BY LEON DULCE
This is a condensed version of an intervention delivered during the global panel discussion ‘Defending Tomorrow: The climate crisis and threats against land and environmental defenders’ organized by international watchdog Global Witness last August 13, 2020.
April 6, 2020. There were 26 indigenous Tuwali people standing in the middle of a mining access road in Nueva Vizcaya province—socially distanced two meters apart, face masks on—the COVID-19 pandemic were already in the Philippines then.
The barricaders from the Village of Didipio were the only ones standing in the way of some 100 Philippine National Police personnel in full riot gear, intent to clear the way for the passage of three refueling tankers on their way to the copper-gold mine of Oceanagold, an Australian-Canadian mining corporation.
The United People of Didipio had nothing but their bodies, their knowledge of their rights, and a handy copy of the restraining order against Oceanagold’s mining operations that has been repeatedly upheld by the courts. But the police came with their own document permitting the refueling operations issued by the Office of the President. A document that the local indigenous communities and village officials were not given sufficient opportunity to challenge. A document treated by the police as a badge to violently disperse the barricaders.
And so they were violently dispersed. All suffered varying degrees of injuries, and 16 of them were later charged with baseless harassment lawsuits. In a recent alarming escalation of the situation, elements of the Philippine Military have now suddenly encamped in their village, going house to house with the claim that the community is harboring recruiters of New People’s Army rebels.
A war against people and planet
This is how we environmental defenders live in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte. Each murdered Filipino defender we documented from Duterte’s ascension to power in 2016 up to the end of 2019 represents 124 more who suffer threats and intimidation, ‘terror tagging’ and criminalization, illegal arrests, strategic lawsuits against public participation, and militarization and its consequent forced displacement.
In 2019, we have the distinction of being the country with the most number of mining-related killings, and of being the hotspot of 80 percent of all agribusiness-related cases in Asia. It is also a sign of impunity that we are the country with the most state employees working to defend the environment killed, on one hand, and yet almost half of the documented murders are linked to the state’s armed forces and their force multiplier paramilitary groups, on the other.
In a report we submitted to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights early this year, we exposed how the Duterte administration’s counter insurgency program itself is inextricably linked to the extractive and destructive economic policies of the regime—and hence we are easy targets of ‘terror-tagging’ labelling us as anti-development, anti-government ‘enemies of the state.’
We noted how the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Development Support and Security Plan (DSSP) Kapayapaan (Peace) 2017-2022 stated that the primary task of the AFP with regard to its role in economic development “is to provide security to vital installations and infrastructure, critical investments, and development projects.”
Clearly, this is a war waged against people and planet.
Shock and awe amid the pandemic
This human rights situation is expected to worsen in 2020 as the Duterte regime resorts to worse authoritarian restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Treating the pandemic as a ‘peace and order’ problem rather than a public health crisis, Mr. Duterte has mobilized more police and soldiers than health workers in response to COVID-19. Ever since Duterte declared the longest standing COVID-19 lockdown in the world back in March 15, 2020 up to the present, we have monitored at least 555 environmental defenders who have suffered human rights abuses.
Mr. Duterte has also taken opportunity of the crisis situation to railroad the passage of the Antiterrorism Law, a policy deemed by legal luminaries as even worse than the declaration of Martial Law in denying freedoms and protections from citizens.
Using the same shock and awe tactics, his alter-ego in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, former general Roy Cimatu, has also declared they will aggressively pursue large-scale mining and dredging as COVID-19 economic recovery strategies, and subsequently reversing the mining closure and suspension orders imposed by his predecessor, the late former secretary Regina Lopez.
A global ecological frontline
It is in this context that the work of Filipino environmental defenders have never been as critical as ever before. We operate in one of the world’s only 18 mega biodiversity countries that is also fifth most mineralized and fourth most climate-vulnerable globally.
The Philippines is thus a global frontline of the multiple existential crises we face: a zoonotic pandemic, the sixth mass extinction event, the runaway climate emergency, and a bloody climate of impunity.
We thus enjoin the international community to stand in solidarity with Filipino environmental defenders. Help us hold the line against the relentless attacks by the Duterte regime and Big Business against the Filipino people and the Philippine environment.
A crucial avenue is the upcoming 45th General Session of the UN Human Rights Council. Help us encourage all member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council to sponsor a resolution calling for an international investigation into the Philippines. Our very rights, our very lives, and our common future and of generations to come, are at stake.
Mabuhay ang mga tanggol-kalikasan ng buong mundo.
Long live the environmental defenders of the world.