* Minister says Duterte has given go-ahead to her plan
* Nickel miner unsure whether Lopez's plan will work
* Lopez says NPA rebels "really not bad people"
* Philippines is world's top nickel ore supplier
(Adds comments from Communist Party founder and leader)
By Enrico Dela Cruz and Manolo Serapio Jr
MANILA, April 20 The Philippine environment
minister said she has been given the green light by President
Rodrigo Duterte to work with communist rebel fighters to help
rehabilitate and develop the country's mining areas.
The decades-long conflict between the New People's Army
(NPA) rebels and the Philippine government has killed more than
40,000 people. Earlier this month the NPA agreed to a temporary
truce with government, the first joint ceasefire since November
Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez
last month ordered the closure of more than half the nation's
mines to protect water resources, a bold step backed by Duterte,
who has said the Philippines can survive without mining.
Lopez, an environmentalist-turned-regulator, said her
unorthodox plan to work with the rebels has his backing.
"What I've seen with the NPA, they just really want to get
people out of poverty, they're really not bad people," Lopez
told reporters on Thursday. "We might have a situation where
miners work with the NPA. We must come from the same page."
Jose Maria Sison, the founder and leader of the Communist
Party of the Philippines who lives in exile in Utrecht, welcomed
Lopez' desire "to work with the NPA for peace and development".
"It is directly related to the environment, agrarian reform
and rural development now being negotiated under the substantive
item," he said in a Facebook post, inviting her to attend the
next round of peace talks, brokered by Norway, in the
Netherlands next month.
Lopez said she's initially looking at working with NPA
rebels to develop a mining province in southern Mindanao island,
and had asked Duterte's permission at a recent cabinet meeting
and "he gave a go-ahead."
Duterte's spokesman, Ernesto Abella, said however "that
needs to be verified" when asked to confirm the plan.
Miners were unsure whether Lopez's strategy would work.
Mining contracts "are granted by the government, not by the
NPAs. So, in what capacity could we work with the NPAs? I don't
know," Dante Bravo, president of Global Ferronickel Holdings Inc
, told Reuters. Global Ferronickel is the Philippines'
No. 2 nickel ore producer.
The Philippine Army did not immediately respond to a request
Lopez waged a crackdown on the Philippine mining sector
shortly after taking office in June last year. In February, she
ordered the closure of 22 of the Southeast Asian nation's 41
mines and later cancelled dozens of contracts for undeveloped
Duterte backed Lopez's mining crackdown, himself angered by
years of environmental harm he said miners have caused. Late on
Wednesday, he reiterated his support for Lopez, who has said she
wants the country to be "mine-free".
"I asked how can we do that? We have to amend the law.
There's a mining law which allows mining," Duterte said.
"But I agree with Gina," Duterte said, calling the minister
by her nickname.
Duterte reappointed Lopez this week after lawmakers deferred
a decision to confirm or reject her appointment before Congress
went into recess from March 18. Hearings on her confirmation
resume on May 2.
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. and Enrico dela Cruz; Editing
by Tom Hogue and Elaine Hardcastle)