When Gina Lopez burst on the scene like some sort of environmental berserker, quite a few people applauded her passion and New Age enthusiasm. Keen watchers of the insider game in government viewed it as an interesting example of good cop, bad cop. A zealot can always be neutralized by the bureaucracy, as she quickly found out when the Executive Secretary, in typical bureaucratic style, blandly put the implementation of some of her decisions on hold.
In the end the Department of Finance weighed in, to the startling extent of Secretary Carlos Dominguez publicly picking a fight with Lopez not just in the papers but also before the Commission on Appointments. Congress, for its part, handled her inconvenient popularity in characteristic style. It instituted a long-delayed reform: the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule in the Commission on Appointments, to put an end to presidents simply reappointing bypassed Cabinet nominees; it placed a veil of secrecy over the votes taken in the commission itself; and its members took turns making pious speeches proclaiming fervent love for nature on one hand, and deep unease over the impact of too much environmentalism on the economy, on the other.
The result was death by a few dozen cuts. Slowly but surely, under the cover of entertaining chest-beating by the President, Lopez was bypassed once, twice, thrice—and declared to have struck out. Chest-beating in the Palace was replaced with a meek statement on the separation of powers, respect for Congress, the announcement that a replacement was being sought, and the designation of a new secretary within days.
The slow but sure removal of Gina Lopez and her swift replacement with Roy Cimatu are a study in contrasts. Her appointment was trumpeted as the coming of radical change. His marks a return to business as usual. He will be a good security guard—bad news for the New People’s Army and mixed news for miners and loggers, depending on how he is instructed to do his job.
That this possibility even exists is testimony to the nature of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources itself, a schizophrenic institution in which contrasting priorities—promoting and defending the environment or maximizing the profits that can be gained from extracting natural resources—will always be possible. The only remarkable thing is that it has happened so quickly, publicly, and ruthlessly in the same administration.
Prior to the creation of the DENR, natural resources were under the Department of the Interior in 1901-1916. Then, for decades, it formed part of the agriculture portfolio, hence the old Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources in 1917-1932 (renamed Department of Agriculture and Commerce in 1932-1947, with commerce being added to its mandate, and gaining the Bureau of Mines established in 1938 along the way) and 1947-1974. In 1974, a separate Department, then Ministry (starting in 1978), of Natural Resources was put in place until January 1987, when the Department of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources briefly came into being. Its current form was established in June of that year.
Shuffling portfolio responsibilities around during the Marcos years gave a bureaucratic sheen to things but papered over the acceleration of deforestation, with logging concessions being one of the keenly-sought-after political patronage plums that the president could hand out. The same applied to mining, with established mining companies subjected to hostile takeovers by political allies and relatives. The result was rebellion in the Cordilleras, and competition among the military, police, and NPA for protection money from loggers and miners.
Separating the environment from natural resources during the dictatorship arguably didn’t help the environment, but neither has combining the two since 1987.
It’s entirely possible it has made things worse, since by its very nature a combined natural resources and environmental department will always be at the mercy of a legislature with members looking out for their—or their allies’—interests, and of a presidency that, by its very design, is held hostage by political parties in large part funded, if not actually owned, by business magnates. The environment can wait.
So perhaps it’s time to consider what was proposed about a decade ago: Separate the two functions. It couldn’t be worse than the status quo.