AN international environmental and human-rights watchdog on Monday said the year 2017 is the deadliest year on record for land and environmental defenders, including the Philippines, which tops Asia with the highest number of recorded deaths.
The report released by Global Witness entitled “At What Cost?” shows that agribusiness has overtaken mining as the industry most associated with these attacks.
Global Witness campaigns to end environmental and human-rights abuses driven by the exploitation of natural resources and corruption in the global political and economic system, its web site said.
Among its key findings, Global Witness said annual figures show at least 207 land and environmental activists were killed in 2017 across 22 countries, almost four a week, marking it the worst year on record.
Highest in Asia
A total of 48 recorded deaths took place in the Philippines, the highest for an Asian country.
The Duterte administration, which took over on June 30, 2016, has been criticized by local and international human-rights groups for deaths in connection with populist leader Rodrigo R. Duterte’s war on drugs.
The report was released, coincidentally, as Duterte was scheduled to deliver his third State of the Nation Address (Sona).
Duterte, a former mayor of Davao City, has been vocal against environmentally destructive projects, particularly large-scale mining, which was one of the highlights of his first Sona, threatening to stop mining for causing massive environmental destruction, particularly in Mindanao.
Such declaration by Duterte was followed by a 10-month campaign by former Environment Secretary Regina Paz L. Lopez to mount a campaign against irresponsible mining operations that led to closure or suspension orders affecting more than two dozens large-scale mines, a ban on prospective open-pit mining for select ores, including gold, copper, silver and complex ore, and the cancellation of 74 mining deals for projects within or near watersheds.
Environmental groups, however, said the drug war and campaign against environmentally destructive mining did not spare environmental defenders fighting “ridge to reef destruction” caused by mining, logging, quarrying and other destructive development projects in upland areas, or those happening in defense of coastal and marine environment against illegal and large-scale commercial fishing activities.
Sought for comment, Environment Undersecretary Jonas R. Leones said he has not yet read the report but was quick to say that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) takes such alarming report seriously.
However, Leones, the spokesman of Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu, said there is a need to verify the veracity of such report and find out how Global Witness came up with its conclusion that included the Philippines among what appears to be the dangerous place for environmental and land defenders in Asia.
“We intend to know more about the basis of their report and how they came up with their conclusion,” he said.
“For now, I haven’t seen the report. But we will definitely write them a letter for clarification,” he added.
AS far as the DENR is concerned, Leones said it only monitors attacks against DENR employees who are at the frontlines, like forest protectors, by those into illegal mining, illegal logging and quarrying, and those involved in the illegal wildlife trade.
“We receive reports of killings from time to time. But these are isolated cases. For killings involving others or non-DENR employees, I believe it is the human-rights groups that monitor and have these records,” he said.
The DENR also investigates incidents involving attacks against its employees and work closely with the police and military, especially if the incident is work-related or involves the protection of the environment by its employees.
According to Leones, the DENR’s undersecretary for policy, planning, international affairs and foreign-assisted projects, the DENR is not oblivious to the dangers its employees face, particularly those assigned to protect the forests, in the performance of its duties and responsibilities.
In fact, he said the shooting of DENR employees in Palawan last year prompted Cimatu to consider arming foreign protection officers and volunteers called “Bantay Gubat.”
However, he said, such policy is for the protection of the DENR employees who risk being shot by members of a syndicate involved in illegal mining, logging, quarrying and wildlife trade, and it has nothing to do with the killings, as claimed by Global Witness.
“It is for the protection of our forest protection officers who face the danger of being shot. It’s for self-defense. But as a policy, our protection officers are only armed while on duty. After their duty, they return the firearms issued to them,” Leones said.
Other key findings
This is not the first time that Global Witness came up with a report identifying the Philippines as a dangerous place for environmental and land defenders.
This year, however, it revealed that the killing linked to agribusiness is increasing.
Other key findings in its report reveal the huge rise in killings linked to consumer products and brutal attacks on those defending their land from destructive agricultural —such as land grabs for palm oil, used in household goods like soap and coffee—are on the rise.
The report urges government and business to take action to end the attacks and support defenders.
According to Global Witness, most victims are indigenous leaders, community activists and environmentalists murdered trying to protect their homes and communities from mining, agribusiness and other destructive industries.
“Severe limits on the data available mean the global total is probably much higher. Murder is the most egregious example of a range of tactics used to silence defenders, including death threats, arrests, intimidation, cyberattacks, sexual assault and lawsuits,” it added.
These include the murder of Hernán Bedoya in Colombia, shot 14 times by a paramilitary group for protesting against palm oil and banana plantations on land stolen from his community; an army massacre of eight villagers in the Philippines who opposed a coffee plantation on their land; and violent attacks by Brazilian farmers, using machetes and rifles, which left 22 members of the Gamela indigenous people severely injured, some with their hands chopped off.
The report links this violence with the products on our shelves: large-scale agriculture, mining, poaching, logging all produce components and ingredients for supermarket products such as palm oil for shampoo, soy for beef and timber for furniture.
The report also revealed that some governments and businesses are complicit in the killings, with Global Witness calling for urgent action if the trend is to be reversed.
Problem and solution
“AS well as being part of the problem, governments and business can be part of the solution. They must tackle the root causes of the attacks, for example ensuring communities are allowed to say ‘no’ to projects, like mining, on their land; support and protect defenders at risk and ensure justice is served for those suffering from the violence,” it says.
In a statement, Ben Leather, Senior Campaigner, Global Witness said: “Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life. Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets. Yet as brave communities stand up to corrupt officials, destructive industries, and environmental devastation, they are being brutally silenced. Enough is enough.
“Governments, companies, and investors have the duty and the power to support and protect defenders at risk and to guarantee accountability wherever attacks occur. But more importantly, they can prevent these threats from emerging in the first place, by listening to local communities, respecting their rights, and ensuring that business is conducted responsibly.
“Despite the odds they face, the global community of land and environmental defenders is not going away—it’s only getting stronger. We invite consumers to join us in campaigning alongside defenders, taking their fight to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will make sure their voices are heard. And we will be watching to ensure that defenders, their land, and the environment we all depend on are properly protected.”