Mary Jean Feliciano never wanted to be a politician. A practising lawyer for five years before she ran for office in the town of Brooke’s Point in Palawan, she dreamt of becoming a municipal judge in her home province – known as the Philippines’s last frontier for the hundreds of flora and fauna species that can be found there, and also the place she grew up in, finished high school and raised a family.
But as a pro bono lawyer who represented low-income clients in criminal and civil lawsuits, she witnessed first-hand how local town council members and the Indigenous people were constantly bribed by mining firms for their consent to conduct extractive activities on their ancestral land. Such entangled interests led to exploitation of resources and the destruction of a tropical sanctuary.
It is difficult campaigning to protect the environment because people are somewhat afraid. They ask me: ‘If even the mayor can be suspended for fighting against [mining companies], what about us ordinary people?’
“I told myself that even if I rally every day at the municipal hall against this, the authorities will not listen to me,” Feliciano told Eco-Business. ” I wanted to [become someone who is in the position to] decide for Brooke’s Point and give people an alternative.”
She ran for office and was elected vice-mayor of Brooke’s Point in 2007, and went on to serve as the municipality’s mayor six years later.
During her term in office, Feliciano used her influence to demolish mining tenements of Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC) when she learnt that the firm was clearing forests within the Mount Mantalingahan protected area that serves as the town’s watershed.
The company filed a case against her and she was found guilty of oppression or “grave abuse of authority” by the court, which resulted in a year-long suspension without pay.
While still under suspension as mayor, Feliciano launched a successful vice-mayoral campaign, winning a landslide victory in the May elections last year.
Her advocacy – which has led to the rejection of all firms seeking mining approvals in Brooke’s Point, save for Ipilan who defied her – earned her a place on the annual Eco-Business A-List, a who’s who of leaders in in government, businesses and civic society in Asia Pacific who have been driving positive change in the past year.
She remains at the frontlines of the mining war, as Brooke’s Point residents have been setting up a human barricade to stop activities of Ipilan Mining Corp, as they assert that the company is still operating with an expired permit.
Brooke’s Point is one of several towns in southern Palawan that are hosts to mines operating on protected areas and natural forests. With the previous Duterte administration lifting the moratorium on new mining agreements and the ban on open-pit mining in 2021, residents increasingly say they worry about their lives and source of livelihood which are tied to the land and the forests.
In this interview, Feliciano tells Eco-Business why her hometown in Palawan is worth fighting for.
What sparked your interest in environmental advocacy work?
It started in 2005 when I was not yet a politician but a practising lawyer.
When I learnt how our elected officials had endorsed the applications of mining companies [for nickel extraction], I wanted to educate communities on the destructive environmental impacts of these activities. Every day, after work ended at 5 o’clock [in the evening], I would drive my mini-truck around Brooke’s Point. It had a television set and generator on it – as most areas in Brooke’s Point do not have access to electricity – and it would show documentaries on the impact of mining, tell people that we have to be brave enough to say no to local officials when they ask them to support mining.
I did that for more than a year on my own initiative. Nobody asked me to do it. Nobody paid me. Now that I am vice-mayor, I still go to schools in Brooke’s point at least twice or thrice a week to explain climate change, environmental protection, and the impact of mining to children. I would like to give the students a chance to decide on their own because what I’m doing is not just for me. It is really for them.
What was the most difficult challenge you faced in the past 12 months?
It is difficult to go against government policy to set up more mining companies because they say that it is the only way forward for economic growth.
It is also difficult campaigning to protect the environment because people are somewhat afraid. They ask me: “If even the mayor can be suspended for fighting against [mining companies], what about us ordinary people?”
But I pressed on. During election year, we formed a party composed of seven people who shared my advocacy.
While we knew that our opponent was supported by mining companies, we just continued campaigning, and at the same time, advocating and explaining the advantages of protecting the environment.
We told the people that if they “sell” their votes to our opponents, three mining companies will start to operate [in Brooke’s Point]. We don’t have money to give the people but we promised them that if we are elected, we will continue our fight to preserve and protect the environment.
It is the love for Brooke’s Point that negated tactics by our opponents who were using millions of pesos to try to buy the people’s votes.
All seven of us – mayor, vice mayor, council members – won and I can say that it is the love for Brooke’s Point that negated tactics by our opponents who were using millions of pesos to try to buy the people’s votes.
I may have won a landslide victory, but it still hurts to be suspended for doing what is right. But I am happy that the people believed in me and my message that we should protect our mountains, rivers, and trees.
Have you ever been bribed?
Several times I was offered to be given a truck. A former stockholder of a mining company even came to my house and asked me what I needed. I said, I don’t need anything from you. What I need is for you to leave our town. We don’t need you here. Even [ordinary people like] tricycle drivers, Indigenous peoples , farmers and fisherfolks have the means to send their children to school. We are okay [and do not need to take bribes].
What inspires you to go on?
It’s a blessing to be residing on what I truly believe to be the most beautiful island in the world. When I saw Singapore for the first time, I was amazed at how a tiny country can prosper without destroying the environment. That can also be done in Palawan, and I will be doing it until my last breath.
The people also inspire me to fight. I want to join them in the barricade [referring to the current fight against mining on the Ipilan site now] but they said, “No, vice-mayor, we don’t want you to be suspended again. Let us be the one to tell the world, especially our government, that it is not just you, but the people of Brooke’s Point that are against mining.”
I am touched by their commitment [in holding vigil at the barricade] because some of them are really very poor that they will not get to eat if they don’t earn their day’s wage.
How do you convince people that not all politicians are corrupt?
I used to hate politicians. I used to perceive politicians as people who are just good at making promises, and that once elected, they would get money from the government and use the position to become richer.
I said that if I were given the opportunity to serve the people in a public capacity, I will be different. What I have promised my people I will do it no matter what. I want to give the Filipino people hope that not all politicians are corrupt. You have to be very, very careful in selecting them but there are also good Filipino politicians here in the Philippines.
Mary Jean Feliciano was one of 10 sustainability leaders selected for the EB A-List 2022.
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