Palawan top cop linked to assault on environmental officer in the Philippines

Police on the Philippine island of Palawan reportedly assaulted and arrested government environmental officials trying to serve a vacate notice to settlers occupying a mangrove area.

Mangrove Puerto Princesa, Palawan
A mangrove forest at low tide in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Image: Dan Lundberg, CC BY-SA 2.0

Lawyers have condemned police officers on the Philippine island of Palawan for holding at gunpoint and arresting environmental law enforcers who visited a coastal village on June 10 to serve a vacate notice to informal settlers occupying a key mangrove area.

Officers from the provincial capital Puerto Princesa, led by their chief, Marion Balonglong, reportedly accosted a team of environmental law enforcers from the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO), the city government’s anti-squatting office, and village peace officers in the town of Matahimik-Bucana in Puerto Princesa, local news outlet Palawan News reported.

CENRO officials, appointed by the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), are responsible for the implementation of the department’s environmental policies and programs at the community level.

The group, led by CENRO team leader Roldan Alvarez, was in the area to issue notices to vacate to informal settlers and after receiving reports of mangroves being cut down illegally.

The mangrove forest in the province spans 63,532 hectares (157,000 acres), or 4.4 per cent of Palawan’s total area of 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres), government data show. The entire province has been declared a mangrove swamp forest reserve through a presidential proclamation in 1981, and mangrove cutting is prohibited under the country’s forestry code.

Incidents of this nature can weaken environmental enforcement efforts.

Grizelda Mayo-Anda, executive director, Environmental Legal Assistance Center

Alvarez’s group was unable to continue their mission as they were stopped by members of the city’s police forces. According to village chair Ryan Abueme, as relayed to him by his village peace officers, Alvarez’s team showed a mission order and other documents proving the legitimacy of the operation. Instead, police questioned Alvarez’s team about certain suspects in a reported robbery incident in the area.

“They were ordered to lay on the ground with a gun pointed at them,” Abueme told Palawan News.

One of the village peace officers, Steve Ferrer, who escorted the team, said Balonglong kicked and slapped Alvarez. “They [police] directed us to hop on a patrol car that brought us to the area he [Balonglong] fenced off,” Ferrer in an interview with local radio station Radyo Bandera“Back then, I thought they’re going to summarily execute us as there were no other people around except us.”

The tension dissipated when local media arrived at the scene, reports said.

The group was arrested without a warrant and was detained until 4 p.m. the same day. Both the city police and Puerto Princesa’s CENRO office declined to comment on the incident when Mongabay reached out.

The attack on Palawan’s environmental officers by police forces is the first case of its kind in the province, alarming the conservation community that is already the target of attacks by illegal loggers.

“Incidents of this nature can weaken environmental enforcement efforts,” Grizelda Mayo-Anda, a lawyer and executive director of the Palawan-based nonprofit Environmental Legal Assistance Center, told Mongabay.

“This is yet another blow to our environmental enforcement,” said Elizabeth Maclang, superintendent of Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

Environmental defenders in Palawan have in recent years faced a violent backlash in their efforts to tackle illegal logging. Last year, suspected illegal loggers hacked to death forest ranger Bienvinido “Toto” Veguilla Jr.; in 2017, village official Ruben Arzaga was shot and killed while on a patrol.

On May 21 this year, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park ranger Guillermo Celino survived an attack by alleged illegal loggers Fernando Mameng Jr. and his father, Fernando Mameng Sr., who were armed with a paltic (homemade shotgun). Celino sustained a gunshot wound in his leg and is recuperating. The elder Mameng is in police custody, while his son has gone into hiding.

“Mameng Jr. is at large and he’s charged for frustrated murder,” Maclang said. “The case has already been filed with the city police but the issuance of a warrant of arrest for him takes time. Until now, he’s a threat not only to our park rangers involved in that shooting incident but also to their respective families. We appeal to the authorities to expedite the release of the warrant and also file cases against owners of unregistered firearms here.”

Mayo-Anda called for “an impartial and transparent investigation” into the Balolong incident, which she said should be supported by the relevant government agencies. “[It] is important to ensure just and effective actions on this issue,” she said. “Accountability actions must be considered to obviate a repetition of this incident in the future.”

Robert Chan, a lawyer and executive director of the Palawan NGO Network Inc., called on his colleagues in environmental advocacy to condemn the police’s actions against environmental enforcers.

“Impunity happens by two things: first, when those with power wield it wantonly, and second, when those affected by that power remain silent,” he said. “If we, as environmental advocates, keep silent and allow them [police] to wield power wantonly, then we are promoting a system of impunity that will degrade our environment at the mercy of self-interests.”

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