MANILA – Whether it was providing for the needy, protecting the environment, or promoting meaningful change, Gina Lopez said she always followed her heart. It was the principle she lived by until the end, when she passed away on Monday. She was 65.
Before her death, the former environment secretary hosted "G Diaries" on ABS-CBN, where she promoted sustainable tourism. She also embarked on "Quest for Love" through her ILOVE Foundation, a search for "change agents" who help the underprivileged.
"What I do is I follow my heart and right now, my heart wants to do this," Lopez told ANC's Headstart in April last year, explaining why she was pursuing her pro-poor advocacy in a private capacity instead of running for public office, as many had urged her to do.
The second of seven children of Eugenio “Geny” Lopez, Jr. and Conchita La’O, Gina Lopez was born on December 27, 1953. In an essay for Rogue magazine, she described her childhood as being warm, full of love and a lot of fun. Still, she longed for something else.
While studying in the United States, Lopez tried meditation. “I felt something I had not felt in church or in school. I had a feeling of Divine Love. That changed my life forever,” she wrote in the essay, describing her first experience entering an ashram, a monastery or place for spiritual retreat.
At 18, Lopez left her life of privilege to become an Ananda Marga yoga missionary. After serving in Portugal and India, she spent 11 years in Africa.
“I was constantly looking for money to survive and take care of the children I was responsible for,” she wrote for Rogue as she recounted her work as a teacher in “yoga-run, pre-primary schools.”
In India, Lopez “lived as the poor lived” and learned “how not to be wasteful” as she could only collect one pail of water a day in the slum area she lived in.
In the essay, she talked about learning the quality of persistence, the value of hardship and the error of blind obedience.
“It is much better to live according to principle than according to rules, because situations in life change,” she wrote.
It came as no surprise that when she returned to Manila after 20 years of missionary work, Lopez devoted her time to social causes.
In 1994, now back in the arms of her family and their flagship business, Lopez assumed the leadership of the ABS-CBN Foundation.
Among her many pioneering projects and programs was Bantay Bata 163, which rescues children who are victims of domestic violence. She called it a “gift of love to Filipino children.”
Lopez also produced educational television shows, drummed up support for micro-entrepreneurs, and tapped on the Filipinos’ bayanihan or volunteer spirit in support of medical missions, feeding programs, and other outreached projects for the less fortunate.
Lopez, however, is best known as an environmental activist. Through Bantay Kalikasan, Lopez championed the rehabilitation of the 2,700-hectare La Mesa Watershed and the development of the La Mesa Eco-Park.
In an interview with Earth Island Journal, Lopez said cleaning the environment also has “a direct impact on human consciousness.”
“In areas where I’ve cleaned up the creeks and made the place more beautiful, 97 percent of the people have more peace of mind, 97 percent of people are happier,” she said. “When you’re stressed, you go to a place which is beautiful and healing and peaceful.” She explained that it can also have an economic impact as communities are able to earn from eco-tourism.
In 2010, Lopez was appointed head of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission. Her work with other agencies involved relocating informal settlers, which helped rehabilitate the tributaries of the Pasig River. The clean-up eventually allowed the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) to revive its Pasig River ferry service.
Lopez also spearheaded the campaign to gather 10 million signatures calling for a halt to small- and large-scale commercial mining in Palawan. Bantay Kalikasan achieved the goal within 4 years.
In 2014, Lopez wrote about turning 60 and retiring from daily operational work at the ABS-CBN Foundation. She also talked about moving on from failed marriages - her parents’ and her own.
"A good way to have new beginnings is to move from one phase to the next in grace. Bring closure. Smooth out the rough edges. It feels so much better," she wrote in her column in Philippine Star.
Two years later at 62, Lopez took on the challenge of heading the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
During her short stint in office, the country got a taste of a public servant who was outspoken and principled. Lopez ordered an inspection of all mining firms for compliance with safety laws, and promptly closed down violators. Her unprecedented action made her a target of opposition, even as she found support among religious leaders, indigenous groups, and fellow environment advocates.
“Any kind of mining operation in a watershed, that’s like saying that the gold and the nickel are more important than the water that our people drink,” Lopez said at the time, recounting the actions of the mining companies they monitored.
“I’m going to do the right thing and let the dice fall where it may. And I am going to hope that maybe these politicians, even if they’re funded by mining money, must have love for God and country in their hearts,” Lopez said when asked about the impact of her decisions on her confirmation as secretary.
In May of 2017, the bicameral Commission on Appointments rejected Lopez’s nomination as DENR secretary, despite her appeal that the environment should be prioritized over business interests, and despite Duterte’s public remarks supporting her.
Unbowed, Lopez erupted into one of her favorite songs, the inspirational classic "I believe I can fly."
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Lopez said even before she took the job that she “decided to be true to [herself].” “If I had calculated and maneuvered, I would never have forgiven myself,” she said.
Despite losing the job, Lopez considered the experience an opportunity to further her advocacy.
“I got really popular [when I was] rejected from DENR, so I’m riding on a crest and I’m maneuvering all the support into building green models on the ground,” she said in an interview with Earth Island Journal.
After leaving government, Lopez started an organization called I LOVE (Investments in Loving Organizations for Village Economies), which she hoped would facilitate “green models” throughout the country.
Up until her death, Lopez was active in promoting sustainable development and lifestyles. She hosted the environmental television show “G Diaries” on ABS-CBN and had a social enterprise company under the brand G Stuff that sells organic products.
In her columns on the Philippine Star, Lopez often talked about meditation, having a healthy lifestyle through nutritious food and exercise, and natural remedies.
“One of the biggest mistakes of humanity is to foolishly think we are these physical bodies and life ends when this physical body deteriorates,” she added. “The truth is that we are spirit. Living now gives us the opportunity to 'hone' our spirit so that it is more aligned with higher forces of truth and light.”
And in one newspaper column, Lopez referenced Anita Moorjani’s bestselling book “Dying To Be Me.”
“She talks of how she felt when she left her body. Heaven is so nice. She didn’t want to come back. So, there is life after ‘death,’ Lopez said. “But while we are in this body, let’s be healthy, and contribute in whatever way we can to a world that runs on love. I have no doubt that that’s the way to go."
(In lieu of flowers and mass cards, the family requests that donations be made to the ABS-CBN Foundation. There will be a public viewing at the La Mesa Eco Park on Aug. 22 to 23.)