But in the Philippines, the links between environmental degradation and militarization are intimate. Government counterinsurgency campaigns have been most violent in the regions of the Philippines with natural and mineral resources that are largely untapped by extractive projects, whether it’s Mindanao in the south or the Cordilleras in the north. Brandon was shot because he opposed a hydropower project that would have displaced indigenous communities in the north, while to the south, indigenous Lumad leaders have been killed and schools dedicated to the teaching of sustainable agricultural practices occupied under the guise of anti-communism.
By ETHAN CHUA
On January 12 of this year, Taal Volcano in the Philippines was placed on alert level 4 by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), meaning a hazardous eruption could happen within hours to days. As a result, nearly 380,000 individuals were affected by the risk of imminent eruption, with about 300,000 of them displaced, moving to nearby evacuation centers or outside shelters. At least 752 hectares of land, comprising mostly coffee farms, were damaged by falling ash, with at least P74 million worth of agriculture destroyed. In the wake of the eruption, several hundred earthquakes followed, with homes being lost and livelihoods being displaced by the aftershocks.
On August 8, 2019, human rights volunteer and environmental activist Brandon Lee was shot four times outside his home in the northern Philippines, where he’d been working as a journalist for the indigenous issues-focused newspaper Northern Dispatch. Brandon was also part of the Ifugao Peasant Movement (IPM), a collective focused on organizing communities in the area against land-grabbing by corporations intent on developing mines and dams on indigenous land. Marked an “enemy of the state,” Brandon was targeted by state security forces as part of the Philippine government’s sustained campaign against environmental activists. Prior to the incident, army officials had investigated him and other IPM members with reference to President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order 70, which justified a “whole of nation approach” to ending the ongoing communist insurgency.
Environmental defenders are often “red-tagged” by the state as communist sympathizers as retroactive justification for their killing. As a result, the Philippines has been called the country most dangerous in the world for environmental defenders by Global Witness, with 225 of them killed between 2001 and 2018.
These two disasters seem disparately connected, if at all – the former natural, the latter man-made; the former having to do with a suddenly active volcano, the latter having to do with a militarized state. But in the Philippines, the links between environmental degradation and militarization are intimate. Government counterinsurgency campaigns have been most violent in the regions of the Philippines with natural and mineral resources that are largely untapped by extractive projects, whether it’s Mindanao in the south or the Cordilleras in the north. Brandon was shot because he opposed a hydropower project that would have displaced indigenous communities in the north, while to the south, indigenous Lumad leaders have been killed and schools dedicated to the teaching of sustainable agricultural practices occupied under the guise of anti-communism. The Philippine government systematically manipulates the free, prior and informed consent process meant to involve indigenous communities in decisions regarding the usage of their land in order to allow big energy projects sponsored by foreign and local corporations.
So what does this have to do with Taal? It’s worth remembering that no disaster is solely “natural.” A disaster, by definition, involves a human impact; this is why an earthquake in the middle of the Pacific Ocean wouldn’t make its way onto any newspaper. In the case of Taal, disaster exists at the conjunction of natural force and human consequence, with the evacuation of communities, the loss of homes, and the lack of preparedness all coming together in catastrophic fashion. The severity of disaster thus lies not only in the amount of ashfall, or in the magnitude of aftershocks, but also in the hamstrung political response – under the Duterte administration, the Philippines’ calamity fund has been cut by nearly 60 percent from 2016’s P39 billion fund to P16 billion. In comparison, the state continues to dedicate further expenses to its counterinsurgency operations, with P8.2 billion allocated to the Office of the President, of which P4.5 billion would go to “confidential and intelligence funds.” This lack of institutional support for affected communities has manifested in displays of state incompetence, if not outright callousness, with the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) tweeting asking for donations from the public.
In the wake of Taal’s eruption, state representatives have emphasized the need for disaster preparedness and resilience on the part of vulnerable communities – but how can the state claim to be preparing communities for disaster when its own campaigns of militarization erode the very fabric of community resilience across the nation? In Mindanao and in the Cordilleras, the factors that prepare communities for survival – sustainable practices, collective strength, and care for the environment – are being violently repressed. The international corporations that the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines has said could be found legally liable for human rights harms to Filipinos resulting from climate change are the very corporations whose investment Duterte continues to court. Flashy infrastructural projects intended to “modernize” the Philippines, such as the P607-billion Clark ‘Green City’, are set to displace tens of thousands of indigenous people. And resistance on the part of environmental rights defenders is crushed through an unprecedented exercise of executive power which bleeds money from necessary social services while sponsoring a spate of extrajudicial killings, with the death toll continuing to rise.
In the Philippines, if climate crisis is ever to be averted, then the militarism of the state has to be dismantled. Our nation cannot ever be prepared for disaster if it destroys the communities most committed to living sustainably – communities like the Lumad where education touches not only on subjects like math and science, but also farming and the passing down of knowledge from elders. But when communities come together to display genuinely revolutionary resilience, then disaster can be averted.
The country is rich in historical examples of resilience in the face of state-sponsored disaster. In the late 1970s, following his nationwide declaration of Martial Law in the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos chose the Chico River as the site for his chief infrastructural project – a series of four mega-dams to be funded by the World Bank and implemented by the National Power Corporation. The Chico Dam project would have devastated the livelihoods of several indigenous communities who called the Chico River home, with more than 100,000 of them displaced. But in response to the World Bank-funded project, indigenous communities in the northern Philippines reworked traditional peace pact systems in order to build community solidarity. A wide network of modified, multilateral peace pacts among communities in Kalinga, Mountain Province, and Abra was forged in opposition to the Chico Dam. Building from this network, indigenous activists began employing civil disobedience tactics against the Marcos regime. In one of the most dramatic instances of this civil disobedience, activists at the Tomiangan work-site prevented the National Power Corporation and its corollary police force from assembling their work camps four times, even under threat of death. Eventually, thanks to the resistance of the Tinggian, Bontok, and Kalinga communities and the outpouring of international support that followed, the World Bank decided to withdraw its funding for the dam project. These examples of resistance are ongoing – in the Lumad schools of the south, in the IPM’s continuing work in the north, in the diasporic organizations that raise funds from overseas Filipinos for relief. To honor them, however, requires a commitment to dissent against a state that would rather make war on its own people than build up their collective strength.
*Chua is a member of the International Migrants Alliance USA Chapter and the Malaya Movement to end Human Rights Violations in the Philippines.