In peril: Southeast Asia’s environment and its defendersPublished by MAC on 2018-07-28
Hot on the heels of the latest global report on abuses against environmental defenders (see: Global Witness tracks deadliest year on record for land and environmental defenders), two linked articles explore the issues from a Southeast Asian perspective, which highlights the role of mining.
Despite the shocking figures it is clear that rights defenders across the region are mobilising to publicise the issue and to provide support for each other.
In peril: Southeast Asia’s environment and its defenders (Part 1 of 2)
By Clemente Bautista Jr. and Paul Christian Yang-ed
10 July 2018
To any passersby in their community, Aleta Baun comes across like any typical village woman engaged in weaving for a living. But the unassuming 52-year-old Indonesian is an environmental activist of the indigenous Molo people. She received the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2013 for her advocacy in protecting Mount Mutis in Timor, Indonesia against the destructive mining corporations.
A culturally sacred site for the Molo, Mt. Mutis is home to species of bonsai eucalyptus trees endemic to the island. Aleta led in organizing and mobilizing her people resulting in the cessation of mine operations in Mt. Mutis in 2011.
But their successful campaign was not without intense hardship and sacrifice. One night in 2006, hired goons of the mine companies hacked at Aleta with their machetes. She survived the attack. She hid for months in the forest with her two-month-old baby. The attack did not make her falter in their advocacy.
In fact, their community has recognized the women’s leading role in the campaign against the mine companies — the women comprise the protest frontlines. They brave the threat of company goons and government forces while the men are left behind to attend to housework and child-care. “We recommend to all women who joined the movement to stay in the forest, and urged all men to mind the children and our house,” she told the journalist Febriana Firdaus in an interview.
Like Aleta and her fellow Molo people, tens of thousands of communities continue to defend their land, resources, and rights across Asia. But they are facing peril in their struggle for environmental protection and natural resource conservation.
A resource-rich and ecologically sensitive region
Asia and its adjacent areas in the Pacific are known for its unique, diverse ecological systems, and bountiful natural resources. The continent is home to almost 60 percent of the world’s population. China and India alone account for the majority of this percentage.
Biogeographically, the Asia-Pacific is divided into two major areas. The first region is continental Asia with its vast forest and agricultural lands. The second region is insular Asia which is dominated by marine ecosystems. The Asia-Pacific island countries of Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Papua New Guinea fall onto this second group. The region also hosts some of the world’s “megadiversity” areas.
The region is also one of the top destinations for extractive industries such as mining and logging. In Southeast Asia alone, a total $53 billion worth of major minerals was produced in 2012. Timber is also among Asia’s most coveted resources. Southeast Asia’s hardwood species such as teak (Tectona grandis of Myanmar and the Philippines’ Tectona philippinensis) are among the world’s most prized timber.
With so much biodiversity and unique ecosystems holding economically valuable natural resources, Asia is an alarming hotspot of biodiversity loss. The region’s ecosystems are facing massive environmental degradation and pollution resulting to high biodiversity loss. For example, Southeast Asia’s forests are among the world’s largest biodiversity areas but are now facing danger because of the expansion of industrial agriculture such as palm oil and rubber plantations.
In the 2017 study of the Asian Development Bank, six (6) of the 37 which have the highest deforestation rates in the Asia and the Pacific come from the Southeast Asian countries. These are Timor Leste, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea.
Researchers from the Duke University and the University of Maryland in the United States found a 53 percent increase in the total forest area loss in the tropics from 2001-2012. 73 percent of that deforestation occurred in South America and Southeast Asia.
Despite this abundance of biodiversity and natural resources, the Southeast Asian people do not benefit from these resources nor have their use of their resources resulted in their peoples’ economic progress.
Based on 2012 data, 37 percent of Myanmar’s population was unemployed while 26 percent of its population lived below the poverty line. In East Timor for example, 20% of the national population is unemployed, while 49.9 percent live below the poverty line. Yet the irony is that Myanmar hosts some of the world’s enviable deposits of gold, copper, jade, and precious stone, on the other hand, on the other hand, has significant potential oil deposits, and even with its single known oil field manages to earn $100 million per month. Much remains to be desired from the levels of poverty its population experiences.
A 2013 study shows that 75 percent of the Philippine population belongs to the “lower classes,” which already include income poor and food-poor families. A common thread binds Southeast Asia: poverty and lack of modern industry amid the abundance of a natural resource base.
Countries in Southeast Asia largely have no means to process these resources for domestic benefit. The capital invested, technologies used, and the profits reaped by local and transnational extractive and pollutive industries do not stay in their host countries even as the environment and people are devastated in the process. Some call this phenomenon the ‘resource curse.’
Environmental defenders under threat
[Defenders graph: Killings by Country / Prepared by Global Witness 6 Jul 2017]
As communities and people’s movements across Asia organize in defense of their lands, environment, and natural resources against plunder and exploitation, they face threats and violence from corporations and governments. Pushing for various destructive but profitable projects, governments and corporations often deploy private and state armed forces against any hindrance.
In 2017, human rights watchdog Global Witness reported that there is an increasing trend of human rights violations against environmental defenders over the last decade. Global Witness said that 2016 was the deadliest year for environmental defenders when there were at least four killings recorded every week.
Who are the environmental defenders? They are the common people who work for the nurturing and protection of our environment. They are those who defend ecosystems as it is their source of subsistence and livelihood. Peasants, indigenous people, fisherfolks, women and children, workers, and professionals—anyone who advocates and works for the conservation, protection, and wise utilization of our resources—are environmental defenders.
Global Witness said several countries in Asia have seen increasing human rights violations in relation to environmental advocacy and people’s defense of their resources. Out of the 24 countries they studied, 7 countries were from Asia. Among these countries are the Philippines and India, which are the second and fourth most dangerous place in the world for environmental defenders, respectively.
In India, just last May, paramilitary and police forces shot and killed 13 people in Tamil Nadu who were among the thousands of people protesting the pollution caused by British mining giant Vedanta’s copper smelting plant which was operating in their area. No one has been held accountable for the incident, with the police even blaming the protesters for the conflict.
The entry of extractive projects like mining, large dams, and industrial plantations have led to the displacement of communities away from their homes and livelihood. People also suffer the consequent environmental degradation and pollution from these projects, adversely affecting their health and culture.
From clandestine death squads to formal military and paramilitary troops, governments use militarization and violence as investment guarantees to ruthlessly impose corporate interest veiled as national interest on the people. In the Philippines, at least 69 percent of suspected perpetrators of the killing of environmental defenders were state armed forces citing their mandate to protect destructive projects they call “vital installations” and “flagship projects.”
Anti-mining activists in Myanmar have been convicted with imprisonment and heavy labor for “sedition.” Indonesian courts have also recently used various obscure and draconian laws to prosecute environmental advocates, covering at least 157 individuals in 2017.
Across many Asian states, internal security programs go hand in hand with laws that ease the entry of investors engaged in resource plunder, upholding the environmentally-destructive globalization policies of privatization and liberalization of the commons.
Environmental defenders who are at the forefront of community struggles thus face a myriad of threats. Aside from outright assassination and massacres, their adversaries also employ threats and harassment, illegal arrest and detention, and trumped-up charges to discourage them to continue their advocacy. These attacks not only violate the democratic rights of advocates and people but also greatly undermine efforts to protect and conserve the environment and its natural resources.
In peril: Southeast Asia’s environment and its defenders (Part 2 of 2)
By Clemente Bautista Jr. and Paul Christian Yang-ed
26 July 2018
READ ALSO: In peril: Southeast Asia’s environment and its defenders (Part 1 of 2)
Kalikasan has been conducting researches into the cases of killings of environmental defenders in Southeast Asia. From the data we gathered, so far, we observe the following three patterns or trends:
– There has been a total of at least 132 cases of killings in 7 countries in Southeast Asia since 2011 up to 2017; the Philippines accounts for 83 percent of the cases.
– There is a rising incidence of killings from 2011 to 2017, primarily reflecting the trend of cases from the Philippines.
– Most killings of environmental defenders are related to opposition to large-scale mining (88 deaths) and industrial plantation projects (26 deaths).
We were unable to find any news report on the killings of environmental defenders in Vietnam, Laos, and East Timor. Thus, the figures are conservative since we were only able to document cases that have reached the English-speaking sphere.
It is surprising that Indonesia, an archipelagic country like the Philippines, just as rich in minerals, biodiversity, indigenous people, and forests, has a surprisingly fewer reported killings of environmental defenders, even lower than Thailand.
The number of recent killings of environmental defenders in Indonesia’s restive, resource-rich West Papua province has yet to be accounted for because of the travel restrictions imposed there by the Indonesian government.
Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam are ruled by military and authoritarian regimes, resulting in more difficult open reporting and investigation of killings of environment defenders than in the Philippines.
The language barrier is also a challenge. Unlike in the Philippines, most of the media and local organizations in countries in Southeast Asia do not post reports in English, hence, any report of killings of an environmental defender may go unnoticed by the international community.
Humanizing the statistics
Southeast Asia also has its own share of prominent cases of human rights violations among environmental defenders in the region that captured the attention of international media. Here are a few tidbits from their stories:
1. Sombath Somphone of Laos, a sustainable agriculture advocate. He was disappeared by suspected Laotian armed forces in 2012. He has yet to be found to this day.
2. Thwe Thwe Win, an activist opposed to the operations of the Letpadaung mine in Myanmar. In 2016, she was run over by a Chinese truck driver who works for the mining company. She survived the attack. In December 2014, 28 monks who joined a protest against the same mine project suffered burns from incendiary phosphorus hurled at them by the Burmese police.
3. Phan Sopheak, peasant member of an anti-illegal logging network in a community in Cambodia. Machete-wielding illegal loggers attacked her in March 2016. She survived the attack.
4. Le My Hanh, Vietnamese environmental activist. She was assaulted by thugs believed to have been hired by Vietnamese police in April 2017. Le was involved in the campaign to hold Taiwan-owned Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation accountable for a toxic spill that occurred offshore in Vietnam in April 2016.
Philippines: Asia’s most dangerous for environmental defenders
The Philippines remains as the most dangerous country for environmental defenders in Asia. Under the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, human rights violations including attacks against environmental defenders have become more frequent.
Amid the rising authoritarianism of the Duterte regime, Kalikasan has monitored as of June 2018 at least 58 cases of killings of environmental defenders, 66 environmental defenders in illegal detention, and 240 environmental defenders slapped with trumped-up charges since the start of Duterte’s administration in July 2016. This, on top of the almost a million people displaced by the government’s militarization of resource-rich, rural areas.
Mining opponents comprise 55 percent of killed environmental defenders in the country. More mining opponents are being killed in the Philippines compared to the 30 percent of all environmental defenders worldwide who were killed as a result of their anti-mining advocacy. Impunity and injustice remain. Not a single mastermind of the killings has ever been convicted by the Philippine justice system.
On May 27, 2016, President Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, home to more than 24 million Filipinos, Lumad (indigenous people), and the Muslim Moro people. The region hosts some of the country’s richest forests and mineralized areas. The government used the attack led by a small ISIS-inspired group in the Mindanao city of Marawi as a pretext to declare all Martial Law in Mindanao.
If government figures are to be believed, there were at least 1,132 deaths in the five-month war, a figure that was not verified independently by third-party organizations. Nevertheless, attacks against the people of Mindanao, even those outside of Marawi, have also intensified in the same period. More than 60 percent of the killings of environmental defenders under the Duterte regime happened in Mindanao.
On February 22, 2018, the Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a petition to the local courts listing more than 600 individuals as terrorists. Fifty-two (52) of these individuals are known activists and civil society representatives.
Included in the list is UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous People Victoria Tauli Corpuz. Environmental advocates such as Sherwin de Vera, Zara Alvarez, Arnold Baes, and several others are also on the list.
These individuals are accused of being a member of the revolutionary group Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), which has been fighting the government for the last fifty years.
The government has had a bloody history of liquidating any person accused of being a member or sympathizer of the revolutionary group. The inclusion of environmental defenders in the ‘terror’ list poses security risks for them and their families.
On April 16, 2018, Australian missionary Sister Patricia Fox who is serving the poor in the Philippines for more than 27 years, was illegally arrested by the Bureau of Immigration for “attending protest rallies and engaging in political activities,” which is being forbidden by an archaic immigration law still in force.
Sr. Fox is a human rights defender and development worker who is active in opposing land-grabbing of private corporations and big landlords in the Philippines, as well as commiserating with Lumads displaced by extractives-associated militarization in their communities.
As the regime cracks down on activists and environmental defenders, on the other hand, it provides protection to companies and their environmentally-destructive projects. Military and economic interests are still strongly interlinked in the Philippines.
The government has the Investment Defense Force where regular military forces are deployed to secure investment projects in the country that are tagged as ‘priority’ or ‘vital to national interest’ such as large-scale mining operations, agricultural plantations, megadam construction, and big eco-tourism projects. Government paramilitaries called Special Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units (SCAA) can also serve as additional security forces of private corporations.
Based on the monitoring of Kalikasan, 69 percent, or an overwhelming majority of the suspected perpetrators in the killings of environmental defenders in the Philippines, were from the state military and paramilitary forces. All of these — militarization, terrorist tagging, harassments, extra-judicial killings are believed to be sanctioned under the government counter-insurgency program Oplan Kapayapaan.
Privatization of the commons, the commodification of natural resources, authoritarian regimes: a triple whammy for Asia’s environment and environmental defenders
The privatization of land, water, energy, and mineral deposits and the liberalization of state policies to attract investment in mining, energy, and agriculture institutionalize the commodification of the natural resources of poor countries in Asia. These globalization policies resulted in corporate ownership and control of these supposed public commons.
Instead of using these resources to provide for the needs and help in developing the economy of poor Asian nations, private corporations control and exploit the land, water, minerals, and forests to produce cheap raw materials which would then be exported for the international market.
In this set-up, transnational corporations (TNCs) benefit the most from the billions of dollars of annual profit from exploiting the rich resources in the Asian region, at the expense of the environment and the people’s welfare. Chinese-owned Myanmar Wanbao Mining Ltd. which runs the controversial Letpadaung mine with a corporation owned by the Burmese military raked in $11.7 million in profits in 2015.
The national governments are some of the main proponents of policies in the region seeking easy entry of foreign capital and operation of TNCs into their countries, following the dictum of globalization. These economic and resource policies allow private corporations to seize tens of millions of hectares of land and offshore marine areas with impunity.
At the same time, pro-investor international mechanisms like the International Court for Investment Dispute (ICSID) of the World Bank, allows private corporations to sue national governments if they rescind project agreements or intervene in their business operations.
The proliferation of military regimes, authoritarian rulers, and inept and corrupt regimes in the region enable TNCs to freely destroy the environment for profit. These present a challenge for environmental defenders as these regimes tend to persecute and crush opposition to projects tied to corporate interests.
Under the pretext of supposed threats to national security, these regimes impose emergency rule or martial law in their country to suppress people’s opposition to environmentally-destructive projects and policies. They deny the people their basic human rights such as the freedom of speech and the right to organize. They militarize the civilian bureaucracy with retired military generals and officers and institutionalize surveillance mechanisms which impinge on the people’s right to privacy.
Peoples’ Solidarity and Resistance across Southeast Asia
However, amid these overwhelming challenges to environmental advocacy, various civil society and people’s organizations across the region still exert their effort to uphold the people’s right to a healthful ecology.
In the Philippines and in India the most vibrant and strongest people’s movements in the world can be found. There are inspirational campaigns which show how communities successfully thwarted plunderous projects of big corporations.
In the Indian states of Orissa and Tamil Nadu, communities forced global mining Vedanta to halt their destructive mining and dirty coal power plant, respectively. Another giant, Glencore was forced out of the Philippines because of the stiff resistance of indigenous peoples and peasants. In Southeast Asia, people’s movement against tyrannical government and military juntas are growing stronger each day.
International solidarity networks and regional coordination efforts are also strengthening and ongoing. Last November 2017, Kalikasan, International People’s Conference on Mining (IPCM), International People’s Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL), and several regional organizations conducted a series of regional workshops and conferences to have a stronger unity and collective action on the issue of human rights violations among environmental defenders.
That same period, 49 organizations from 10 countries participated in the Workshop on Energy and Extractive Industries in the Southeast Asia Region under the ASEAN People’s Forum 2017 which was held in the Philippines. The workshop discussed the lessons of civil society organizations across various countries in Asia in confronting the issues of human rights and environmental protection against plunderous extractive and dirty energy projects.
These efforts were followed by a workshop in Bangkok last March 2018 at the Asia-Pacific People’s Forum on Sustainable Development. This forum was attended by more than 60 organizations which committed to uniting to form a regional network and to formulate a regional campaign.
Last June 2018, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and Internews conducted a regional conference attended by environmentalists and media professionals. Next month, the Forest Defenders Conference being organized by civil society group Not1More will be held in Thailand.
All of these are part and parcel of the Asian and Southeast Asian people’s movement in strengthening their international solidarity and their respective collective campaigns for the defense of the rights of environmental defenders, for the conservation of our natural resources, and for the defense of our environment.