While the Duterte administration is ‘delighted’ that nearly half of Filipinos, some 27.3 million, are unemployed, the majority of the population continue to suffer from an extraordinary reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lack of government support, poor economic policies and worsening corruption make life more difficult for millions of Filipinos who are already struggling to find employment and bring food on the table.
But for land and environmental defenders, they face a bigger problem: An imminent threat to their lives. They believe that the crisis could be manipulated to put them at even greater risk.
Just last month, Zara Alvarez, Randall “Randy” Echanis and Bae Melda Ansabo were brutally murdered by unidentified assailants.
Zara was a human rights and health worker. Randy was a land defender and peace consultant. Bae Melda was an indigenous leader.
All three suffered merciless deaths.
According to human rights group Karapatan, 185 defenders had been murdered under Duterte administration between 2016 and August 20, 2020.
THE CLIMATE CRISIS AND THREATS AGAINST DEFENDERS
Communities across the world are standing up to carbon-intensive industries and exposing unsustainable business practices that damage the environment and worsen our climate.
These are the people on the frontline of the climate crisis, trying to protect climate-critical areas and reverse these devastating practices.
Filipino human rights workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, and land and environment defenders across the country continue to defend their rights, environment and our global climate despite facing violence, threats and criminalization.
They protect forests against mining companies and illegal loggers. They secure and defend the rights to their ancestral lands. Their communities rely on their resilience, strength and determination to keep their communities and environments safe.
But Filipino defenders do not feel safe at all.
In 2019, the independent watchdog Global Witness named Philippines as the most dangerous country in Asia for land and environmental defenders. That year alone, 43 Filipino defenders were murdered.
According to Global Witness, 212 defenders were killed in 2019. Over half of reported killings occurred in just two countries: Colombia and the Philippines. On average, four defenders have been killed every week since December 2015 – the month the Paris Climate Agreement was signed.
Violence against land and environmental defenders in the Philippines is a systemic problem. Below are some of Global Witness’ key findings in their report entitled, “Defending Tomorrow: The Climate Crisis and Threats Against Land and Environment Defenders” published in July 2020:
• Global Witness documented 43 Filipino defenders killed in 2019. Six of them were state employees – the highest number of attacks globally against environmental workers employed to protect some of the most iconic landscapes in the Philippines.
• Almost half of the documented murders under Duterte’s government were linked to armed forces or paramilitary groups.
• Individual activists and environmental organisations have been accused of being rebels or communist sympathisers – a practice commonly known as ‘red-tagging’.
• Large numbers of defenders have also been killed on Negros, another heavily militarised region. On the sugar plantations of Negros, police operations and counter-insurgency programmes cracked down on small-scale farming communities, leading to the massacre of 14 farmers in March – many were land rights activists linked to the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW).
• Five months earlier in Negros Occidental, nine farmers, also members of the NFSW, were killed following a harvest.
• 117 Defenders living in Mindanao and Negros made up almost 90% of land and environmental activists murdered in the country in 2019.
• Mining has consistently been linked to attacks against defenders in the Philippines.
• As commercial interests, often backed by the Philippines military, are put before the rights of indigenous communities, the Manobo now face a new threat – a US$800 million China-backed hydropower dam.
• Last year, 85% of reported attacks against land and environmental defenders opposed to agribusiness projects occurred in Asia – making it by far the region with the highest number of killings. Of these, 90% were in the Philippines.
Global Witness offer the following recommendations:
• (President Rodrigo) Duterte’s government must comply with international law and take action to prevent abuses of land rights and of the environment, protect defenders at risk, and hold the perpetrators of intimidation and violence to account.
• Those doing business in the Philippines must also recognise their role in facilitating violence – whether through proactive strategies, turning a blind eye, or simply negligence – and clean up their acts or be held accountable.
• Consumers can play a part too – by demanding that the fruit (food) they buy or the hotel they stay in isn’t associated with bloodshed, and by demanding that their government take a stand to enable those defending their land and our environment to do so without fearing for their lives.
To read the Global Witness’ full report and complete list of recommendations, go to http://www.globalwitness.org.
WHO WILL DEFEND THE DEFENDERS?
Global Witness defines land and environmental defenders as “people who take a stand and peaceful action against the unjust, discriminatory, corrupt or damaging exploitation of natural resources or the environment.”
It is the government’s duty, under international law, to guarantee that defenders’ human rights are protected and that they can carry out their activism safely and without fear of retaliation and violence.
But in the face of state-sponsored attacks and violence, we, the people, should unite and work collectively to safeguard human rights and freedom of speech.
As leaders and members of global communities, we have an obligation to raise awareness, urge governments to uphold defenders’ rights, and publicly condemn any threats against them and their communities. We should continue to act in support of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including the right to a safe climate.