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Deaths, arrests and protests as Philippines re-emerges from lockdown

Mountains destroyed by mining operations loom large from a mining company's base camp in Surigao del Sur, Mindanao. Mining is the biggest contributor to environmental defenders deaths in the Philippines in 2018. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento

  • Environmental defenders have come under sustained threats during the Philippines’ COVID-19 lockdown, which saw one activist shot and killed by unknown assailants and at least 10 environmental and land defenders arrested.
  • The most recent arrest is that of six farmers who opposed coal power projects and land-grabbing cases, while the fatality recorded during this period is an environmental and political activist who was gunned down in his home on April 30.
  • President Rodrigo Duterte’s two-month lockdown mobilized the country’s police forces to man checkpoints, where they arrested 120,000 people for violations of quarantine guidelines, human rights activists say.
  • Groups have denounced Duterte’s “militaristic approach” as an excuse to crack down on activists, members of the opposition, and land and environmental defenders amid the pandemic.

MANILA — The Philippines’ COVID-19 lockdown has exacerbated threats to activists fighting for their lands and their environment, with least 10 land defenders swept up in a series of arrests by security forces during the two-month lockdown period. Another defender, who was providing relief aid, was shot and killed by unknown assailants.

The country was under lockdown, known as an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), from March 17 to May 15 to contain the spread of COVID-19 infections, and is now transitioning into more relaxed quarantine measures in most areas.

During the ECQ period, government security forces manned checkpoints, apprehending and arresting around 120,000 for violating lockdown guidelines, which prohibit mass gatherings, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

The lockdown justified arrests and assaults on defenders in the guise of enforcing COVID-19 measures, Leon Dulce of the progressive environmental group Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) told Mongabay. “Both the infectious virus spread and the draconian government response pose challenges to environmental defenders,” he said. “Defenders need more protection from both the contagion and from repression.”

The lockdown saw the killing of an environmental and political activist in the Philippines, labeled the most dangerous country for land and environmental defenders by the international watchdog Global Witness in a report last year.

Jose Reynaldo “Jory” Porquia was gunned down in Iloilo City in the central Philippines by unidentified assailants on April 30. Porquia was one of the founding members of Bayan Muna, a left-leaning organization that currently holds congressional seats in the Philippines’ party-list system, in which underrepresented or single-issue parties receive a quota of congressional seats. He was shot nine times by four assailants in his rented home after providing relief assistance to urban poor communities.

Porquia was a well-known community organizer in the province and the driving force behind the Madia-as Ecological Movement, the biggest environmental organization in the Panay region. Porquia campaigned against large-scale mining, coal power plants, and mega-dam projects in Iloilo and nearby Capiz province. He also helped provide relief, livelihood and shelter assistance to victims of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

On May 2, Porquia’s daughter, Krisma Niña Porquia, and 41 other colleagues and friends were arrested while on their way to light candles and lay wreaths at the site of the murder. Among those arrested were Marco Sulayao, an activist priest of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente and a known opponent of large-scale mining in the islands of Panay and Guimaras; and lawyer Angelo Karlo Guillen of the National Union of People’s Lawyers-Panay, who led legal actions for the rehabilitation of Boracay Island. They have since been released on bail.

A few days into the lockdown, on March 19, indigenous people leader Gloria Tomalon was arrested in her home in the province of Surigao del Sur in Mindanao. The police identified Tomalon as a leader of the outlawed New People’s Army (NPA). She is the sister of Bayan Muna representative Eufemia Cullamat.

Tomalon is the chair of KATRIBUMMU, an indigenous peoples’ organization in Mindanao, which has been blocking the attempts of five large-scale mining companies to enter and operate in their ancestral lands and forests in the Andap Valley Complex. The area is the site of armed clashes that triggered the displacement of some 1,600 indigenous people in 2018.

The most recent wave of arrests includes that of six farmers in the province of Batangas, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Manila. The group was arrested in their homes on May 11 by a contingent of personnel that arrived in at least 17 government vehicles and two military trucks, according to reports from residents.

Peasant group leader head Virgilio Vidal was arrested with his brother, Marcelo Vidal; village councilors Leovino Julongbayan and Doroteo Bautista; July Julongbayan; and Roilan Tenorio. The arrests came a day after members of the group received cash aid from the government’s stimulus package. Julongbayan and Bautista were also involved in administering cash aid as village officials.

The group is part of the Samahan ng mga Magsasaka sa Coral ni Lopez (Samacolo), which has been fighting against land-grabbing cases since the 1980s and is opposed to the 900-megawatt coal-fired power plant in their municipality in Calaca.

Governance and policy experts as well as human rights groups earlier raised concerns over President Rodrigo Duterte’s “militaristic approach” when dealing with the pandemic.

“A militaristic approach is successful in a pandemic if the security forces are wearing PPE [personal protective equipment],” environmental lawyer and policy expert Antonio La Viña said in an online briefing last month. “With what we’ve seen in the Philippines, this is not the case. Our soldiers are not trained in biological warfare.”

Adding to the bottleneck is the national government’s centralized approach in providing relief goods and aid, La Viña said, which obliges groups to register first with the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

Without a permit, groups were arrested for violating lockdown protocols, which prohibit mass gatherings. This resulted in numerous arrests, including members of civil society organizations providing aid during the lockdown.

“The repression amidst the militaristic lockdown begs the question of the sincerity of the government in providing people with much-needed relief,” Lia Alonzo of the Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines (CECP) said in a statement. “It is a matter of concern that the COVID-19 pandemic related executive order and policies were being used to block humanitarian aid and silence rights workers.”

Global human rights groups have also denounced the arrests during the lockdown, which they say are being done as a means of implementing a “de facto martial law throughout the country,” according to Patricia Fox, a nun and spokeswoman from the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP).

The group launched protests against Duterte in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Washington D.C., Portland, San Francisco, New York, New Jersey, Honolulu, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Seoul, Hong Kong, Sydney and Manila.

“Filipino organizations who have been extending relief to those affected by the lockdown are being targeted, arrested and red-tagged by authorities,” said ICHRP chair Peter Murphy. “The utter disregard for life and attacks against civilians doing humanitarian work merits international condemnation.”

At least 51 political prisoners are currently incarcerated for defending their land and environment in the Philippines. Environmental groups and individuals have also been tagged as alleged fronts of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines through online means or through public statements. These groups include the Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC Phils), Climate Change Network for Community-based Initiatives (CCNCI), Citizens’ Disaster Response Center (CDRC), and the Philippine Network for Food Security Programs (PNFSP).

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Banner image of a mining company’s base camp in Surigao del Sur, Mindanao. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento

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