Inday Espina-Varona, Manila
The Philippines has been ranked as Asia’s most dangerous country for environmentalist, with most victims being tribal people trying to protect their ancestral lands from mining companies and plantation owners.
Some 48 environmental campaigners in the Philippines were murdered in 2017, a 71 percent increase on the 28 killings in 2016, according to a report by international NGO, Global Witness.
That makes the Southeast Asian country the second most dangerous country in the world after Brazil with 57 murder cases.
“That is the most murders ever recorded in Asia in a single year,” said Global Witness, which tracks natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption, and human rights abuses around the world.
The report titled “At What Cost?” highlights cases in the Philippines and Mexico and the struggles of tribal people in these countries.
The release of the report came a day after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte claimed during his State of the Nation address that environmental protection has been his top priority since coming to office two years ago.
In his address, Duterte said he had ordered mining companies to repair the damage they have done to the environment as he warned of restricting mining operations and prohibiting open-pit mines.
“It [mining] is destroying my country. It is destroying the environment. It will destroy the world of tomorrow or our children,” said the president.
The non-government Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, however, said the president’s tough talk has not been matched by action.
Leon Dulce, the group’s national coordinator, said the number of commercial large-scale mines operating in the Philippines increased from 41 to 50 in 2017.
“The ongoing government review of closed or suspended mines is also expected to clear 24 of 28 projects,” said Dulce.
Philippine lawmakers last year refused to confirm Gina Lopez, Duterte’s first environment secretary, after she ordered a stop to more than two dozen mining operations after an audit.
Her successor, former armed forces chief Roy Cimatu, is seen as more friendly to investors. He initially gave the nod for large-scale open-pit mining operations but reversed his position in June when he lifted a ban on small-scale mines.
The Global Witness report also noted that, “for the first time, agribusiness surpassed mining as the most dangerous sector to oppose.”
It said 46 defenders who protested against palm oil, coffee, tropical fruit and sugar cane plantations, as well as cattle ranching, were murdered in 2017.
In the Philippines, almost half of the killings — 20 cases — were linked to struggles against big commercial agriculture firms.
The report noted that soldiers were suspects in 56 percent of the killings, 67 percent of which were in the southern Philippines.
Among the cases cited in the report was the murder of eight tribal men in the town of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato province in December. Soldiers reportedly attacked a village, killing tribal leader Datu Victor Danyan and seven of his relatives.
The military claimed the soldiers were going after communist guerrillas who fled to the village after attempting an ambush.
Local officials and church leaders disputed the claim, saying the tribe was known to be battling against a commercial coffee plantation in the area.
“The backdrop to this rising death toll is a president who is brazenly anti-human rights … and the failure of government bodies to provide protection for at-risk activists,” read the Global Witness report.
Dulce from Kalikasan warned that Duterte’s push to open tribal lands to industrial plantations would result in more violence in rural communities.
The president last year announced that he would allocate 1.6 million hectares of land, mostly in Mindanao, for industrial plantations.