Protect our own Gretas
If Greta Thunberg were Filipino, a 16-year-old lumad or member of an indigenous community, she would long have fallen under suspicion and surveilled by the military, her village school shuttered, and probably even be thrown into prison, if not gunned down for her activism.
After all, the Philippines has gained the dubious reputation of being “the most dangerous” country in the world for environmental and land rights activists, according to international watchdog Global Witness. At least 164 environmentalists were killed last year, placing the Philippines at the top of the heap of dangerous places to defend the environment, followed by Colombia (24), India (23) and Guatemala (16).
And yet it is Greta, who is Swedish, who has come to embody environmentalism for the world today. Most recently, she became the central force and face for the movement to defend the planet when she spoke during Monday’s UN Climate Action Summit. In a speech described as fiery and ferocious, Greta chastised the world’s leaders thus: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
Thunberg was catapulted into world celebrity-hood last year when she launched the “Fridays for Future” movement, also known as the “School Strike for Climate,” first in her school and then for two weeks outside the Swedish Parliament. Her demand: that the government cut emissions by 15 percent each year.
But she is not alone. Even while the world’s government representatives met at the UN, they were being monitored and assessed by young people from around the world who had gathered for the first UN Youth Climate Summit.
The young people, though, should have taken part in the main summit, for after all, what was being discussed and negotiated during the deliberations were not just “carbon taxes” or goals for cutting emissions, but the very future that will determine whether the young and the yet-to-be-born will inherit a healthy planet.
Before the summit last Monday, an estimated 4 million people in 161 countries, including the Philippines, took to the streets in what has been described as “the largest climate change protest in history.”
All these should have been enough to prod the powerful adults gathered at the UN to do more and to act faster to curb the more damaging effects and the major causes of climate change. And yet, as the media observed: “The largest greenhouse gas emitters in world—China, the United States and India—offered either nothing or very little about their commitments to curb emissions at the (Climate Action) Summit, a gathering explicitly convened to push countries to do more to fight climate change.”
Meanwhile, back in our islands, identified as the country that bears the worst effects of climate change (intensified typhoons, drought, erosion, deforestation, loss of biodiversity), people continue to die in defense of the environment. Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, in exile since her work as a UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples has made her a target of the Duterte administration, has said that many of the martyrs for the environment were indigenous peoples who were defending their rights to their ancestral homes.
“This is a phenomenon seen around the world,” she added. “Land and environmental defenders, a significant number of whom are indigenous peoples, are declared terrorists, thugs or criminals for defending their rights. This violence is a human rights crisis, but is also a threat to everyone who depends on a stable climate.”
Testimonies from environmental warriors speak of the reach and the level of threat from lackeys of the worst environmental violators, including military and government personnel. One antimining activist speaks of a strange call he received from someone who knew his personal details, including his home address. “Once they have vilified you (on social media and even traditional media),” says another activist, “they start sending their death squads. They start sending in the infantry battalions.”
And yet, aside from pro forma denunciations and investigation, little has been done to protect our own Greta Thunbergs, whatever their age. They are indeed martyrs, not just because they sacrifice their lives for the cause of preserving and protecting the environment, but also because they do so in obscurity if not anonymity, unrewarded and even vilified.
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