the age of disruption that’s swept across the planet. Earth has become ecologically unstable and dangerous. More people in more places are being bludgeoned by droughts, floods, storms, earthquakes, wild fires, and plagues. A tide of refugees cross continents and seas to reach foreign shores. Markets shudder. Sources of energy for electricity and transportation are evolving from black fuels to invisible ones, causing instability in prices and resulting in tens of billions in stranded asset losses. Jobs are lost and nations become afraid. People succumb to the calls of national rebirth. They choose to close their borders (Brexit) and elect reckless candidates promising a renaissance of national glory. Continue reading “Out of Disruption a Global Awakening”

In the U.S., An “Episode” Set to End, Another Ready to Start

A dispiriting campaign is nearly over. A discouraging sojourn is about to begin whomever is elected.
A dispiriting campaign is nearly over. A discouraging sojourn is about to begin whomever is elected.

SOMERSET, KY. — A story of leadership and poise emerged on Wednesday night after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It is a lesson with lasting value to our national life.

The Cleveland Indians scored three runs in the bottom of the 8th inning to tie the game. Momentum had veered to the home team. To a man, the Cubs were rattled. Some said they were finding it hard to breathe.

At the end of the ninth inning, with the score tied 6-6 in a knuckle-reddening thriller, groundskeepers unrolled a big white tarp to prevent the infield from becoming inundated by an approaching storm. Cubs believe the rain and the short game delay were a divine intervention.

While waiting for play to resume, Jason Heyward, the Cubs’ right fielder, felt the sharp blades of fate and tension swiping at his team’s confidence. He guided his teammates into a tiny weight room off the main clubhouse to say something simple and powerful enough to settle them. Heyward spoke from his heart.

“Where’s that fire we’ve had all year?” he said. “Fight for your brothers!”

“I just wanted them to remember how good they were, how good we are,” Heyward told reporters. “Know how proud of them I was and that I loved them. That I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I don’t need to take any credit for anything. I just love them so much that, win or lose, I would hate to see them not be themselves.”

Jason Heyward
Jason Heyward

Oh that someone would emerge to deliver a Jason Heyward-like message of calm and assurance to this rattled nation. Five days before a destabilizing national election full of hate and lies and aberrant behavior, the United States could use a big group hug, and a trusted voice of reason. Half the country, it appears, wants to blow up the existing order. The other half fears they could. The race has reached a state of intransigence, a brawl over opposing values and principles every bit as pitched as that 6-6 ninth inning score.

Unlike a national championship baseball game, where both sides commend each other and accept the outcome, this national election displays no element of sportsmanship. Whatever happens on November 8, the election results are almost certain to widen the divisions and stoke the flames of disrespect, indecency, and incivility. Continue reading “In the U.S., An “Episode” Set to End, Another Ready to Start”

Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray

Ohio's capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider
Ohio’s capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLUMBUS, OH — In the year of Trump it’s plain that the United States is entering a new and reckless age. Our federal lawmakers neglect their constitutional duties to legislate in the public interest. Ideology and inflexibility, the gravest threats to a democracy, are elevated as virtues on the political right and political left. Random massacres occur with weekly frequency. Fear and distrust and racism and hate have been unleashed as mainstream attitudes.

Where are the places that inspire order? Where are the places that effectively manage their affairs with a goal of adding to civility and the common good?

Perhaps it is surprising, but a good number of American cities answer those questions. As readers of ModeShift know, some of my time each year is taken up with reporting real estate articles for The New York Times. Generally the narrative that emerges from details about construction costs and square feet amounts to a profile of the cities that I visit.

What I find, from New York to Boston to San Francisco, Grand Rapids to Louisville, Buffalo to Cleveland to Toledo to Cincinnati, is that many of America’s big cities, and a good number of its mid-size cities, are thriving. Largely without the help of the federal government and state Legislatures, elected leaders are collaborating with business executives and civic organizations to invest in ways that respond intelligently to the market conditions of this century.

In each city the formula for progress differs in the specifics. Buffalo reorganized itself around a university medical center and a transit line. Toledo turned to Chinese investors. Cleveland spent $800 million on entertainment and transit infrastructure – two stadiums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a bus rapid transit route, and moving a commuter rail station — to invite $5 billion in mostly private downtown redevelopment. Sacramento tore down a moribund downtown shopping mall and built a new arena for the NBA Sacramento Kings.

Taken collectively, though, the various development strategies pursued by American cities have some common traits. Excellent elected leadership and pragmatic business collaboration are essential to developing and executing redevelopment ideas that take at least a decade, and often a generation, to complete. Redevelopment plans incorporate one or more of the following ingredients — competent municipal agencies, park construction, improved transit, strengthened schools, public safety, adequate amounts of reasonably priced housing, recruiting innovators and entrepreneurial businesses.

Over the next month or so I’ll be reporting on cities in the South and Midwest – Columbus, Cleveland, and Chattanooga –all of which are doing well. They are following effective redevelopment strategies that are much bolder, and more effective, than anything pursued by most states and certainly by America’s imprudent Congress. The latest report from a city making strong progress in adding value to the lives of its citizens is from Columbus, which I visited early in May. Continue reading “Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray”

South Africa Bullied by Climate Change

There are numerous places in the world now to measure the effects of climate change. One of them is in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider
There are numerous places in the world now to measure the effects of climate change. One of them is in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Photo/Keith Schneider

Until a ferocious drought withered crops, turned rivers to trickles, and dried up municipal drinking water supplies, one of Limpopo province’s distinctions was the ample sun and good soil that made it South Africa’s premier producer of fruits and vegetables.

Another distinction was that farmers developed an informal accord to share scarce water with coal companies that were busy developing the Waterberg Coalfield that lies beneath dry central Limpopo.

This week Yale Environment 360, the fine online environmental news platform edited by Roger Cohn and Fen Montaigne, published my account of the consequences of climate change in South Africa. Since Yale e360 went online in 2008 Roger and Fen have published 10 of my articles about the singular environmental and social trends taking shape globally, the merger of economy and ecology, and its unforgiving collisions. One of those articles in 2010 on North America’s unconventional fuels boom was one of the first national reports on the “economically promising and ecologically risky race to open the next era of hydrocarbon development.”

The rocky and dry valley where Cape Town's water supply starts. Photo/Keith Schneider
The rocky and dry valley where Cape Town’s water supply starts. Photo/Keith Schneider

The current piece describes new findings about climate change and drought in South Africa from a seven-week reporting trip for Circle of Blue earlier this year. The South African drought, the deepest since the early 20th century, shattered the fragile equilibrium in Limpopo between the farm and coal sectors. Pitched battles between farmers, residents, and security officers who support coal development have broken out south of Musina, where Coal Africa proposes to build a $406 million mine, and where some of the country’s most productive vegetable farms operate. The mine would consume 1 million gallons of water a day, according to company disclosures. Both the mine and neighboring irrigated farms are dependent on the Nzhelele River, which has diminished to a shallow stream.

Limpopo, about the size of Louisiana, borders Zimbabwe in South Africa’s north. In Lephalale, about 210 miles east of Musina, farmers and other rural residents are locked in battles to protect water supplies from new power plants, and plans to expand mining in the Waterberg Coalfield.

Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned electric utility, is building one of the new plants, the 4,800-megawatt Medupi coal-fired power station, on a stretch of dry land west of Lephalale. When fully operational, perhaps by the early 2020s, the plant will consume 6.9 billion gallons of water annually. South Africa anticipated the need for a torrent of process water for the plant by spending $1 billion to build pumping stations, water supply and storage infrastructure, and 130 miles of pipeline to tap the distant Crocodile and Mokolo rivers. The drought, though, is producing fresh evidence that neither the Crocodile nor the Mokolo may have sufficient water in the 2020s and beyond to sustain agriculture, a fast-growing population, existing industries, and a gigantic power plant now estimated to cost $16 billion to complete.

“There are significant difficulties from this drought,” said Dhesigen Naidoo, the chief executive of the National Water Commission, a research and science agency in Pretoria. “The drought cannot be managed the way previous droughts have been managed. In previous droughts we hadn’t factored in climate change. We are convinced that this drought is not part of a normal drought cycle that previously we’ve had in the past. This one is quite different. The combination with the heat wave is unique. The heat wave builds itself into an extreme example of the weather pattern in this part of the world we’ve experienced for at least six years. It tells us we are in quite a different regime. So we regard this as a drought in the climate change scenario, and our planning is working around that.”

South Africa's magnificent Paarl valley north of Cape Town. Photo/Keith Schneider
South Africa’s magnificent Paarl valley north of Cape Town. Photo/Keith Schneider

There are numerous places in the world now to measure the effects of climate change. A June 2013 climate-related flood in the Himalayas wrecked ten hydropower dams and killed thousands of people in Uttrakhand, India. A 12-year drought that ended in Australia in 2010 closed the largest rice production sector in the southern Hemisphere. A four-year drought in California caused hundreds of thousands of acres of orchards and cropland to be idled, contributing to higher food prices in the United States. Greenland’s icecap is melting.

Arguably, though, there are few places where climate change has produced more visible and dire ecological, economic, and social consequences than in Limpopo and South Africa’s eight other provinces. Sixteen years into the 21st century, South Africa forms a kind of regional study center for understanding how climate change can bully governments, economies, and communities.

Read the piece at Yale e360 here.

— Keith Schneider

Millions of South Africans live in informal settlements with scant access to electricity, running water, and sanitation. This settlement is in Paarl. Photo/Keith Schneider
Millions of South Africans live in informal settlements with scant access to electricity, running water, and sanitation. This settlement is in Paarl. Photo/Keith Schneider