by Yali Banton Heath

A figure which always captures my attention at the end of each year is the number of environment and land defender murders that have taken place over those past dozen months.

2016 was bloody. 200 people lost their lives that year while protecting their land and natural resources. The Guardian and Global Witness have estimated that last year, in 2017, there were 185 such deaths. Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, these figures are always underestimations, as in reality far more deaths occur over land and environmental struggles than get reported.

As the country with the third highest environmental defender death toll globally (beneath Brazil and Colombia), the Philippines continues to have the highest environmental activist death toll for any Asian country. The archipelago of over 7,000 islands is seen to be one of South East Asia’s booming economies. But what will 2018 bring with regard to the country’s piss poor human rights and all too frequent environmental killings?

the frequency of deaths related to land struggles in 2017 worked out at more than one murder per week.

Global Witness reported that in 2016, the frequency of land and environmental defenders killed in the Philippines was a staggering one murder every 12 days, as a total of 28 people were assassinated that year.

A more recent report compiled by PAN Asia Pacific recorded that the frequency of deaths related to land struggles in 2017 worked out at more than one murder per week. This statistic is sickening, and not something that should be overlooked. The report shows that the Philippines was the country with the highest number of killings related to land conflicts and struggles in 2017; 51 cases, resulting in 61 deaths.

Federico ‘Pande’ Plaza was a community figure who was gunned down on May 3rd last year in Compostela Valley Province, by gunmen believed to be soldiers belonging to a local army unit. The previous month, land defender Dailo Madal was also shot by assailants. In an interview with Davao Today, a Karapatan spokesperson attributed both of these killings to the Philippines Armed Forces, as they target ‘farmer-leaders’ and those engaged in ‘active peasant struggles’ over their land.

( Organic farming in the Philippines CC BY 2.0 DFAT Australia )

Indeed, most violations against environmental defenders in the Philippines (i.e. killings, arrests, threats etc.) are committed by the state or military, though large numbers of perpetrators do remain unidentified.

Captain Ruben Arzaga, as another example, was shot in the head by an unidentified gunman while approaching an illegal logging site in the El Nido region of Palawan island, Philippines, on September 14th last year. The 49 year old was a village chief, chairperson of the El Nido Law Enforcement Council and a member of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area Management board.

Arzaga’s co-worker, leader of the Palawan NGO Network, and Environmental Lawyer Bobby Chan, expressed how these continued killings are casting doubt on whether he, as well as other environmental activists, should be continuing their endeavours. It is becoming ever more apparent that reality is getting deadlier by the day. About a week after Arzaga’s death, he said:  “Every time we lose someone we get weaker. We get more afraid and we lose some of the idealism that we initially had when we came together”.

If 2017 is anything to go by, 2018 doesn’t look too promising. It seems citizens are becoming understandably disheartened, and the government has no intention of acknowledging their suffering.

most violations against environmental defenders in the Philippines (i.e. killings, arrests, threats etc.) are committed by the state or military, though large numbers of perpetrators do remain unidentified.

The Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte is relentlessly called out by the media and human rights organisations alike, for his archaic views on human rights. His stance is breeding a dangerous climate of military impunity across the country. Not only has the president terminated peace-talks with other armed political groups, but he has also declared a crackdown on any rights advocacy groups in the country.

Political analyst Tony Lavina has therefore warned that 2018 will be a ‘dangerous’ year for the Philippines, with regard to Duterte’s dictatorship-like rule. His fellow political analyst, Richard Heydarian, appears to agree.

Duterte is said to portray defenders as being obstacles to “change”. This ‘change’ towards increased economic activity is pushing a need for large new infrastructure projects to be constructed over the coming years.

The government’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ agenda is said to be one of the most ambitious projects in Philippines history. 5.4% of the country’s GDP has now been allocated for infrastructure budgets, and a total of $38billion is set to spent on infrastructure alone by 2022. These projects will undoubtedly compromise land. Land conflicts will follow, and if Duterte continues to discount the human rights of Filipino individuals, these projects will result in the deaths of those who take it into their own hands to protect their land. In fact, PAN Asia Pacific’s report highlighted that in many countries, infrastructure developments are the root cause of most environmental killings.

( Datu Victor Danyan via LRC-KSK )

Even at the very tail-end of 2017, such deaths continued in the Philippines. In December, Duterte and his government voted to extend martial law in Mindanao, the largest of the Philippines islands, which will ultimately allow soldiers to continue harassing farmers and activists in land and environmental disputes. The murders of farmer Datu Victor Danyan and his son, as well as farmer Elioterio Moises and land rights activist Elisa Badayos have all been reported in the news since little over a month ago.

Environmental killings are extremely shocking, upsetting, and disheartening events. As journalists, campaigners, and fellow human beings we must make sure we are not quiet about these murders. Not only are they lives which have been taken away unjustly, but they are lives which were put on the line for the benefit of others, and for the benefit of our planet.

Duterte and his government need to realise that the names of those murdered are recognised worldwide, and their deaths shall not be taken lightly or ignored. Human rights must be upheld, and impunity met with sanction as the Philippines continues on its path of economic development.

Featured image: ILPS


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