Pandemic ushers in heightened rural repression in PH, Colombia

President Ivan Duque of Colombia (left) and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines (right) have come under greater scrutiny over COVID-19 policies that leave rural peoples ever more vulnerable. Both countries have registered the highest number of land-related human rights violations during the pandemic, according to PANAP’s monitoring (Photos from New Straits Times and Business Insider, respectively)

In particular, two countries, Colombia and the Philippines, continue to top PANAP’s list of deadliest places for land rights defenders.


MANILA — Attacks continue to siege rural communities with impunity, with data indicating an escalation of atrocities against farmers, indigenous peoples and their advocates amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP), a nonprofit advocacy organization, monitored land-related human rights violations worldwide from mid-March to June 2020 and found out that during the pandemic, within just 14 weeks, 65 rural people have been killed, or equivalent to four to five people every week. This is highercompared with last year’s peasant death toll of two every week. Legal persecution has similarly surpassed last year’s average rate of three victims per week, with 59 farmers, activists, or indigenous people — or four every week — arrested or detained while the pandemic runs rampant.

In particular, two countries, Colombia and the Philippines, continue to top PANAP’s list of deadliest places for land rights defenders. Both countries’ leaders have not made any strides in curbing these reported abuses, further inflaming tensions instead, between beleaguered sectors and retrograde actors, with ever-repressive policies or general indifference to their countries’ poor.

In Duque’s Colombia, social leaders face graver hostility

The knock-on impacts of the pandemic has crippled the peace deal that the Colombian government signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest of the country’s guerilla movements, in 2016, which has since made only halting progress. Not much has been done to stem the bloodshed. Normal security protocols have been derailed in the government’s myopic focus on its coronavirus response, leaving social leaders more vulnerable to death squads and paramilitaries keen on exploiting the panic over COVID-19 to ramp up such illegal economies as mining and drug trafficking.

There has indeed not been a letup in violence against Colombians who have suffered over five decades of a civil war largely rooted in the struggle for land. Armed conflicts have been documented to overlap with regions caught in the crossfire between vested interests claiming their stakes in these territories. Despite the peace deal’s promises, the demobilization and exodus of FARC rebels left criminal gangs, big landholders, drug cartels, and corporations more emboldened to scramble for power grabs. Local communities have either been expelled from their lands or routinely harassed and intimidated.

President Ivan Duque, who assumed office in August 2018, kept on with the implementation of the peace deal, even though he had initially campaigned against the agreement. His administration’s patchy commitment to enforcing the deal propelled country-wide protests at the tail-end of 2019. Though the mass demonstrations did not convulse on the scale seen in other Latin American countries, they threw an unrelenting spotlight on Duque’s unpopular economic policies and, in particular, the absence of state support for indigenous communities still reeling from generations-long strife and underdevelopment.

These communities cannot mobilize to the degree they probably would have, if not for the pandemic, as politically motivated killings remain on the rise. PANAP’s data show that, between mid-March and the end of June 2020, there have been at least two farmers, farmworkers, land activists, or indigenous leaders killed every week, even surpassing the total number of victims tallied in 2019 (see Table 1).

These numbers account for only rural peoples murdered but are certainly higher when the tally includes social leaders and human rights defenders working with other historically marginalized sectors. As early as March, international organizations like the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) already expressed alarm at brutal human rights abuses, such as in the province of Chocó, where three people had been beheaded even weeks before Duque declared a nationwide quarantine.

The lockdown has been extended for yet another two weeks from its supposed end last July 15. With no state sanction, armed groups have taken it upon themselves to supposedly enforce local COVID-19 measures like curfews and bans on mass gatherings, failure to comply which is punishable by, at worst, death.

“This abusive social control reflects the government’s long-standing failure to establish a meaningful state presence in remote areas of the country, including to protect at-risk populations,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international watchdog, in its recent report from over 13 of Colombia’s 32 states, documented from March to June.

HRW has also found that armed groups impose movement restrictions with threats, harassment, or outright physical assaults against local residents, many of whom work out of street food stands, peddling fish or produce. In poor and remote areas, subsistence farmers and fisherfolk doubly carry the brunt of such unreasonably conceived measures meant to, authorities claim, slow the COVID-19 spread.

Checkpoints at provincial borders also hamper the work of humanitarian volunteers. They have provided relief aid, particularly to internally displaced civilians, who cannot now collect at community centers the periodic stipend the state has promised them. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities suffer overcrowded conditions, but the harsh social control has especially undermined their access to food.

Civil society organizations, including even workers from largely conservative church groups, have spoken out. Recently, Archbishop Dario Monsalve of Cali, the capital of the Valle del Cauca department in southwest Bogota, called attention to Duque’s inaction amid human rights violations and accused him of a “genocidal revenge to completely dismember society, social organizations and democracy in the fields and in the territories.”

Monsalve’s comment followed sweeping condemnations, especially from ethnic minorities that slammed the government’s hardening stance against such mechanisms as the war crimes tribunal and the special investigation unit for the search of disappeared persons, both of which the 2016 peace deal provides for. Another such mechanism guarantees a land restitution process, but has yet to lead to substantial headway in redressing the grievances of vast swaths of the population driven off their lands.

Crackdown on Filipino farmers and activists flares up

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s COVID-19 handling is marked by not so much indifference as hostility to the country’s most vulnerable. The human rights situation has taken a nosedive since the onset of the pandemic. Meanwhile, COVID-19 curve is far from flattening despite officials’ claims to the contrary. Both are causes for concern and ultimately strike oft-sidelined rural communities the hardest.

The warp-speed turn of events in the country could only offer a picture of democratic backsliding, which has been in the works since Duterte’s ascent to presidency in 2016. Notwithstanding the wanting boost in healthcare amid mounting case curves, official policies have been fast-tracked to the detriment of the general public, but much more so of farmers, land activists, and indigenous rights’ defenders.

The newly enacted Anti-Terrorism Law, in particular, raises fears of unbridled state power to brand the peasant sector and indigenous peoples – long the main targets of Duterte’s counterinsurgency campaign – as subversives or terrorists. State forces often crack down on them, with blatant brutality and various forms of legal persecution. In late April, for example, local police accosted and illegally detained six relief volunteers and a former lawmaker who were on their way to distributing food aid to urban-poor and peasant households in the town of Norzagaray in Bulacan province (just 54.5 kilometers north of Manila). Local human rights groups have also worried of extrajudicial killings by vigilantes during the pandemic (see Table 2).

At least one Filipino farmer or land defender is killed weekly. Within just 14 weeks of when regional lockdowns were imposed in the Philippines, PANAP’s monitoring also recorded three rural people detained or arrested every week. The pandemic has provided cover for land-related human rights violations to continue unchecked in such short order, while communities sink deeper in the throes of a yet-uncontrolled public health emergency.

“We can list a thousand and one reasons to protest the government’s negligence — mass testing targets remain lagging; tens of thousands of locally stranded individuals; millions lost their jobs and livelihood; millions have not received promised cash aid; the people have no means of public transport; cases of COVID-19 in the provinces rise as a result of the government’s Balik Probinsya program” — which encourages urban dwellers to flock to the countryside — “and more,” said Danilo Ramos, chairperson of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines (KMP), one of PANAP’s partners, at an independence day rally last July 12. This was days before Congress railroaded what was then the Anti-Terrorism Bill, though Duterte’s allies’ push for it had Ramos worrying over its ulterior agenda to silence people’s grievances.

Just in early July, KMP itself became one of the targets of a red-baiting Facebook post by the National Task Force To End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). In a statement, Ramos dismissed allegations of their links to terrorist groups as malicious and defamatory, but expected that such attacks would be more common, yet no less dangerous, following the Anti-Terrorism Law’s implementation.

The new law derives from what has so far been a heavily militarist position on tackling the pandemic. It is no surprise that another recent plan has been unveiled, to deploy police officers and local officials on the ground to round up civilians with COVID-19 symptoms — a strategy that, according to human rights groups, resembles Duterte’s drug war tactics of house-to-house inspection and wholesale raids.

Welcome developments are on the horizon, however, as with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (UN OHCHR) latest recommendation to conduct an on-the-ground, impartial, and independent probe into the regressing human rights situation in the Philippines, including into violations against land and environmental rights of rural sectors. “We believe that such an inquiry could contribute to the process of reversing the environment of impunity in the country, help exact accountability from those behind these atrocities,” PANAP said in a statement on June 27.

Pressure from the international community can help push back against the troubling policies under the Duterte administration and those that rights advocates believe are yet sure to come in his bid to maintain hold on power. His popularity is waning. Public frustration indeed awaits his fifth State of the Nation Address on July 27 — a distressful marker for what has been a presidential term eager to join the global resurgence of regimes in weakening democratic institutions and values, at the expense of millions of people.

The story is part of #NoLandNoLife Features of PAN Asia Pacific, which discuss recent developments, events, and trends on land and resource grabbing and related human rights issues in the region as well as the factors and forces that drive it.

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