Threats, raids and murders stalk Filipino environmental activists | News


Palawan, Philippines In the heart of Palawan's Philippine tourist area, Bobby Chan stood on a shaded porch outside his office and admired his loot: decaying boats used for illegal fishing, dynamite cartridges seized from poachers and a tower of chainsaws.

"I lost the bill in 700," he said.

Chan directs the Palawan NGO Network Inc (PNNI), which uses a dark law of citizen arrest to deal with poachers that threaten endemic and endangered species on the western island, seizing chainsaws, dynamite and fishing boats.


Chan and his "para-executors,quot; are among those most at risk in a country recently named Global Witness as the deadliest for environmental defenders in the world.

"Things have gotten worse under Duterte," said Ben Leather, Global Witness principal activist, referring to Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte.

"Now, anyone who wants to silence dissenters can be pretty sure they can get away with it."

In 2018, Global Witness said at least 30 environmental and land defenders were killed in the country, many of whom are in conflict with powerful commercial interests, including food giant Del Monte.

The vast majority of cases remain unresolved, despite Duterte's initial promises to confront corrupt politicians and corporate conflicts of interest.

The deaths of environmental activists in the Philippines increase

In September of this year, the ranger Welcome Veguilla Jr, was shot dead in El Nido, Palawan, after he and his team discovered illegal logging activities in the area. Within three months, three other environmental workers were also killed, including an environmental investigator, who was shot dead at the end of November in Mindanao.

When environmental activists arrived in Manila to present the findings of the report on the Philippines, local organizations that helped in their preparation say they were monitored by the police, threatened with raids and qualified as communist rebels.

Karl Begnotea of ​​Kalikasan PNE, an environmental network that helped Global Witness in data collection, told Al Jazeera that he was subject to police surveillance while the groups were preparing to present the report's findings in Manila at the end of September.

"The threat becomes real," Begnotea said, noting that authorities are now also targeting groups in Manila, while previously most raids occurred in rural areas.

Directed to Paradise

In Palawan, PNNI, Environment NGO, You move to a new location in the city. The former headquarters is next to a complex owned by the governor of Palawan, José Álvarez.

A former logging mogul, Alvarez and his family have significant investments in tourism and real estate on the island, including the luxurious Maremegmeg Beach Club in El Nido.

According to Global Witness, he found evidence of illegal timber that entered the site during construction.

"The tourism we have now is not controlled," Chan said.

Chan and Alvarez have been at odds since the PNNI confiscated weapons, which bore the governor's name in an operation against logging.

In 2018, Global Witness said that at least 30 environmental and land defenders were killed in the countryNick Aspinwall / Al Jazeera)

In 2015, Álvarez challenged Chan to a fist fight for his opposition to mining in the ancient forests.

"The threats are more brazen now," Chan said.

Chan and his colleagues regularly report being followed and threatened in Puerto Princesa, the capital of the province.

Since PNNI began conducting law enforcement operations in 2001, 12 members have been killed, including Ruben Arzaga, who died after an illegal logger shot him in the head in 2017.

Most murders do not occur during operations. Instead, activists are attacked as they progress in their daily lives, Chan said. He believes that the 12 murders were premeditated.

& # 39; In the line of fire & # 39;

Members of the PNNI have also been "labeled in red,quot; or labeled as members of the new communist popular army, an armed guerrilla unit considered a terrorist organization by the Philippine government.

The tactic has been used throughout the country, including the southern island of Mindanao, which has been under martial law since 2017. On November 8, the international charity Oxfam was accused by the authorities of being a communist front.

101 East – Mining of the Last Frontier

"It is a deliberate smoke screen. There is no doubt that these people were threatened by their activism," said Leather. "It's so shameless that it would be laughable if it wasn't so dangerous."

"If you're a vocal, they think you're seditious," added Chan, himself a frequent target of red labeling.

"If you are seditious, they think you are a rebel."

PNNI agents operate unarmed, approach loggers at a safe distance and form a perimeter, then request identity documents and confiscate guns and chainsaws.

Chan recruits citizens who defend their own livelihoods: farmers, fishermen and indigenous peoples threatened by illegal logging, mining, fishing and wildlife trafficking.

Teófilo Tredez, a farmer who joined the PNNI in 2005 and directs operations targeting illegal open-pit mines in the south of the island, said the work was "important to protect farmland. Farmers' lives come from Water,quot;.

Like all PNNI members, Tredez has his fair share of war stories.

Onece, a colleague grabbed a chainsaw by the blade, lit it by mistake and refused to release it while its owner fled the scene. His hand required 62 points, but the chainsaw was grabbed.

"It's something you expect me to be praised," said Leather. "But they put them in the line of fire."

Al Jazeera contacted Álvarez's office, as well as the Philippine National Police and the Quezon City Police. None had responded to requests for comments on the allegations at the time of publication.

Raid Threats

Days before Global Witness visited the Philippines for the launch of the September report, Kalikasan PNE employers received a warning that the police were planning a raid on their office. Outside, they noticed an officer recording a video of his activities on his smartphone.

Employees say they met a local official in early October, after another vehicle passed through the office.

Kalikasan PNE - Philippines

Gia Glarino said his environmental group, Kalikasan PNE, was threatened with a raid in September this year (Nick Aspinwall / Al Jazeera)

"They said yes, there is a threat of a raid in their office," said Gia Glarino, a spokesman for Kalikasan PNE.

The network was accused of teaching "radical,quot; ideology to indigenous children in Mindanao who oppose plantations and mining. The group also hosts older indigenous students studying at the University of the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the Manila-based Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) reported receiving threats of possible incursions for hosting indigenous students, defense and defense coordinator Lia Alonzo told Al Jazeera.

The group has led opposition to the Kaliwa dam project, backed by China, in Luzon, which the government says is necessary to provide water to Manila.

Indigenous residents living on the site proposed for the dam say they are being forced to give their consent to give up their lands, and the CEC has questioned the validity of the environmental compliance certificate recently granted by the project.

Initially, the police denied the planning raids of the Manila-based NGOs. But between October 31 and November 5, multiple police raids saw the arrests of 57 activists in Blacks and six in Manila.

Members of the environmental group, Kalikasan, and other Manila NGOs vacated their offices.

The series of incidents was aligned not only with the Global Witness report, but also with the September global climate attack and a series of key anniversaries of murders of land activists in Blacks.

Begnotea said the threats left Kalikasan focused not on his work, but on defending himself.

"They don't need to declare the royal martial law," he said. "They have already learned to terrorize people."