By Manolo Serapio Jr
MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed a former military man as the new environment minister after Congress dismissed his first choice, who ordered the closure of more than half of the mines in the world's top nickel ore supplier.
Former army general and ambassador Roy Cimatu will take over from Regina Lopez, a move welcomed by miners who have questioned the legality of Lopez's measures. But environmental group Greenpeace and the Catholic Church expressed doubts that Cimatu will carry on with any meaningful reforms.
"We are confident that Secretary Cimatu shall faithfully serve the interest of the country and the Filipino people in his capacity as the new DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) Secretary," Duterte's spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a statement on Monday.
Cimatu briefly served as Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in 2002, during former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's administration. Duterte has said he met Cimatu in Davao City many years ago where he served as mayor for more than two decades.
Before Monday's appointment, Duterte last month named Cimatu as a special envoy to help overseas Filipino worker refugees.
The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines said it hopes Cimatu's appointment "finally answers our long-held call for a DENR secretary who has a balanced appreciation for environmental protection and natural resources management."
Duterte largely backed Lopez's mining crackdown but angry miners sought her removal.
Lopez in February ordered 22 of 41 operating mines to close permanently and later cancelled dozens of contracts for undeveloped mines to protect water resources. She also banned open-pit mining.
Lawmakers last week rejected Lopez's appointment, ending the 10-month tenure of the environmentalist who said the country is "unfit for mining" because of its unique ecosystem.
"We are hopeful that there would be a final resolution to all the issues the industry is currently facing, and ensure that everybody is compliant so that all these noises against the industry are put to rest," said Dante Bravo, president of the Philippines' second-largest nickel ore miner Global Ferronickel Holdings Inc.
But Greenpeace is unsure that Cimatu will protect the Philippines' environment.
"The problem that we see for somebody who has no track record on environmental conservation is he's only thinking about generating income from resource extraction without considering the importance of sustaining and maintaining a healthy ecosystem," said Vince Cinches, political campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
Some Greenpeace members barricaded the environment agency on Monday, Cinches said, "to protect it from the onslaught of business interest" following Lopez's dismissal.
"We don't need a DENR secretary who is a compromised choice to appease the mining industry," said Caritas Philippines, an arm of the local Catholic Church.
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Additional reporting by Enrico dela Cruz and Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)