“The ecological agriculture that landless farm workers have painstakingly carved out of the vast monoculture plantations of Negros sugar barons have been irrigated with blood and bullets.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – The Philippines has now topped other countries in the world in number of people getting killed in defense of land and the environment. No thanks to the massacre of farmworkers in Negros, the Philippines finally reached the stage it has threatened to do in the past: it’s now a clear and official hotspot of killings.
[Read or download the Global Witness 2019 report here. Read the highlights here.]
“The ecological agriculture that landless farm workers have painstakingly carved out of the vast monoculture plantations of Negros sugar barons have been irrigated with blood and bullets,” said Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), one of the local partners of Global Witness in the Philippines.
Massacres and hunger seasons attached to lanlordism have marked the history of Negros, long a bountiful producer of sugar. With the twilight in sugar export industry, peasants and farmworkers hinged their hope for a better life on finally owning the lands they and their families have tilled for ages. But with the Duterte government’s thrust of promoting expansion of plantations for other export crops, farmers and farmworkers including those who have acquired rights to the land they are tilling are getting killed or threatened to be killed for it.
Since 2017, at least 87 land and environmental defenders have been “murdered by the military, paramilitary troops, and other state forces for carrying out land occupation and cultivation campaigns across the island of Negros,” Dulce of Kalikasan PNE said at a press conference on July 30 at the Commission of Human Rights headquarters in Quezon City.
With him were Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, and lawyer Kathy Panguban, who was with the fact-finding mission to the first recent massacres in Negros last year. Panguban helped rescue a minor, a witness to what is now known as Sagay Massacre, after learning the child was being held and questioned by the military without parental consent. For her effort, she had been slapped with a ‘kidnapping’ charge that was eventually junked.
Farmer Carmela Avelino, 42, whose husband, Edgardo, was killed in one of the joint police and military operations in Negros, also tried to explain their plight, their continuing drive to till and own the land while demanding for justice. Edgardo was killed last March 30 inside their home in Panubigan village, Canlaon City. He was chairman of Hugpong-Kusog Mag-uuma sa Canlaon (Hukom), a local affiliate of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP).
After the press conference, Edgardo’s widow admitted it was extremely difficult to talk about how her husband had died in the hands of state troops.
“It’s heavy in my heart, it’s a heavy thing to carry around,” she told Bulatlat. She said one cannot know how excruciating it is to lose one’s partner just like that, “so all of a sudden.” Until now, she’d wake up and the heaviness would descend again when she realizes he is gone.
She came to the capital steeling herself to occasions such as this because she’s serious about holding on to the land they are tilling. “That’s what my husband fought for.”
“The killing fields of Negros is the single biggest driver of environmental defenders in 2018. Scores more are being killed by the military rampage as we speak,” Dulce said during the press conference.
‘Brutal irony’ in judicial systems
Alice Harrison, senior campaigner at Global Witness, finds ‘brutal irony’ in the fact that various countries’ judicial systems routinely allow killers of environmental defenders to walk free, yet do nothing or allow itself to be used at tagging the activists themselves as ‘terrorists,’ ‘spies’ or criminals.
Harrison said,“Both tactics send a clear message to other activists: the stakes for defending their rights are punishingly high for them, their families and their communities.”
In the Philippines, the people’s actions against monopolies of land and resources are increasingly becoming “targets of this systematic pattern of violence condoned by the government,” Dulce said.
In previous years, the lumad defense of Pantaron forest and various other communities targeted for large-scale mining and logging has also resulted to killings, massacres and trumped-up charges.
A recently concluded National Solidarity Mission to Nueva Vizcaya, a gold-rich mineral province in the north where the communities have put up a people’s barricade against OceanaGold mining, shows a rise in red-tagging (the practice of branding leaders and activists as members or supporters of armed group New People’s Army, despite lack of evidence), legal harassment (or filing of trumped up charges to detain or harass people) and threats and intimidation against environmental defenders.
“The Duterte government has to recognize the legitimacy of the work of land and environmental defenders,” said Dulce of Kalikasan PNE. He added that the big businesses and government agencies must pursue the highest human rights standard, and it is the state’s primary duty to ensure they are doing that.
Karapatan or the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights, meanwhile, reiterated also the urgent need for the passage of a national law protecting environmental human rights defenders. They pressed for the inclusion of cases of killings of environmental defenders and other political activists in the recently approved resolution of United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to investigate the killings and human rights violations in the Philippines.