2019 Year-end Report on the Situation of Filipino Environmental Defenders
Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE)

The murders of Filipino environmental defenders are on the rise once again in 2019. Despite a whopping 80% of the cases linked to identified state security forces or perpetrated in the notorious death squad fashion, even forest rangers and other government officials working to protect the environment are not spared from this climate of impunity.

These deaths represent the arduous people’s struggles to protect a total of 1.2 million hectares of forest and agricultural landscapes that provide valuable ecosystem services amounting to P212.8 billion annually.

In the context of the crucial decision points in the ongoing up to next year’s negotiations in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the imperative to protect the rights of these environmental defenders who hold the most effective and most urgent solutions to the climate crisis becomes of even greater importance.

Destructive projects as drivers

Kalikasan PNE monitored a total of 46 cases of extrajudicial killings this year, a 53% increase compared to 2018’s total pegged at 30. The worsening land conflicts driven by agribusiness and other land grabs comprise 70% of these recorded killings.

Report summary data visualization

In the island of Negros, the land occupation and cultivation campaigns by landless agriworkers and small farmers under the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) have been met with brutal force from synchronized enhanced managing of police operations (SEMPO) and other counter insurgency programs.

Instead of targeting actual insurgents, these internal security operations are serving as investment defense for almost 428,000 hectares of undistributed agrarian reform lands still controlled by landowner families and agribusiness companies.

In the watersheds of Bukidnon, meanwhile, the struggle of small farmers and indigenous Lumad people against agribusiness plantations amounting to more than 100,000 hectares, as well as mining application interests covering 31,180 hectares across the Pantaron Mountain Range, have been attacked under blanket military rule.

Paramilitary groups and riding-in-tandem assassins are systematically targeting members and leaders of farmers group Unyon sa Mag-Uuma sa Agusan del Norte (UMAN) and indigenous groups under the Kalumbay Regional Lumad Organization.

A significant trend this year is the rise of attacks against government forest rangers and other local government officials, which combine for 22% of all recorded cases. Last September 4, El Nido forest ranger Bienvenido Venguilla Jr. was hacked to death by illegal loggers from which they confiscated a chainsaw, despite having a firearm with him for protection.

Militarization hotspots

A spatial analysis of the spread of killings would show how areas subjected to heavy militarization supposedly for internal security are the areas where the most number of environmental defenders are being killed.

Negros is clearly the epicenter, as it continues to face a crackdown initiated first through President Duterte’s Memorandum Order 32 declaring a State of Emergency from Lawless Violence over the areas of Negros, Bicol, and Leyte-Samar.

This was followed by the establishment of inter-agency task forces on counter insurgency through Executive Order 70 s. 2019, which has leveraged local governments, line agencies, and other branches of government to vilify, harass, and ultimately ‘neutralize’ activists and defenders they have labeled as enemies of the state.

Mindanao also remains a restive hotspot with the extended declaration of Martial Law over the island being leveraged to crack down on mineral-rich and agricultural lands within indigenous Lumad territories and land reform struggles.

Eleven (11) Mindanao defenders were murdered with positive identification or corroborating circumstances linking to state forces such as 8th, 75th, and 88th Infantry Battalions and their attached paramilitary groups such as the Alamara.

A total of 26 cases were the result of active police or military combat operations or hits where perpetrators were identified by witnesses. Death squad assassinations that followed the modus of ‘drug war’ operations were observed in at least 11 of the cases.

Resources at Risk

These fallen environmental defenders worked to protect ancestral lands and farmlands and to hold accountable agribusiness, mining and other extractive projects over the destruction of ecosystems and the plunder of natural resources. In total, the defenders stood in defense of almost 1.2 million hectares of forest areas, whether old growth, secondary, or converted, and fertile agroforestry areas or agricultural plains.

Using ecosystem value baselines established by various studies, it is estimated that the forest areas, if remained in protection or successfully pushed for rehabilitation by efforts of environmental defenders, provide the Filipino public a total of P146.3 billion in annual social costs of carbon sequestration, water provision, non-timber forest product revenue, and soil conservation savings.

Meanwhile, the agricultural lands that environmental defenders are working on would provide an annual P66.5 billion agricultural productivity and savings gleaned from climate resilience, if these areas were successfully subjected to land reform and agro-ecological practice.

On a whole, this means that we stand to lose P212.8 billion worth of ecosystem services every year if environmental defenders in these landscapes continue to be attacked to prevent them from effectively doing their work. These are ecosystem services fundamental to our country’s resilience in the face of the global climate emergency.

The country is already losing P61.2 billion annually from disasters. We can expect this to worsen soon, as the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reveals that the Philippines will already experience climate change disruptions in our fisheries, coastal floods, and extreme weather events within the next 11 years.

Call for Action

In response to this worsening situation faced environmental defenders, Kalikasan PNE reiterates its recommendations for actions made before the National Inquiry on the Killings of Human Rights Defenders initated by the Commission on Human Rights last September 10, 2019.

We urge the CHR to conduct a national inquiry particularly into the nexus of human rights violations and business and other environmentally destructive entities.

We urge the House of Representatives and the Senate to conduct a joint investigation to look into policies that promote extractives and consequently instigate attacks against environmental defenders, such as the Mining Act of 1995 and the Agribusiness Venture Agreement schemes.

We call for greater efforts in engaging the House of Representatives and Senate to prioritize the passage of House Bill 9199 and Senate Bill 179 or the Human Rights Defenders Bill.

The link between destructive projects of big business and government and the counter insurgency and other internal security programs must also be looked into, as we are increasingly seeing state security being employed essentially as ‘investment defense forces’ to guarantee what military officials have been calling as “vital installations and infrastructure, critical investments, and development projects.”

We urge the Department of Justice and other government bodies to step up efforts in prosecuting and convicting perpetrators and masterminds in the killings of environmental defenders. There is essentially zero resolution to all cases we have monitored since 2001.

The CHR can also explore with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) our proposal of declaring Special Protected Areas in environmentally critical and natural resource-rich areas where human rights atrocities have been perpetrate. Destructive businesses and military and paramilitary groups will be prohibited from operating in these areas. Human rights diligence should also be required in the application process of extractive and destructive businesses.

Lastly, we call for greater intervention from the international community especially through the highlighting of environmental defender issues within the United Nations Human Rights Council’s resolution to investigate the human rights situation in the Philippines.

We strongly urge the United Nations to consider initiating an International Fact Finding Mission or establishing a Commission on Inquiry to probe deeper into this situation. It may also be high time to establish a Special Procedures Mandate specifically on the human rights context of the Philippines.

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