THE Philippines was ranked the deadliest place in Asia for land and environmental defenders for the 10th consecutive year in 2022, according to a non-profit global watchdog group.
Based on a report published by Global Witness on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, 11 of the 16 documented killings in Asia during this period took place in the Philippines, with three in Indonesia and two in India.
These statistics have resonated within the environmental protection community, particularly among local land and environmental warriors, highlighting the challenging circumstances encountered by those devoted to protecting the nation’s natural resources and environment.
Lawyer Rose-Liza Eisma-Osorio, vice president of Oceana Philippines, an ocean perseveration group, said the report exposed the grim reality of the current state of green defenders in the county.
“The attacks and threats are still happening... Weaponizing the Anti-Terrorism Law to attack the environmental defenders in the country and it seems like the attacks are continuing and seems like the government seems to have failed to address this unfortunately,” she told SunStar Cebu on Thursday, Sept. 14.
Killed last year were Richard Mendoza, Joseph Jimenez, Ericson Acosta, Silvestre Fortades Jr., Rose Marie Galias, Eugene Lastrella, as well as the so-called “New Bataan 5” who perished in Barangay Andap, New Bataan, Davao de Oro during what the military described as an encounter with the New People’s Army on Feb. 24, 2022. The victims were community health worker Elgyn Balonga, drivers Tirso Añar and Robert Aragon, volunteer Lumad teacher Gelejurain Ngujo II and Cebuano teacher Chad Booc.
Fifth in the world
On a global scale, the Philippines ranked fifth, trailing behind Colombia with 60 cases, Brazil with 34, Mexico with 31, and Honduras with 14.
Although lower in number compared to those reported in the Amazon region, the situation in the Philippines remains conspicuous, as it has consistently occupied the top position in the Asian rankings over the last decade.
Global Witness noted that since 2012, a total of 281 defenders have lost their lives in the Philippines.
Global Witness, an environmental advocacy group, centers its mission on ensuring accountability for environmental harm caused by both private firms and the government. The group annually issues a report that presents statistics concerning the fatalities of land defenders worldwide.
In the past year, at least 177 environmental defenders lost their lives, contributing to a total of 1,910 deaths since 2012. This statistic translates to an environmentalist being killed approximately every other day.
“Although the overall figure is slightly lower last year than in 2021, when we recorded 200 killings, this does not mean that the situation has significantly improved,” the report said.
In 2021, the Philippines ranked as the fourth deadliest country in the world due to the 19 killings that were recorded, while it ranked third in 2020 for the 29 logged deaths.
Osorio said most of the victims were advocates who had been fighting against big development projects, particularly mining activities, as well as dam and reclamation projects.
“There are concerted efforts by these big-ticket projects to quell the voices of the opposition against these projects. It is meant to harass, meant to create a chilling effect on the people [who] continue to speak out against these projects,” she said.
Based on the Global Witness report, a third of the recorded killings involved those who spoke out against company operations linked to the mining sector, followed by those involved in the agribusiness industry.
The administration of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has made the revitalization of the mining sector a top priority, marking a significant move following the lifting of the ban on new mining operations enforced by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.
Last May, President Marcos called upon the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to bolster regional cooperation aimed at enhancing the mineral value chain throughout the region. This collaborative endeavor plays a pivotal role in facilitating the transition to renewable energy sources.
Kristine Joy Argallon, who serves as the legal and policy officer at the Philippine Earth Justice Center, characterized the report as deeply concerning, adding that it signifies not only a threat to those advocating against environmentally destructive projects but also to the general public.
She said the harassment and killings are not limited to lawyers and members of cause-oriented groups, adding that community members who speak out against extractive activities that destroy the environment also become victims.
“In the Philippines, it is very alarming. For a country like us with very vast resources. We are a mega diverse country. There are also a lot of adversities going on, especially on the ground with the community,” Argallon said.
She said many of the affected communities belong to marginalized sectors.
She pointed to the many fishing villages in the coastal areas that will be affected and displaced with the planned implementation of several reclamation projects in Cebu.
In a SunStar report last April 21, Save Cebu Movement, a coalition composed of fisherfolk, environmentalists and concerned groups, revealed that at least 10 reclamation projects will be taking place in Cebu.
The group estimated that these projects will affect 2,946.65 hectares of municipal waters.
Argallon said the report underscores the urgent need for comprehensive measures to protect and support those at the forefront of environmental preservation.
She called on the government to create stronger and stricter policies that would stop activities that destroy the environment, especially now that the world is in an era of climate crisis.
Osorio of Oceana Philippines urged the legislators both from the Senate and the House of Representatives to conduct an inquiry, taking into account the increasing attacks on land and environmental defenders, and hold those responsible for the killings accountable.
“The government should also try to recognize that this is still a free country after all. We should not be suppressed in voicing out opinions,” she said.
Osorio cited a recent report about the vanishing of Jonila Castro, 21, and Jhed Tamano, 22, who had participated in protests against reclamation projects in Manila Bay. They were alleged to have been abducted in Bataan last Sept. 2.
Security officials, though, dismissed their reported abduction as a hoax on Friday, Sept. 15.