Lopez speaks in front of a chart on mining issues during a press briefing in Manila
By Manolo Serapio Jr and John Chalmers
MANILA (Reuters) - Mining industry chiefs had just assailed her order to shut down more than half of the Philippines' mines, and Regina Lopez was in a combative mood: but, to keep her cool before an interview, she slipped into a side room and meditated for a few minutes.
There is a spiritual side to Lopez, the daughter of a media mogul who, at 18, left a life of privilege behind in the Philippines, took a vow of celibacy and became a yoga teacher and missionary in Africa, living in slums among the poor.
But Lopez is also a fiery environmental crusader. She has no qualms about attacking the powerful and flouting convention, just like the country's blunt-spoken president, Rodrigo Duterte, who appointed her as his environment minister last year.
Since then, she has become the bane of big mining companies, which she accuses of earning "blood money" in the fifth-most-mineralised country in the world.
"Where does the money go? It goes to a few people who are already very rich and to foreigners. We're raping the local economy for their wealth," the 63-year-old secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said in conversations with Reuters in Manila this week.
"They are killing our rivers, our streams, they are mining in watersheds," she said, her voice strident with emotion. "I've made a policy that there should be no mining in functioning watersheds because gold and nickel can never be more important than people's lives."
BACKS THE WAR ON DRUGS
Lopez, who is popularly known as "Gina", was selected by Duterte to head the DENR because of her record as an environmental activist dedicated to the poor, which included cleaning up the river that oozes through the heart of Manila, reforestation work and safeguarding areas of biodiversity.
Local mining stocks slumped when Duterte offered her the post as investors braced for Lopez to wield an axe on pits around the Philippines. Besides producing copper and gold, the country is the world's top supplier of nickel ore, much needed by China's hungry economy for production of steel.
As she began suspending mines, global nickel prices soared on the prospect of tighter supplies, and then, in a stunning announcement last week, she ordered 23 of the country's 41 mines to close for good.
She had been advised by a team that reviewed a months-long mining audit last year to take gentler action against the mines - suspensions and fines - but she brushed that aside, and told Reuters that corruption and fealty to vested interests had plagued the DENR for too long.
Although some cabinet colleagues are dismayed by her headstrong style, Lopez enjoys strong support from Duterte and says it is a blessing to work under someone who has similar values to her own, is "genuine" and "really has guts".
She says she approves of Duterte's draconian clampdown on illegal drugs in which more than 7,600 small-time dealers, users and others have been killed over the seven months since he took office, about a third of them in police operations.
"He sees this as a war and in a war people die ... and if, at the end of the war, you are able to say generations of youth for many, many years to come and many generations (are saved) then you might think maybe it was worth it," she said.
"I BELIEVE I CAN FLY"
Critics say Lopez does not seem to understand that politics is the art of compromise, and complain that her inflexibility will ruin the livelihoods of over one million people as jobs are wiped out.
"Gina is not familiar with how the government works and I don't think she has made an effort to learn," said Ronald Recidoro, spokesman of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines.
"Gina, she's one-dimensional, she's just an anti-mining advocate, period. She has no other competence."
Lopez had a ready response to that, accusing mining firms of being one-dimensional themselves, with a focus on profits and no care for what earning that money entails for the environment.
She is the daughter of Eugenio Lopez Jr., who was the chairman of media conglomerate ABS-CBN Corp, and her family is one of the Philippines' biggest business clans, with interests in property, power, manufacturing and construction.
"I come from a business family and I have no problem with people making money. I do have a problem when you make money at the expense of ... the common good," she said.
Lopez says farming, forestry, eco-tourism and industries based on biodiversity such as medicinal plants could more than make up for the blow she has dealt to mining, which does not even account for 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
While she does not entirely dismiss GDP or the stock market as indicators of a nation's health, she believes they mean nothing to the poor and admires Gross National Happiness, a measure used in the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan.
Lopez, who takes two retreats a year at a meditation school in California, has no ambition for higher public office and says that if her political survival meant she had to compromise on her principles it wouldn't be worth it.
"I get bored in the office. I get bored with rules and regulations," she said. "My favorite song is 'I Believe I Can Fly'."
Click here for graphics on 'Philippine mine closures' http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/PHILIPPINES-MINING/010031S942V/index.html
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)