Conservation news

Philippine officials not spared as attacks on environmental defenders persist

Primary forest on the island of Mindanao. Only a fraction of primary forest remains in the Philippines, and reforestation initiatives using native tree species, known as “rainforestation”, are underway across the Philippines in an effort to restore deforested lands to their former levels of biodiversity. These projects will benefit numerous forest species, like the Bleeding-heart doves, that are found nowhere else in the world. Photo © Bram Demeulemeester

  • Days after participating in a raid on illegal loggers, government environmental officer Ronaldo Corpuz was shot and killed by unknown assailants.
  • Corpuz is the fifth environmental worker killed this year, with all the deaths linked to illegal logging, in a country that eco watchdog Global Witness has named the deadliest for environmental defenders.
  • The killings come amid a largely successful government crackdown on illegal logging activities across the country.
  • Environment department secretary Roy Cimatu has condemned the latest killing and renewed calls for lawmakers to approve additional funding to support the department’s enforcement bureau, which aims to arm rangers, among other measures.

MANILA — The Philippine government has condemned the killing of an environmental official by unknown assailants last month — the fifth such incident this year, all of them related to illegal logging, in a country rated as the most dangerous for environmental defenders.

The perpetrators shot Ronaldo Corpuz, a community environment and natural resources officer with the environment department, on Oct. 25 in the province of Nueva Ecija, on the main island of Luzon. Corpuz died two days later from the multiple gunshot wounds, his death adding to the growing list of government workers slain due to illegal logging activities in the country.

The killings come as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) carries out a massive crackdown on illegal logging activities in the country. The crackdown has contributed to a significant decrease in logging hotspots, from 25 in 2016 to 15 by December 2018, according to DENR data.

“These senseless attacks against forest defenders must come to an end,” DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu said in a statement. He vowed to do everything in his powers “to protect DENR workers from fearless, cunning and greedy individuals who destroy the environment for their own selfish interests.”

Cimatu also renewed calls for the swift passage of a bill that would create an enforcement bureau under his department, aimed at arming rangers, among other measures. Currently, the task of enforcement falls under the special operations unit of the department; the DENR has asked Congress for a 1.2 billion peso ($24 million) additional budget for 2020 to strengthen its operations.

Days before the shooting incident, Corpuz had accompanied a Bantay Gubat (Forest Watch) team of rangers in a surveillance operation in Rizal, Nueva Ecija, which resulted in the arrest of three suspected illegal loggers and the seizure of yemane (Gmelina arborea) logs, an exotic timber species that’s protected by law in the Philippines. It’s not clear whether the attack against him was in reprisal for the arrests and seizure.

Corpuz is the second DENR worker gunned down in the province this year. In September, department informant Gaudencio Arana, 55, was shot and killed in the town of Pantabangan, weeks after his pivotal role in dismantling an alleged illegal chainsaw operation in his coverage area.

Forest ranger Bienvinido Veguilla Jr was killed last September in Palawan by alleged illegal loggers. Image from Veguilla Jr’s social media account

Earlier this year, two forest rangers were killed for their involvement in tackling illegal logging. On Feb. 21, Kandatu Bansil, 51, was shot dead by an unidentified gunman in the town of Lambayog in the province of Sultan Kudarat in Central Mindanao province, while Bienvinido Veguilla Jr., 52, was hacked to death in El Nido, Palawan, on Sept. 4.

Zenon Teofilo Granada, 51, a municipal environment and resources officer in the town of Albuera in the province of Leyte, was gunned down at his home on Oct. 21. Granada’s case differed from the others, however; his attackers left behind a written note warning government official against allowing quarrying, sand and gravel operations, and illegal logging in the province. Police have linked the death to the outlawed New People’s Army.

In a report published in July, the eco watchdog Global Witness called the Philippines “one of the deadliest countries in the world for people protecting their land or the environment.”

“In 2018, the Philippines was the worst-affected country in sheer numbers, with 30 deaths,” it said in the report “Enemies of the State?”

Nilo B. Tamoria, the DENR director for the region covering Sultan Kudarat, where Bansil’s killing occurred, said. “The work of a forester is not an easy task.” He added in a statement, “It is somehow associated with risk especially when they are assigned in the field and armed only with their desire of combatting illegal logging activities.”

Banner image of a primary forest on the island of Mindanao. Image by Bram Demeulemeester

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