Report highlights business, political players behind Philippine environment defender deaths

A large-scale mining site on Dinagat Island
The Philippines
Report highlights business, political players behind Philippine environment defender deaths

MANILA — Development banks and other investors are fueling violence against people in the Philippines protecting their land and environment from destructive industries, eco-watchdog Global Witness reveals in a new report.

Over the past six years, 178 land and environmental defenders were murdered in the resource-rich Southeast Asia country, according to Global Witness data, with verification of more cases ongoing.

“The Philippines has consistently ranked as the deadliest country in Asia to defend the environment and land rights ever since Global Witness began compiling data on murders of activists,” Ben Leather, a campaigner for Global Witness, told Mongabay. “This report is extremely timely as President [Rodrigo] Duterte and the Philippine government have just reached their mid-term and serves as an important review of their action on land and environment defenders in the first half of the presidency.”

Released Sept. 23, the report is the result of a three-year investigation that aims to demonstrate how corporations are colluding with corrupt politicians to push through environmentally damaging projects involving agribusiness, tourism, illegal logging, coal plants and mining.

“Justice to those who were killed means the Filipino government taking action on corporate greed and stopping businesses operating at any cost,” Leather said. “While this crisis is serious, it isn’t new. Vast natural resources and fertile soils have long attracted foreign investment to the Philippines, yet widespread corruption and a culture of impunity [among] unscrupulous companies has seen the profits disappear into the pockets of a tiny elite.”

An earlier Global Witness report released in July named the Philippines the world’s deadliest country for land and environmental defenders in 2018, with 30 recorded deaths, including nine men, women and children who were massacred in a single incident on the island of Negros over disputed farmland.

Logging in the Philippines
Logging is a big problem in Palawan and has caused environmental defender deaths in the province / Credit: Global Witness

The Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), a non-governmental organization that has compiled records of such killings since 2011, logged a total of 225 deaths since 2001.

The confluence of several factors — President Duterte’s extensive anti-drug policy, implemented with rigorous counter-insurgency campaigns and the imposition of martial law in the southern Mindanao region — triggered the highest annual death toll in 2017, with 55 environmental defenders killed.

Militarization, criminalization, and the killings of environmental defenders are acts that expose weak government institutions susceptible to corruption by corporations that tolerate violence, according to Global Witness. Moreover, these corporations are backed by foreign financing institutions that turn a blind eye on the death toll, the report says.

Investments stained with blood

Killings associated with mining and agribusiness account for the biggest share of the death toll. But two other sectors follow suit: forestry and energy. The most recent recorded death was of a forest ranger in Palawan, a logging and wildlife poaching hotspot.

Investors in forestry and energy, including development banks and institutions that provide foreign aid, are highlighted in the Global Witness report for financing government institutions and private corporations with “questionable practices” in Palawan.

A surge in tourism has also created strong demand for illegal timber for hotel construction, officials and NGOs says. This demand resulted in a 16 percent decline in the province’s forest cover from 1992 to 2011 — all under the nose of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).

Tourism boom is taking a toll on native forests in the Philippines
The tourism boom is taking a toll on forests in Palawan. Premium tropical hardwoods from protected areas have furnished El Nido’s boutique resorts and hotels / Credit: Global Witness

When financing an institution with a contested background, development banks “should use their leverage to ensure changes in the body’s practices and full civil society oversight,” Global Witness says.

Foreign private institutions that bankroll coal power projects associated with the deaths of environmental defenders should also not be spared, Leather said.

“The international businesses named in our report — everyone from major food companies to investors pouring money into destructive projects by global corporates — not only need to take responsibility for their role, but also ensure that they’re taking the steps to support and protect defenders and get to the root causes of violent and hideous attacks like these,” he added.

When investments become “projects of national significance”

The Philippines’ current economic roadmap heightens challenges for environmental defenders, with Duterte’s industrialization agenda creating a tug-of-war between development and environmental protection where land and resources are the coveted prize. The imbalance has left environmental defenders, including indigenous communities, facing warrantless arrests, violent attacks and murder attempts.

Defenders are often labeled as “anti-development” or painted as rebel sympathizers, exacerbating the intensity of the threats that they already face.

“There has been shift in strategy … a shift to criminalization,” Leon Dulce, of Kalikasan PNE, told Mongabay. “Defenders are terror listed and receive trumped-up charges [a long list of unrelated cases to argue for incarceration]. It was actually a tool to justify the furtherance of killings.”

“These kinds of smear campaigns fit a global trend, in which the rich and powerful stigmatize human rights activism with the aim of deterring participation, leaving those on the front lines isolated,” Global Witness says.

Aware of the local conflicts associated with big investments, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo created an Investment Defence Force (IDF) in 2008 that aims to protect infrastructure projects from “terrorists and … other rebel groups that stand in the way of development.” The group, trained by the military, is tapped to protect projects that the national government has identified as pivotal to national development.

Most of these projects are large-scale mining operations, contested coal-fired power plants, and large swaths of plantations. Under Duterte’s Build-Build-Build program, they also include the creation of smart cities, airports, and economic zones, many of which entail the wholesale displacement of entire communities.

PH power plant
Forced eviction and environmental damage prompted the community to stand up against a coal-fired power plant in Bataan / Credit: Global Witness

Known for this iron-fisted leadership, Duterte has adapted the IDF to deploy the military and employ brute force to quell dissent in contested areas.

Despite clashes over land, companies continue to operate and deal with ranchers or local leaders who are involved in land-grabbing practices. 

“It is Global Witness’s view that local ranchers operating on disputed land are willing to allow violence and intimidation to be used in order to retain control of the land and lucrative contracts with overseas investors,” the report says.

Human costs of government negligence

Half of the 225 environmental defenders slain in the last 18 years in the Philippines were killed within the last three years, according to Kalikasan PNE, which said many victims hail from the most marginalized sectors of the rural countryside.

Indigenous peoples form a third of all casualties. Half are impoverished small farmers and landless agriworkers, said Kalikasan PNE. Together they defended nearly 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) of natural landscapes and seascapes. Since 2016 more than 19,000 people, mostly indigenous, have been driven out of their ancestral domain lands in the fight against destructive mining practices.

“The disproportionate numbers of indigenous people killed after standing up for their land rights and the environment is evidence in and of itself that the institutions mandated to protect their rights are failing,” Global Witness says.

It calls on companies and financing institutions to enhance their due diligence, ensure that no human rights violations are committed by partners and guarantee remedies and reparations wherever credible complaints are reported.

“The Filipino government, companies operating in the Philippines, investors backing those companies and governments providing trade and aid to the Philippines must take strong and urgent steps [to address this crisis],” the report says. “International and national companies [as well as] private investors must clean up their acts or be held accountable.”

Banner photo: A large-scale mining site on Dinagat Island. Mining contributes only a small proportion to the Philippines’ GDP yet this industry sees the most number of murdered environmental defenders in the country / Credit: Erwin Mascarinas for Global Witness

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