Defending our environmental defenders

Street protesters in Manila urging for more security for the country's environmental activists on Philippine's 'National Day of Protest' in 2017. — Wikimedia

ON Aug 23, 2020, Bae Merlin Ansabu Celis, a leader of the Philippine indigenous Lumad-Manobo people, was brutally murdered in Magpet, Cotabato.

“Four unknown men shot her, slashed her throat, and removed her eyes with a machete,” according to one report. Celis was an advocate for indigenous rights and an opponent of illegal logging and other exploitative activities.

On Sept 26, 2020, patrolmen Jessie Golondrina and Edwin Fernando Velarde were killed in a gunfight while trying to apprehend timber poachers in Northern Samar and secure the poachers’ pump boat filled with undocumented lauan (also known as meranti).

On Dec 30, 2020, nine indigenous Tumandok leaders on Panay Island were killed by Philippine authorities who claimed they were insurgents who resisted arrest – they used the emotive word “nanlaban”, the Tagalog word for resistance. The nine were Roy Giganto, Reynaldo Katipunan, Galson Catamin, Eliseo Gayas Jr, Maurito Diaz, Artilito Katipunan, Mario Aguirre, Jomar Vidal and Rolando Diaz. They had been opposing a proposed 20bil pesos (RM1.6bil) multipurpose mega dam project in Capiz that would displace the people of their hometown.

These are just some of the cases referenced in the Global Witness report released on Monday that listed 29 documented killings in the Philippines last year, placing the country yet again on a notorious list of deadliest countries for “environmental defenders”.

According to the human rights group, 227 environmental activists were murdered around the world in 2020 – a record figure for the second year in a row.

Because such reports rely on media and NGO reports, there are likely more undocumented killings, given the “fog of Covid-19” that has prevented journalists and environmental advocates alike from doing their work.

Some of them, like Golondrina and Velarde, were actually government authorities, either as part of the police force or affiliated with the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Danilo Pascasio, a forester with the DENR, very nearly made it onto the list when he was attacked by a suspected illegal logger in front of his house in Baler, Aurora, on Sept 27, just days after the logger had been arrested and had posted bail. Others belonged to organisations whose activism focused on indigenous and land rights.

Significantly, a majority of the victims were part of indigenous communities defending their ancestral lands against powerful interests. In my own research on forest protection in Bukidnon, I saw how passionate most indigenous forest guards are about protecting their forests, but they receive very little support from the government, and they feel very vulnerable, perceiving themselves to be virtually defenceless against powerful forces.

Regardless of their affiliations and backgrounds, what slain environmental defenders have in common is that they all died fighting against attempts to exploit the environment. As the Global Witness report puts it, “Each killing is a complex and deeply personal tragedy, rooted in a predatory economic model driven by greed”.

Various government agencies have vowed to go after the perpetrators, but by its action or inaction, the government itself has set the stage for these killings. In this month’s special issue of the International Union for Conservation of Nature-Com-mission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy’s Policy Matters, anthropologist Wolfram Dressler grimly observes: “As Duterte’s authoritarianism manifests in the countryside, those who harass and kill defenders do so more frequently, brazenly and violently with a growing sense of impunity,” he says referring to authoritarian Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Significantly, the government has actually supported the very exploitation that the environmental defenders have rallied against, from the Kaliwa Dam to the mining project in Tampakan.

Moreover, justice has been lamentably slow and very few perpetrators of environmental crimes have been brought to justice, even as the blood of Gerry Ortega, Leonard Co, Jojo Malinao, and many others continue to cry out for it.

Moving forward, these killings should serve to remind us that our warm feelings for the environment should translate into solidarity, at the very least, with those who defend it. Even self-professed nature lovers can be guilty of not doing this sometimes: We have been quick to condemn people who throw trash on the trail, but slow to campaign against those who destroy the mountain.

Aside from just advocating for access to the outdoors during the Covid-19 pandemic, we should also raise awareness that people are using the pandemic to destroy it, and our campaign could become part of what Wolfram Dressler terms “a reinvigorated civil society with strong counter-movements”.

Indigenous issues merit particular action and attention. Today, questions involving cultural appropriation – the controversy, for instance, when a Manila academy affiliated itself with tribal tattoo master Whang-Od – garner a lot of rightful traction and media coverage. But land is at the heart of indigenous rights, and if we are to truly and meaningfully support our indigenous communities, we have to take ownership not of their tattoos, but of their scars. — Philippine Daily Inquirer/ Asia News Network

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environment , indigineous people , murder


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