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Killings of environmental defenders on the rise in the Philippines

Image courtesy of Global Witness

  • Forty-six land and environmental defenders have been recorded killed in the Philippines so far this year, according to a tally by Kalikasan PNE, a local green NGO.
  • The toll surpasses the 28 deaths that the group recorded in 2018, and the 30 recorded by eco-watchdog Global Witness, which named the Philippines the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders last year.
  • Agriworkers and farmers account for the majority of the deaths this year with 29, or 63%, followed by government officials and forest rangers with16 deaths, or 35%.
  • Most of the deaths are concentrated in the islands of Negros and Mindanao, where activists have been swept up in security operations unleashed in response to communist and Islamist insurgencies, respectively.

MANILA — Named the most dangerous country in the world for land and environmental defenders, the Philippines has become an even deadlier place for activists in 2019, with 46 recorded deaths so far this year, according to the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), a local NGO.

The same organization recorded 28 killings of land and environmental defenders in 2018. Global Witness, an environmental watchdog, tallied 30 such killings in the Philippines that year and designated the country the most dangerous in the world for defenders based on sheer number of deaths.

The situation has pushed green groups to call for the immediate passage of the Human Rights Defenders Bill, which will grant defenders, including those fighting for their land and environment, freedom from intimidation and reprisals, establish a sanctuary for victims and their families, and be given effective remedy and reparation.

The death toll has only escalated this year. In a report released to Mongabay by the Kalikasan PNE, which keeps an annual tally of environmental defenders’ deaths, 63% comprise agribusiness workers and farmers, followed by government officials and forest rangers (35%), indigenous peoples (20%), and lawyers and church workers (4%).

Agribusiness, land grabs and plantations accounted for 70% of the killings, with 32 cases in 2019, 19 of them occurring on the island of Negros. This comes after President Rodrigo Duterte enforced an executive order placing the island under a “state of emergency from lawless violence” and where he sent seven infantry battalions and around 300 police personnel in July, with the stated aim of fighting a long-running communist insurgency.

The security crackdown has given government agencies and forces a pretext to “vilify, harass, and ultimately ‘neutralize’ activists and defenders they have labeled as enemies of the state,” the Kalikasan report says.

In other areas in the Visayas region that makes up the central Philippines, three deaths were recorded on the islands of Leyte and Samar, while the main island of Luzon saw five cases.

In Mindanao, a “restive hotspot” of killings, according to Kalikasan, 19 deaths were recorded, including 10 in the province of Bukidnon, the site of 120,000 farms spanning 322,800 hectares (about 800,000 acres) of land. Mindanao has since 2017 been under martial law to counter an Islamist insurgency and where, again, land and environmental activists have been increasingly targeted by security operations.

Open season as government workers targeted

Government workers and forest rangers account for one of the biggest additions in this year’s killings, with 16 recorded deaths. The most widely reported was the death of forest ranger Bienvinido Veguilla Jr., a forest ranger hacked to death in Palawan province by alleged illegal loggers in July. The most recent victim was Joash Peregrino, a special investigator with the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) in the city of Bislig in Mindanao, who was gunned down on Nov. 23.

The deaths come at a time when the environment department is implementing a massive crackdown on illegal logging and timber poaching activities. Peregrino’s killing was the fourth of an environmental enforcer in the past two months, according to the environment department.

The increasing attack on environment department officials, workers and forest rangers has pushed the environment secretary, Roy Cimatu, to renew calls for the creation of an enforcement bureau within his department that will train and arm enforcers, among other changes.

“Though our intensified actions against violators of environmental laws are taking a toll on our people, we will not relent,” Cimatu said in a statement. “Counting the number of people killed in the line of duty under my watch as [secretary] is disturbing if not outright enraging. I urge Congress to support us in our call for the creation of an Enforcement Bureau that will give the [department] stronger enforcement powers.”

The threat to environmental enforcers has also pushed the department’s regional office in Palawan to arm its officials and rangers, who were given gun handling and basic self-defense training starting Dec. 3.

Losing defenders, losing ecosystems

The increasing rising toll of defenders shows that forests, seascapes and land areas in the Philippines continue to be threatened in step with the expansion of agribusiness and extractive projects, the Kalikasan PNE report says.

Defenders protected almost 1.2 million ha (3 million acres) across the Philippines, providing invaluable services in the way of “carbon sequestration, water provision, non-timber forest product revenue, and soil conservation savings,” the report says. It adds that with the estimated 66.5 billion pesos ($1.3 billion) in productivity and savings from climate-resilient practices in agriculture, the Philippines loses 212.8 billion pesos in ecosystem services every year as attacks on environmental defenders persist.

Kalikasan PNE has called for an investigation into the “link” between big projects and the country’s counterinsurgency programs on the death toll. “Human rights diligence should also be required in the application process of extractive and destructive businesses,” the report says.

“The persisting attack on defenders just goes to show that there is little understanding and appreciation of what these defenders are doing,” Leon Dulce of Kalikasan PNE tells Mongabay. “We really need to let people know the noble work of these defenders in the Philippines … Hopefully, this will improve their safety.”

Banner image of a logging site in El Nido, Palawan. Image courtesy of Global Witness.

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