Martyrs for the land
Another environmental defender has been murdered.
Forest ranger Bienvinido Veguilla Jr., 44, was hacked to death in El Nido, Palawan, on Sept. 4 while he was trying to arrest suspected illegal loggers.
Veguilla is the country’s latest casualty in the violence being committed against those who protect their land and the environment.
His killing further worsens the Philippines’ reputation as the deadliest country for environmental defenders in 2018, according to international monitor Global Witness. Thirty of them were killed last year alone.
Veguilla and five other rangers of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) were conducting a forest patrol in an area covered by the National Greening Program when they heard the sound of a chainsaw nearby.
They followed the sound and discovered men slicing a felled tree. The men ran away, but later, armed with bolos, cornered the DENR team on their way back to the office, leading to Veguilla’s death.
This was not the first time an environmental defender has been attacked or murdered in Palawan — the country’s so-called last frontier, with 692,288 hectares of forest cover hosting flora and fauna of great diversity.
In September 2017, Ruben Arzaga, a member of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area board, was shot and killed while he was arresting suspected illegal loggers.
In August that same year, government forester Lito Eyala was shot and severely injured by a suspected timber poacher while patrolling the mountains in Puerto Princesa City.
These attacks had prompted Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a former Armed Forces chief of staff, to have DENR personnel trained in handling shotguns. Cimatu reasoned then that he would “never allow” another crime to be committed against any DENR personnel, and asked lawmakers to pass a law establishing an enforcement bureau to boost the implementation of environmental laws.0
The standard operating procedure to have police or army personnel accompany forest rangers on patrol was not adequate, he said, since uniformed personnel were not available all the time.
“Hindi naman kami pwede mag-hire ng security guard to help us in the patroling. In the end, sana mayroon na tayong batas na makatulong sa atin,” Cimatu added.
The DENR chief had been pushing for arming personnel since Arzaga’s death in 2017—a move opposed by Kalikasan (People’s Network for the Environment), which has warned that armed forest guards can be transformed into paramilitary groups that may end up harassing and repressing local communities.
Global Witness’ report on the Philippines having become the most murderous country for environmentalists also made a similar warning in its report, saying that these crimes “are aided by the people and institutions meant to prevent them.”
It is not only environmental workers that are getting killed; Global Witness said indigenous people “are disproportionately affected by the scramble for land and natural resources, and the violence that comes with it.” It cited the October 2018 massacre in Sagay City, Negros Occidental, of nine sugarcane farmers occupying a plot of disputed land.
The situation has not improved under President Duterte, with 48 deaths—the highest number Global Witness has recorded in an Asian country—in 2017 alone, a year after the former Davao City mayor became president. Also in 2017, Mr. Duterte announced plans to allocate 1.6 million hectares of land to industrial plantations, most of them in Mindanao. “This region,” Global Witness noted, referring to Mindanao, “has also become a hot spot for murders of land and environmental defenders, accounting for 67 percent of the total killed in the Philippines in 2017 and a third in 2018.”
In an interview with global nonprofit media company Public Radio International, environmental activist Jaybee Garganera said people like him face daunting challenges in the Philippines, where it “is easy for local communities to be tagged as bandits or rebels or communist insurgents.” The Duterte administration had accused the massacred Negros farmers, for example, as being backed by the communist armed group New People’s Army.
Indeed, as stark and telling as the unabated killings of land and environmental defenders is the lack of meaningful investigations by the government into those behind these crimes. In a time of normalized, everyday bloodbath, the fight has become two-fold: protecting not only the environment, but also those who risk their lives defending what’s left of it.
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