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Rights groups call for protection for environmental defenders


Land and environmental defenders face growing threats around the world. And while they are armed with extraordinary courage, an increasing number of them have been attacked or gone missing for trying to protect the natural resources many of their communities depend on.

Globally, 164 environmental defenders were killed in 2018 while protecting their land from incursion by industries such as mining, logging and agribusiness, according to the latest report from Global Witness, an independent organization that tracks killings of these activists.

In 2019, the Philippines was named by Global Witness as the world’s deadliest country for land and environment defenders, with at least 30 deaths recorded. Most of those victims were farmers, tribal and female leaders and civil society organizers. According to the Global Witness report, the Philippine government has ramped up its campaign of “red-tagging” rights activists, including land and environmental defenders, as communist sympathizers, terrorists or supporters of a group of armed insurgents called the New People’s Army.

“An independent investigation into the killings of environmental defenders should be allowed with full cooperation from authorities. All large-scale mines and other extractive and destructive projects with records of human rights atrocities, as well as the army and paramilitary detachments terrorizing these resource-rich areas, must be pulled out of ancestral lands and farmlands in the countryside,” said Leon Dulce, national coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, a national network that coordinates campaigns on environmental issues.

Dulce said those killed come from the most marginalized sectors in the rural countryside, with 43.5 percent comprising small farmers and landless agri-workers, and 35.9% indigenous peoples. Mindanao is ground zero for the targeting of environmental defenders, with 50% of the cases occurring there.

Lia Alonzo, executive director of the Center for Environmental Concerns, said environmental defenders are being repressed for asserting their rights.

“Indigenous peoples, for instance, who live in the forests defend their ancestral domain against mining, agribusiness, and large dams. These so-called development projects are [coming] at the expense of local communities that bear the brunt of environmental destruction,” she said.

Alonzo said that the killings in the country included religious leaders, such as the anti-mining priest Father Mark Ventura, who was shot after Sunday mass in Cagayan Province; indigenous chieftain Datu Kaylo Bontulan, who was hit during a military aerial bombardment in Bukidnon Province; and the massacre of nine sugarcane farmers in the island of Negros.

Indigenous people protest
Indigenous people, including school children, participate in a climate strike in the Philippines / Credit: Scientia (CEC)

Aside from killings, 83 environmental defenders were illegally detained, another 45 defenders were included on the terror list by the Department of Justice, and 19,178 people were forced to evacuate due to militarization in areas with resource conflicts as of 2019.

Alonzo added that land and environmental rights defenders in the country are also facing the worsening impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather events. Five of the 10 deadliest typhoons in Philippines history have occurred since 2006, with the worst one, Typhoon Haiyan resulting in the deaths of 6,300 people and costing the country P571.1 billion in losses and damages. The INFORM Global Risk Index 2019 Report showed that the Philippines had the highest risk of climate hazards. The 2019 El Niño caused more than $95 million worth of damages to agriculture, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, and affected an estimated 164,672 farmers.

The Global Peace Index 2019 stated that 47% of the country’s population is in areas highly exposed to climate hazards, including earthquakes, tsunamis, tropical cyclones, and droughts. These hazards mostly affect indigenous peoples, farmers, and fisherfolk, who directly rely on natural resources, and contribute to the consistently high poverty rates recording in the sectors.

In the Philippines and in the Asia-Pacific region generally, the main environmental issues are large-scale mining, agribusiness, and the construction of large dams that increase people’s vulnerability to climate change impacts.

In Thoothukudi, India, 13 people were killed while protesting against a copper smelting plant; a forest ranger and conservation worker was killed by illegal loggers in Keo Seima Sanctuary in Cambodia; in Myanmar, a woman was run over by the truck of a mining company; and activists opposing coal-fired power plants in Thailand fell victim to enforced disappearances, said Alonzo, who is also the secretariat of the recently-formed Asia-Pacific Network of Environmental Defenders.

That group was stormed by police in its launch in Indonesia in 2018, and its members wree later harassed at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations People’s Forum in 2019, Alonzo said.

People’s action in the Philippines and beyond

In the Philippines, the Bugkalot and Tuwali indigenous groups, headed by the Alyansa ng Novo Vizcayano para sa Kalikasan (ANVIK) and the United People’s Organization of Didipio, formed a barricade against the Australian-Canadian mining giant OceanaGold Philippines Inc. (OGPI) after its mining permit expired on June 20, 2019. This was supported by the provincial, municipal, and barangay local government units, Alonzo said.

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the country is under lockdown, people have continued protesting. On April 6, the police dispersed the barricaders – arresting one and injuring others – and escorted OGPI fuel tankers into the mine site, she explained.

At the national level, the Environmental Defenders Congress (EnviDefCon) was launched in November 2019 as the first national alliance of environmental defenders in the country. EnviDefCon is a consolidated effort to address environmental and human rights issues in the country, similar to an initiative created at the regional level.

This year we mark the 50th year of Earth Day with the theme of Climate Action. It’s a timely message since the impacts of climate change are accelerating faster than expected by scientists.

“The Philippines and the countries in the Asia-Pacific have experienced these effects and have recognized inaction by governments and the lack of accountability of corporations,” Alonzo said. “We hope that this Earth Day will bring hope and action instead of despair and apathy. The repression on environmental defenders will not deter our efforts but instead, inspire steadfastness in our advocacy.”

Banner image: Civil society groups and environmental defenders stage a peoples barricade in barangay Didipio in Nueva Vizcaya to protest the operations of OceanaGold mining / Credit: ANVIK (CEC)