Lito Atienza new environment head

Reyes on 4th Cabinet post as energy czar

By Michael Lim Ubac, Tina Santos
Last updated 01:17am (Mla time) 07/19/2007

MANILA, Philippines — A loyal presidential ally once accused of felling a forest in the heart of Manila was appointed Wednesday as environment secretary.


President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo appointed one of her fierce defenders, former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, to replace Angelo Reyes.


Reyes will move to the energy department as part of a Cabinet “rigodon” which now appears to be in full swing despite earlier denials from Malacañang.


Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the latest movements were prompted by the resignation of Energy Secretary Raphael Lotilla, who said he wanted to involve himself in more “intellectual” pursuits.


News of Atienza’s elevation as head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources came as a shock to environmentalists, who dubbed him “the butcher of Arroceros.”


“It’s incredible. This would be a disaster for the whole country because his track record on environment compliance leaves much to be desired,” said Regina Paterno, president of Winner Foundation, a nongovernment organization that is running the Arroceros Forest Park in Manila.


As Manila mayor, Atienza in 2003 enraged environmentalists when he ordered the closure of the Arroceros park to give way to the building of an education office and a teacher’s dormitory, sparking a lawsuit.


Environmentalists wanted the 2.2-hectare park preserved for being one of the few patches of greenery in a badly polluted city scarred with decaying buildings and houses.


Atienza’s successor as mayor, Alfredo Lim, reopened the park to the public after assuming office three weeks ago.


Chit Paterno, a member of Winner, said: “After our experience with Atienza in Arroceros Park, that’s just a tiny city forest, what about tomorrow, the whole country’s natural resources?”


Not a payback


In the Palace revamp, Assistant Press Secretary Jose Capadocia was appointed press undersecretary in place of Isabel de Leon, who resigned in June and migrated to the United States.


“The reason for moving (people in) the Cabinet is only available to the President herself,” Ermita said. “Remember, our dictum in the Cabinet is — Cabinet members serve at the pleasure of the President.”


Ermita denied the revamp, coming so close after the midterm elections, was a form of “political payback,” telling reporters that Lotilla “has been asking (for it) since last year.”


To demands from the Malacañang Press Corps for an explanation for the latest Cabinet changes, Ermita said: “Look, I thought I’m just doing my duty here by announcing to you some (appointments), but you’re asking me why.”


When reporters persisted, Ermita replied: “Secretary Lotilla since last year has been asking to leave government because you know, he told me, ‘I was sucked into the government for 20 years now.’”


“He wants to take a rest. Don’t you know that he’s single?” said Ermita, eliciting chuckles.


He said Lotilla was not fired by Ms Arroyo for his apparent failure to complete the privatization of National Power Corp. (Napocor), National Transmission Corp. (Transco) and other government assets in the energy sector.


“No, it has nothing to do with failures anywhere,” said Ermita. He told reporters there was no written resignation but that Lotilla had a meeting with Ms Arroyo where he expressed his intention to leave the Cabinet.


Ermita said Lotilla repeatedly called Ms Arroyo to beg for her indulgence, adding that up to the end, Ms Arroyo was “satisfied” with Lotilla’s performance.


Atienza qualified


Lotilla’s name was among the Cabinet members recommended for reappointment by Ms Arroyo after failing to get the confirmation of the Commission on Appointments, Ermita said.


“But he reconsidered, saying he wished if he could be allowed already this time to leave,” he said.


Asked about Atienza’s qualifications, “Why, is there anything wrong about ex-Mayor Atienza?”


“Definitely, the President would not choose a Cabinet member to occupy a certain position if the President thinks he cannot handle that,” said Ermita.


The Union of Local Government Authorities and Governors’ League welcomed Atienza’s appointment.


“We welcome the decision of President Arroyo to appoint Atienza as DENR secretary not only because of his competence and integrity but he will also serve as the voice of the local government units in the Cabinet,” said Eastern Samar Gov. Ben Evardone, spokesperson of the two powerful groups.


Reward for allegiance?


Ermita made it clear that Atienza was not being rewarded for his allegiance to Ms Arroyo, whose controversial acts included banning rallies at the historic Don Chino Roces (formerly Mendiola) Bridge.


“I don’t think so. Every time an appointment is made, people will be asking those questions,” he said, citing the fact that at least 12 members from the House of Representatives had been appointed into the Cabinet.


“Then you will ask, is that a political payback? Not really. The President goes by who she thinks can help her in running government.”


It was also during Atienza’s time that an old heritage building in the center of the city, Jai Alai, came down.


Ermita said Ms Arroyo’s economic team was intact.


Last month, Ms Arroyo instructed Ermita to order all presidential appointees in 117 government-owned and -controlled corporations and government financial institutions to submit their courtesy resignations.


Cabinet’s fate


But as of last week, only 301 appointees have tendered their resignations. None have been fired, so far.


The only changes that had taken place, before Wednesday, involved Cabinet members, who in the first place were supposedly exempted from the revamp.


On June 30, Malacañang appointed Tarlac Rep. Gilbert Teodoro as defense secretary, replacing former police chief Hermogenes Ebdane, who is to return to his old post as public works secretary.


So will there be a major Cabinet shake-up?


“I keep on telling you that the President’s announcement was for GOCCs and GFIs … to submit their resignations. As far as the Cabinet is concerned, there was no instruction to submit their resignation,” said Ermita.


A trusted man


“However, I said don’t be surprised when the President on her own suddenly feels that there’s got to be a reshuffle, rigodon or changes of people in the Cabinet,” he added. “All these things, I did not know myself until a few days before the decision (was) reached by the President.”


Ermita said Ms Arroyo “always makes her own decision, keeps her cards close enough to her chest, and you can be sure that these are all based on a very good judgment by the President.”


As regards Reyes, Ermita said: “Let us not prejudge people. Secretary Reyes had occupied several posts. And we could not say that he didn’t perform” as secretaries of defense, interior and environment.


“He is a retired general. I’m sure we could trust a man like him in the same manner that the President trusted him,” Ermita said.


Ms Arroyo has said that Reyes is “well-rounded” and can do any job required of him.


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