‘Criminalising’ dissent and martial law fuel attacks on Filipino environmental defenders

Attacks on environmental and land defenders in the Philippines have escalated under President Rodrigo Duterte, with at least 43 deaths in 2019, watchdog group Global Witness says in its latest report.

open pit mine in central Cebu, Philippines
An open pit mine in central Cebu, Philippines. Mining contributes only a tiny proportion to the Philippines’ GDP yet this industry sees the most number of murdered environmental defenders in the country. Image: Storm Crypt, CC BY-SA 2.0

Forty-three land and environmental defenders were killed in the Philippines in 2019, according to a new report from the watchdog group Global Witness. The tally marks out the Philippines as the most dangerous country in Asia and the second most dangerous in the world for those taking a stand against environmental destruction.

According to the group, the criminalisation of environmental and land defenders under the mantle of anti-terrorism policies imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte contributed to the attacks in the Philippines in 2019.

“[The Philippines] has been consistently named as one of the worst places in Asia for attacks against defenders,” the report says. “The relentless vilification of defenders by the government and widespread impunity for their attackers may well be driving the increase.”

The Philippines has been frequently listed among top countries considered dangerous for environmental and land defenders in Global Witness’s annual reports, and this year is no exception.

In 2016, the watchdog recorded 28 environmental and land defender deaths in the Philippines, a figure that rose to 48 deaths in 2017 — regarded as the bloodiest year on record in the Philippines and the highest number ever documented in an Asian country, Global Witness said.

In 2018, 30 deaths were recorded in the country, which put it in the top spot in the global rankings. Casualties for that year include nine sugarcane farmers, including four women and two children, who were shot by a group of unidentified gunmen after tilling a contested plot of land in the central Philippines.

The President has a twisted notion of what human rights is. This shrinking space … for lumads, activists, dissenters are a result of this radical misunderstanding.

Jaybee Garganera, national coordinator, Alyansa Tigil Mina

Since Duterte took office in June 2016, Global Witness has listed a total of 119 killings of environmental and land defenders; this is double the combined tallies of recorded killings under his predecessors. For 2019, Global Witness reported 43 deadly attacks on environmental and land defenders in the Philippines, placing it behind only Colombia with 64 cases.

The attacks have been linked to Duterte’s counterinsurgency policies, including the declaration of martial law in Mindanao to squash a group of ISIS sympathizers who briefly took over the city of Marawi in 2017. The campaign to retake the city lasted five months, until October 2017, but Duterte only lifted martial law in December 2019, after extending it three times in a span of two years.

“Martial law ended in Mindanao without abuses by the civilian sector, by the police, by the military,” the president said in his fifth state of the nation address on July 27. Human rights groups, however, say otherwise, accusing martial law of breaching the civil and political rights of more than 800,000 people, including environmental and land defenders.

Among those people were eight Indigenous peoples farmers fighting against a coffee plantation in Tamasco, South Cotabato. They were killed by the military in December 2017. Mindanao accounted for a third of those killed in 2018 and two-thirds of those killed in 2017, Global Witness said.

In 2019, Datu Kaylo Bontolan, a Talaingod-Manobo chieftain, was killed in Mindanao during a military aerial bombardment.

“Many indigenous communities living in highly militarised regions say they are often the target of attacks and are being silenced, in a process of criminalisation that appears to goes hand in hand with protecting private interests,” the Global Witness report says. “Disturbingly, almost half of the documented murders under Duterte’s government were linked to armed forces or paramilitary groups.”

The attacks on Indigenous groups in Mindanao, on the pretext that they were sympathisers of the outlawed New People’s Army, continued until 2019, when Duterte threatened to bomb lumad or Indigenous schools. (He eventually forced shut 100 of the schools this year.)

“2019 is the year he attacked lumad schools,” says Jaybee Garganera of Alyansa Tigil Mina, a coalition of anti-mining groups. “It’s the year that we saw aggressive mining corporations and plantations entering indigenous lands because the regulatory hindrances disappeared [because of martial law].”

Global Witness recorded 50 defenders deaths worldwide linked to the mining or extractives sector; the Philippines had the highest number of deaths linked to those sectors in 2019. Ninety percent of attacks linked to agribusiness and plantations in Asia happened in the Philippines, the report says.

The figures, Garganera says, reflect Duterte’s “very low understanding” of the roots of these conflicts. The strongman’s military approach to counterinsurgency, in general, is captured in his whole-of-the-nation approach, which Garganera says endangers Indigenous defenders resisting the entry of large-scale corporations and agribusiness ventures into their ancestral lands.

“Martial law in Mindanao created more tension and displaced Indigenous peoples in their own lands,” Garganera says. “Suddenly, they cannot go to their fields, they cannot go down the mountains because they will be required to show their IDs — 90 per cent of lumads do not have IDs. These limitations during martial law have been the root of resentment from many Indigenous people there.”

Outside Mindanao, attacks on defenders have been exacerbated by Duterte’s wide-scale war on drugs, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives, and a culture of impunity that paints activists and dissenters as sympathisers of the NPA. On Negros Island, a series of counterinsurgency campaigns beginning in 2017 has led to the deaths and arrests of farmers, peasant group leaders, activists and civilians.

“In the Philippines, individual activists and environmental organisations have been accused of being rebels or communist sympathisers — a practice commonly known as ‘red-tagging,’” the report says. “Inflammatory calls by Duterte’s government to kill activists deemed to be ‘obstructing justice’, as well as his direct threats to bomb indigenous schools puts defenders at much greater risk of attacks.”

Last year, Global Witness released a country-specific report detailing the role of businesses and development banks, as well as Duterte’s “aggressive rhetoric” in fueling attacks against environmental and land defenders in the Philippines. “The President’s aggressive rhetoric against defenders, coupled with the climate of violence and impunity fostered by his drugs war, has only made things worse,” said Ben Leather from Global Witness.

Duterte’s office, however, has dismissed this, saying last year that it considers Global Witness “a purveyor of falsity and a subservient machinery for political propaganda.” “There is nothing new to its sham assertion which mimics the recurring chants of the usual derogators of PRRD (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte),” Salvador Panelo, a spokesman for the presidential palace, said in a briefing last September.

Local human rights and environmental groups say these attacks will continue throughout Duterte’s remaining years in office as he enforces a militaristic approach in his administration’s COVID-19 pandemic response and after signing into law the contentious Anti-Terrorism Law earlier this month. Last December, Duterte also overturned mining permits previously suspended for environmental violations, laying the groundwork for an even fiercer battle for land and the environment.

“The President has a twisted notion of what human rights is,” Garganera says. “This shrinking space … for lumads, activists, dissenters are a result of this radical misunderstanding. We haven’t had any chief executive who had this twisted understanding of human rights. It’s the first time that we experienced this hostility from the executive department and the military.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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