The Philippines was the deadliest country in Southeast Asia for journalists in 2017, according to international watchdog Reporters Without Borders. This year, the country has earned another dubious distinction—as the second deadliest country in the world, and the most dangerous in Asia, for land and environmental defenders. That’s according to Global Witness, an international nongovernment organization focusing on human rights abuses and corruption.
In Global Witness’ tally, nine land and environmental defenders were killed in the Philippines in the first half of 2018 alone: Jose Unahan, Dominador Lucas, Lando Perdicos, Beverly Geronimo, Mark Ventura, Agudo Quillio, Ricardo Mayumi, Ronald Manlanat and Ricky Olado. Their deaths may not have sparked the same level of outrage and attention as prominent casualties of the Duterte administration’s drug war did, but they embody as much the violence and breakdown in law and order stalking the land.
Last year, 48 environmentalists were killed in the Philippines, an almost two-fold increase from the 28 killings recorded in 2016, according to Global Witness’ report. Fifty-six percent of the 2017 killings had suspected army involvement; 67 percent occurred in the resource-rich island of Mindanao; and 41 percent were related to agribusiness.
What could account for the alarming rise in the murders of Filipino environmentalists? Global Witness ticks off the reasons: “… a president who is brazenly anti-human rights, the militarization of communities, multiple armed groups and the failure of government bodies to provide protection for at-risk activists.”
“President Duterte’s aggressively anti-human-rights stance and a renewed military presence in resource-rich regions are fueling the violence,” noted the watchdog. “Almost half of the killings in the Philippines were linked to struggles against agribusiness.” And the situation may only get worse, it warned, with Mr. Duterte’s declaration to allocate 1.6 million hectares of land, mostly in Mindanao, for industrial plantations.
Since it started documenting these cases in 2002, Global Witness said 2017 was the deadliest year for environmentalists around the world, with a record 207 killed: “Countless people around the world are under threat for standing up to the might of large corporations, paramilitary groups, and even their own governments.”
Last December, eight lumad farmers were killed in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. The villagers had been protesting the extension of a 25-year lease on a coffee plantation reportedly owned by a former Marcos crony that took over parts of their ancestral land. Witnesses said the farmers were killed by soldiers who had branded them as communist sympathizers. But the government said the fatalities were merely caught in a crossfire between the military and the New People’s Army.
Of the nine killings documented this year so far, five victims were again from Mindanao, and at least three were from indigenous communities. Three of them were killed while their families were nearby. The killings were linked to either mining or land reform issues. One of them, Dominador Lucas, was an employee of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Rizal province; he was investigating several forestland disputes when he was gunned down last June while on his way to work.
It was the brutal murder in broad daylight of Fr. Mark Ventura in April that generated the most attention, after Mr. Duterte alleged that the priest was involved in extramarital affairs which, he suggested, could have led to his killing. Ventura was known for his antimining advocacy and for helping indigenous peoples in Cagayan, where copper and gold mining is a major industry.
As in the drug war, many of these killings have remained unsolved, or have floundered on legal technicalities. In the murder case of journalist and environmental crusader Gerry Ortega, for instance, the
alleged mastermind, former Palawan governor Joel Reyes, was released from jail last January.
It’s become as much a lethal environment for Filipino environmentalists as for the drug suspects and other targets of the assassinations and extrajudicial killings under the current drug war. At the grim rate things are going, the Philippines may yet make it to the top of Global Witness’ ranking this 2018.
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