PLAYBOY: Aside from the fact that it’s not government–based or funded, what makes your advocacy different from previous efforts (Pasig River Rehabilitation Program, Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission) to rehabilitate the Pasig River?
LOPEZ: It’s the media. It can change the way people think. The river, no matter what engineering work we do, no matter how many billions we spend, if we don’t shift the way people see the river, it’s just not going to work. You can’t look over everyone’s shoulder every second of every day to make sure they’re not throwing anything there. The reason they throw things, the reason they dirty the river, is because of the way they see it: It’s not their life, it’s their toilet bowl. That’s one. Two, there’s no way the river will be cleaned if people don’t work together; there’s no entity that can do it alone. The national government can’t do it alone, they have to work with the mayors. The mayors can’t do it alone, they have to work with the businesses and the people—everyone has to work together. In the Philippine scenario, I think the entity capable of threading everything, together and promoting a change in consciousness is the media, and that’s what we (ABS-CBN Foundation) bring into the picture. I’ve also found that, let’s say Ming (former First Lady Ming Ramos) started during FVR’s administration, and then the next administration would have a different direction.
For example, in La Mesa, I’ve seen what, three presidents, four administrators? The reason La Mesa is what it is today is that I’m a constant—there’s a follow over. If people give me money, I have a commitment to how that money is used. There needs to be a constant in the (Pasig) river that extends beyond political changes, and people need to own it. For example, a lot—I would say 90 percent—of our virgin forests are gone, and it’s because people didn’t know anything about them. In La Mesa, the government actually wanted to put up a housing subdivision on top of our water supply! We actually got 5 million signatures to stop that from happening, and why? Because the people had an affinity with the forest. I want to do the same thing with the river. People need to own it.
PLAYBOY: In other countries, there are many success stories of rivers classified as ‘dead’ being rehabilitated. What lessons or inspiration did you take from those cases?
LOPEZ: Hamburg, Sydney, Singapore, the Hudson River in New York, China—they all cleaned their rivers. What’s more, it was their governments that pushed for it. I don’t know where our government’s going. I mean, I need to work with the government, so I don’t really want to put them down. But the scenario here is there are a lot of political personalities, and a lot of them don’t get along with each other. It’s different in every country. In this country, I think a private sector- government-media partnership seems to be the way to go for the river.
PLAYBOY: A lot of people think nothing of dumping garbage and other refuse in the river. Is this a reflection of a loss of social responsibility?
LOPEZ: I feel it’s not even (the loss of) sense of responsibility. For me, I see it as the loss of hope. You hope for something better—you want to be this, you want to do this with your life— and then when hope goes, it’s like you don’t have the desire to do something great anymore. (You feel that) something great can’t happen (to you) anymore.
The other day, I had lunch with a friend, and he asked me, “Gina, do you really think you can clean the river? It’s been dirty since before I was born,” Similarly, I took my driver to the San Juan River, and there were whirlpools of methane gas. He said, “Ma’am, nung pinanganak ako, ganun na yan.”
What I see is, if we give our children a dirty river, we kill in them the part that can dream and hope for anything better. Do we want to do that? Do we want to give them the bane of resignation and despair? Also, what do we do with all these people who live along the riverbanks? I was there the whole day yesterday; I went along all the estuaries—the dogs in America live better! They have fresh air, they have good food, they have love and affection. These people (living along the estuaries) live like subhuman’s—I would even say they live like cockroaches. What do we do if we leave them there, with the river as their toilet? Aside from breeding anti-social elements, we are breeding a culture of despair and hopelessness. There are thousands who live along the riverbanks, that toxify the river and themselves live toxic lives. We’re injuring our generations to come and injuring the ones that don’t even live along the river who say, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
But it can be cleaned, and that’s why I’m excited. It’s the youth, our solution lies within the young. I don’t want to kill their idealism because they’re still hopeful.
PLAYBOY: Some academics would have us believe that Filipino’s sense of social responsibility died with Marcos. What can you say about that?
LOPEZ: You know, I think Marcos didn’t start out bad. But I think power really corrupts, and that’s what happened to him. What I mean is that we have this culture where things come out in the papers that raise furor for a while and then they disappear. It says you can get away with anything in this country; you know you can do something and then they disappear and people forget about it. If transgressions and corruption are not adequately addressed, it sends the message that these things are okay and you can get away with it—like how Imelda comes back, and then her kids run for political office. It’s like saying to not mind, to simply forget about the 20 years of human rights abuses. It’s got to change. I hope for rule of law where righteousness and principles prevail, where government is run not through political patronage. Things are done because it’s the right thing to do, and not to please someone.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been quoted as saying that education is the best gift. Does this principle guide your advocacies?
LOPEZ: Absolutely. Have you read Three Cups of Tea? It’s about this guy, a mountain climber who wanted to climb K2, but he had a really bad accident, and he was taken care of by this village in Pakistan. In the end it opened his eyes to the beauty of the people there, and how he could help them through the power of education. He started building schools, and he ended up building 55 schools. There was this one story of a girl who went to one of the schools. First she just wanted to be a health worker, but after being educated, she wanted to be the head of a hospital! Before, she was nothing—girls aren’t supposed to be educated over there—but after being educated, she said, “Wow, I can do this, I can do that!” It opened her eyes!
We rescued one 11-year old boy I saw in a disaster video on YouTube. He was 11 years old—this was 3 years ago—during the height of the typhoon Reming. During the typhoon, the flood started going up, so he climbed to the roof of his house. The flood rose up some more, so he had to hold on to a branch. The water went up even more! He was just there for hours and hours. And when the water subsided, he looked for his parents and found them dead. He looked for his brothers and sisters and they were dead as well! He had me crying as I watched him in that video. I asked my staff to look for him and they found him! They brought him to my house and I lead him to my kids’ library and said “choose whatever book you want,” and he didn’t choose comic books or picture books. Instead he chose books in math, then he chose The Odyssey! So I asked him, “maiintindihan mo ba ‘yan?” and he answered “yes, ma’am.” Alam mo, I told him, I will put you through high school and college, pero kailangan number one ka! From a resettlement site we put him in a good high school in Bicol, and now he’s an honor student!
PLAYBOY: Are children like that generally receptive to your programs or was this an exception?
LOPEZ: No, not at all. For example, my son goes to International School, and I love that the curriculum methodology is inquiry, and it’s not a regurgitation of information, they teach you how to think. So I ask, why is this only available to the rich, why can’t we have this in the public schools? So I took a public school in Pampanga because I had a donor. I said “let me build a school here; let me choose the principal and the teachers and I’ll give you a good school.” And that’s what we did. We chose the principal, the teachers, and had them trained in inquiry. We put up a multimedia room and also a computer room, where every kid gets their own computer during class. You have to have good teachers and a good principal. You have to have the facility, and of course, you need a good method! Unlike the method in public schools wherein you sit down, the teachers talks and then you’re all “yes ma’am!” after which you regurgitate (the information), the inquiry method is student-centered, it’s not the teacher who talks all the time—it’s the students who talk. Even the classroom is set up to encourage discussion. Inquiry encourages interaction, so you’re given the tools, instead of being made into a databank! It’s the way you look at the child: the child is not a databank, the child is a human being who has to mobilize and develop their resources to think. It shows you that each child has the potential for greatness—they just need good teachers, good facilities and a good curriculum methodology.
When the school started last year, the kids were getting average scores in the 50’s in all grade levels, in all subjects. In three months, their averages went up to the 80’s! In five months they started winning awards. First, they won regional awards (in Pampanga): first place in English, second place in Filipino, you name it! And these are ordinary kids that used to get really low grades! What happened was that this school—which used to have an enrollment of 200 students—now has a waiting list that reaches up to a thousand!
PLAYBOY: Aside from raising awareness and fostering a sense of pride in the people, just what will it take to clean the Pasig River?
LOPEZ: There’s technology to clean the river, it would take seven years, max. Another reason I’m excited is I have project management of Kanawan, which is 107 hectares, and that can hold 10,000 families. San Miguel recently donated to me 100 hectares, good for another 10,000.
They key to cleaning the river is having a really good resettlement site. You can’t get the people off the sides of the river and just throw them somewhere, you have to get them and give them the possibility of a better life. You need a good resettlement site, because one, they won’t want to go anywhere if they don’t have that possibility; they’d rather stay where they are. But if I can show them, “Here you can have fresh air, good education, livelihood, health—you’d have a life!” they’d resettle.
I’ve resettled about 300, with 100 percent no-dissention—nobody said no. We’re going to relocate 800 more this year. I brought people there, and the barangay captain, who doesn’t even live along the river said, “Can I also live here?”(laughs) I mean, even in places like Forbes Park, you can smell the pollution from Ayala, and this place is totally clean, with fresh air.
PLAYBOY: What does it say about our culture that we need people like you to take things into their own hands?
LOPEZ: What it says is that we have a problem with governance. For me, it’s very clear—from the upscale crowd to the very poor—we have a great race, with great hearts and good intentions. Our problem in this country is governance. I’ll be frank—we have a problem with governance, and I think it kind of sucks right now. I don’t know if that would get me into trouble—everyone says it—I’m just joining the chorus. I mean, you see things in the paper, how do these things just go on and on? Millions of dollars meant for farmers—where does the money end up? These aren’t small amounts, it’s in the millions! I have friends who know of the corruption firsthand, and it’s disgusting. The government is the way it is, I have no control over that, but that doesn’t mean everyone (in office) is corrupt, there are also some good people: good mayors, good congressmen, good senators. There are good people there, so the thing is to work with those people to make them come up. You know the Department of Tourism’s Ace Durano? He’s spectacular. People like Art Yap, Sonny Belmonte, (Jejomar) Binay; we have good people in government. It’s just that overall… I don’t know… There’s just something wrong.
PLAYBOY: In developed countries, their government officials’ salaries are comparable to those of some CEO’s. Do you suppose such an incentive could improve our situation here?
LOPEZ: Exactly! One problem with the government is that their salaries are so low! I talked with the mayor of Kanawan, and he said his salary was Php 22,000 gross! How can you live on Php 22,000 gross if you have kids and want to send them to college? I talked to the head of PRRC and he told me his salary is Php 28,000! How can you live with salaries like that? I mean, it’s ridiculous. That’s why, if you don’t pay people well, then you institute a culture of kurakot, because you can’t survive if you’re not corrupt! So what happens is that good people who aren’t corrupt won’t want to work in government, because how will they survive? They’d rather leave! I don’t know, how much does the president get? (laughs) The salaries have to be good enough to get people who are really good, and aren’t going to get what they need “on the side.” You’ve got to pay people well.
PLAYBOY: On that note, workers in public offices of some developed countries try to get as much work done before going on break. Why is it that in the Philippines, the prevalent attitude is more along the lines of, “How much longer ‘til lunch break?”
LOPEZ: It’s the culture. My people work hard, but you need to believe in something. When you see that the one on top has a passion, a desire and a vision for the government, that inspiration will help people go the extra mile. But if they’re just there for job, then they’re there just for a job. You can’t be in government service and think that it’s just a job—you won’t give us, the taxpayers, our money’s worth. People can’t be in government service because of the money, so there’s got to be a connection with the heart, and it’s got to be fuelled by a vision. You have to know what you want and you have to be inspired by something which will make you want to achieve something; to do something for your country.
PLAYBOY: You’re known to be very environmentally-conscious. Now, there are some communities in the Philippines that have succeeded in adapting such policies. For the most part however, recycling and segregating garbage are alien concepts. Why is this so?
LOPEZ: It’s a question of leadership. Now, there are some who will do it on their own initiative, but if you want to see it happen nationwide, you have to make it the rule of law—I want things this way, and I’m not going to accept anything less. The way it is now, the way it’s working is that you have grassroots groups and some individuals, but to do it on a massive scale, you need good governance. (For the Pasig River) I think that’s where the media can help to develop awareness, but at the end of the day, you need good leadership, you need good governance. If you have a good leader, someone who says they really want it, and she or he really makes it the culture. We have the Clean Water Act, we have the Clean Air Act—why are people still dumping in the river? It’s because we have laws that are not implemented.
PLAYBOY: It has been said that you are the “first in the Lopez clan to systematically harness the technology of the media in novel ways to do social good.” What can you say about that?
LOPEZ: I have to correct that—I’m not the first, I’m just doing it in a really big way. The family has always had a culture of service, since my great-great-grandfather. They have always been businessmen who did good business and engaged in philanthropy as well. The difference with me, and my cousin Rina—who’s in charge of Knowledge channel—is that this is our work. This is what we do, we’re not into business. I mean, I know a lot of my friends, who are well-to-do, they also do what they can to help, but the difference between them and me is that they have to run their companies. This (the ABS-CBN Foundation) is my company, a company of service, and I’m backed up by the media. I have to mention that there’s no way I could do this on the massive scale that I am without the support of ABS-CBN, it’s my secret weapon (laughs), and it helps, big time! It’s like I have this force backing me up, and knowing that we share the same principles! Charo (Santos-Concio), who’s the president of ABS-CBN—she’s magnificent—and Cory Vidanes, who’s channel head, they’re totally supportive.
PLAYBOY: Still on the subject of that quote, do you see what you do as ‘novel’?
LOPEZ: I don’t see anything novel about what I do really. It’s just my use of the media, I would say, that could be considered novel. For example, Piso Para Sa Pasig, trying to get huge funds for a public service through texting is a good idea—I don’t know anyone else who’s done that—I think that’s novel. And that we are facilitating these big movements through TV, I think that’s novel. But everything else, it’s just normal.
PLAYBOY: You practice Ananda Marga, a form of yoga and meditation that dictates that the road to self-realization and fulfillment is through social service. Forgive us for asking, but what is the correlation between yoga and public service?
LOPEZ: Well, I don’t really do yoga—I meditate. That is the source of all my powers (laughs). There’s no way, no way, no way I could do what I do without meditation. Not only that, but it gives me peace, not just when I do it in the morning, but throughout the day. There are techniques that I do which help me connect with people and help my perception. It’s like this: you have the intellectual level, which is where we think, and the higher level, which is the realm of vision, ideas and higher thought. When you reach that higher level through meditation, it makes things clearer when making decisions and even to connect with people to better communicate and find solutions to their problems.
PLAYBOY: With all the things that occupy your attention, do you find it harder to find peace when you meditate?
LOPEZ: No, not really. With the kind of meditation I do now, it’s the meditation that dictates how I’m affected by everything that happens during the day, not the other way around. As long as I can maintain my calm, I can take on whatever chaos happens and find a solution.
PLAYBOY: In Jose Rizal’s time, his childhood home was seen as notable for having a large collection of books. Over a hundred years on, not much has changed: The average Filipino household usually counts in its library a smattering of the latest bestsellers that have, or are about to become movies, and a few magazines. Why is this?
LOPEZ: There’s so much more to do now, even with my own kids, between the computer and TV. Back then there were only two, three channels, but now, you can get over a hundred! I have to force my kids to read! The computer is such a major distraction. All these things, TV and the computers are tools, they’re not bad in and of themselves, but there is a proliferation of content there that isn’t exactly good for character formation. It falls on the parents, teachers and principals to inculcate values and teach the youth what they should prioritize. I think in the formative years, if you get your basics right, you’ll get your priorities right.
PLAYBOY: What about the growing trend of a celebrity-centric culture?
LOPEZ: I actually think, in this world of media, we should have a course specifically on media education, where our children can learn to see through the glitter… Where you can learn to see a movie and sift through the subliminal messages of advertisements and things like that. I think that’s the way to go, so our kids don’t get lost, and they can see where they’re at and where they should be. I never thought of this before—that’s a good question! (laughs) I would propose a course, for even as early as grade school or high school to teach our children how to deal with these complex situations. When you’re young, you’re very vulnerable to these things; it’s so easy to get lost. You have to learn how to see things and process them. That way, even if you see a violent movie, it wouldn’t detract from your values—it would actually enforce them. Since you already know how to process it, you won’t be desensitized.
PLAYBOY: What can you say about the current controversy of Customs levying duty on books being brought into the country?
LOPEZ: Why would anyone want to do that? I think that’s wrong. Government should support everything that’s good for the country. I mean, what’s more important, education or revenue? And when they get revenue, where does that money go? It’s like how coal energy isn’t taxed, but clean energy like geothermal is! It’s stupid, if you want to have clean energy, why would you tax it? Our politics suck—it’s crazy!
PLAYBOY: What strikes you about our country when you go overseas?
LOPEZ: What makes me feel bad when I go overseas is seeing Filipinos who’ve made it big. I mean, why did they have to leave to achieve that? For example, the helper of my mom, she was just a maid here, and now she’s a healthcare worker who plays tennis during weekends. She’s come up, and it’s wonderful, but why do people have to leave the country to move up? Why can’t we provide the environment, the possibilities for them to go up the ladder? If you don’t have connections here… It’s really who you know. Not only that, it starts with our education system! Our education system doesn’t teach confidence, and what gets ingrained in our Filipino culture is this class system. The poor are brought up to think they really are second class, that they can’t get any better. It should be that if you’re educated, if you can think and converse properly— even if you’re poor—you’ll be hired.
PLAYBOY: Have your experiences made you cynical in the least?
LOPEZ: No, no, there’s hope. I’m working with some really good people. The business sector is enlightened, there are some really good mayors and congressmen, barangay captains—real top-of-the-line people, so there’s hope. If principled people, people who have a sense of integrity run this country, we’re going to see the light of day. We need principles and integrity, doing things not because someone told you to, but because inside yourself, you have a sense of right and wrong, and you live your life by that.