The number of murdered environmental activists hits peak under Duterte
by Paolo Fossati

An international rights watchdog slams the president's rhetoric and policies for encouraging killings. Since Duterte took power, the death toll reached 113; it was 65 in the previous three years. For Bishop Mangalinao, “The best option we have is to network and increase mutual support. It is further necessary to pray for each other. We must not be afraid for God is on our side.”

Manila (AsiaNews) – Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the number of murdered environmentalists, tribal people and defenders of Filipino land rights has increased sharply.  According to Global Witness[*], the president's rhetoric and policies have "encouraged" the killers.

The international rights watchdog released a report today, stressing that those who oppose deforestation, mining and fruit plantations in the Philippines have long faced threats and brutality, but that the recent increase represents a "disturbing" jump.

According to the group, at least 113 activists have been killed since Duterte came to power on 30 June 2016 compared to 65 in the three years before his rule.

“The president’s aggressive rhetoric against defenders, coupled with the climate of violence and impunity fostered by his drugs war, has only made things worse,” senior Global Witness campaigner Ben Leather said.

According to latest figures from the Philippine National Police (PNP), the death toll from the president’s war on drugs topped 6,600. According to media reports and human rights groups, the real number of victims ranges between 27,000 and 30,000, including extrajudicial killings.

“The president’s brutal ‘war on drugs’ has fostered a culture of impunity and fear, emboldening the politically and economically powerful to use violence,” the Global Witness report says.

The president's attitude “contributes to the violence against those whose opinions differ from his,” said Mgr Jose Elmer Imas Mangalinao, the 59-years-old bishop of Bayombong, a rural diocese that encompasses Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino provinces, in the mountainous heart of Luzon, the country’s largest and most populous island.

For the local Church, protecting the environment is one of the greatest challenges. “A few hours ago,” said Bishop Mangalinao, “I was at an ecumenical gathering with bishops and pastors of different religious denominations who are engaged in activities for environmental protection.”

"Among the topics we discussed was the report published today. We are all surprised by such a large number of killed activists and we agree on the negative influence that the president's way of speaking has on the population."

Inspired by the encyclical Laudato si’ of Pope Francis, the care of Creation is a topic to which Filipino bishops usually draw people’s attention. When some members of the Catholic clergy criticised some controversial presidential policies, on the environment and rights, they were subject to verbal attacks and veiled threats by Duterte.

"Last July, when the bishops met, we took note of the problems in each diocese in view of safeguarding nature and activism.

"The best option we have is to network and increase mutual support. It is further necessary to pray for each other. We must not be afraid for God is on our side. We are called to give each other strength, know that we have each other and give a voice to those who have none.”

Among the later are farmers and workers, one of the most marginalised groups in Filipino society. For Nadja de Vera, an official with the Farm Workers Union (UMA[†]), the Global Witness report is "as worrying as it is truthful".

"So far, 228 farm workers have died in the Philippines. Farmers are also environmentalists and defenders of land rights. The killings are caused by government policies, like Executive Order (EO) n.70.”

Signed by the president in December 2018, the Order institutionalises a nation-wide strategy against the insurgency by the New People's Army (NPA), a Maoist guerrilla force.

"Even if it was adopted to fight the rebels, this order affects anyone who fights for rights: activists, tribals, farmers and lawyers. Legitimate local farmers' organisations are affected as is anyone who sympathises with them or supports them.

"The names are put on lists of alleged rebel supporters and after some time these people are murdered. On the island of Negros this has already happened seven times.”

"The Philippine government wants to open the country to foreign investments and at the same time maintain land monopolies,” de Vera explained. “The big agrobusinesses and mining companies, the oligarchs, even senior government officials are the ones who benefit.

"The latter take advantage of their position to make money from government policies. Most of Filipino society is aware of what is happening. Most people voted for the president, but many are already turning their backs on him.

"This empowers and encourages us to educate people, to shed light on the government's unbridled repression against anyone who talks about such atrocities. Some are afraid to come forward and denounce them, but victims’ families ceaselessly and courageously ask and seek justice. All this is not an attack on people but on the whole country.”

[*] The international watchdog seeks to break the links between natural resource exploitation, conflict, poverty, corruption, and human rights abuses worldwide.

[†] Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura.