Philippines: Land Defenders are Killed for Protesting Canadian MiningPublished by MAC on 2020-10-22
Source: Kalikasan, Vice, Philstar.com
At least nine human rights defenders have been killed since March despite the COVID-19 restrictions.
At least 272 environmental defenders were killed in The Philippines between 2001 and 2019, according to the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment. More than half of them were protesting mines, like the three young farmers in Masbate province on the island of Luzon, who were killed in October 2017 after being red-tagged for opposing the Masbate Project, the country’s top gold producer.
Nine human rights defenders have been killed since March despite the COVID-19 movement restrictions, said the rights group, while at least 555 environmental defenders have suffered human rights abuses during the lockdown. Among that number is Zara Alvarez, an activist who worked for rights group Karapatan as an advocacy officer for a community-based health program. She was gunned down last month while walking home from a grocery store.
Sources estimate that fifteen percent of mining in the Philippines is Canada-owned, with six Canadian companies operating in the country.
Land Defenders Are Killed in the Philippines for Protesting Canadian Mining
Not only do Canadian mines in the Philippines degrade the environment and displace Indigenous communities, activists say, eco-defenders are targeted by the Philippine government for protesting them.
Anya Zoledziowski & Natashya Gutierrez, Tipping Point
1 October 2020
It was 6:45 a.m. on a Monday in July 2006: Chandu Claver, his wife, and 10-year-old daughter were in their car at a busy intersection after dropping off the youngest daughter at her school in Tabuk, a city in the Philippines about 450 kilometres north of Manila, nestled in the lush and mountainous Cordillera region.
Without warning, a dark van pulled in front of them and two armed men with rifles stepped out and opened fire. Claver was shot three times in the shoulder and once in the stomach. His wife was shot seven times in the chest. A bullet grazed their daughter’s head.
The ambush was supposed to kill him, but it took his wife’s life instead.
Claver, an Indigenous Igorot man from the tribal town of Bontoc in the Cordillera, said he was targeted for his work as an Indigenous activist, doctor, and politician critical of the government. He resisted many government actions and was part of a group that had been pushing back against “development aggression,” or corporate activities imposed on Indigenous ancestral lands without tribal consent. Many of these ventures are helmed by Canadian corporations.
Claver is one of hundreds of environmental defenders who have been targeted. He said he was red-tagged—falsely labelled a communist—by the Philippine government. The longstanding practice, which has escalated under President Rodrigo Dueterte, is often used to silence and intimidate people critical of the regime—human rights defenders, journalists, even local residents—by alleging ties between them and the national Communist Party’s armed wing of rebels, deemed terrorists. The point is “to scare and terrorize people and try to prevent them from resisting,” Claver said.
At least 272 environmental defenders were killed between 2001 and 2019, according to the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, a network of Philippine environmental organizations. More than half of them were protesting mines, like the three young farmers in Masbate province on the island of Luzon, who were killed in October 2017 after they were red-tagged. The three farmers had opposed the Masbate Gold Project, the country’s top gold producer, according to Kalikasan.
A third of those killed were Indigenous, like the Lumad leaders from the island of Mindanao in 2015. The Lumad have long been displaced by the encroachment of mining companies on their homes. Eufemia Cullamat vividly remembers the events of September 1, 2015, when armed men came to their Indigenous community in Sitio Han-ayan, Diatagon, and gathered roughly 200 men, women, and children in a local basketball court. Then, in front of them, the gunmen shot community leaders Dionel Campos and Juvello Sinzo—Cullamat’s uncle. “We all saw how they exploded (Campos’) head,” she told VICE News. “It felt like our world had collapsed.”
After the September killings, about 3,000 Lumad evacuated their ancestral lands and moved to the town of Lianga, over 25 kilometres away. Rights groups later claimed that the killings were perpetrated by a government-backed paramilitary group. The Philippine Army has denied any links to the group.
Since Duterte came into power in 2016, extrajudicial killings, including those of land defenders, have skyrocketed. Environmental watchdog Global Witness declared the Philippines the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders in 2018, when 30 people were killed. Last year, over half of the 212 reported killings worldwide occurred in just two countries: Colombia, with 64 activists killed, and the Philippines, with 43.
Leon Dulce, Kalikasan’s national coordinator, has spent nearly a decade recording the number of people killed while trying to protect the environment. “You get desensitized at some point because of how wholesale the murders are,” Dulce told VICE News. “We are basically living with half of our body already six feet under.”
A number of activists and experts say some of the extrajudicial killings and forced displacement are byproducts of Canadian mining in the Philippines. In most cases, the Canadian government offers little recourse for those harmed. The activists point out that because the Philippines is rich in natural resources, and law enforcement violently punishes people resisting development, the country is attractive for companies that want to mine with few regulations. Mining companies also face few checks and balances that would otherwise maintain environmental standards and human rights—and the Philippine Army, police, and militias have a mandate to protect flagship projects, including major mines run by transnationals.
Canada’s share of mining worldwide is substantial. According to its natural resources ministry, nearly half of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. Fifteen percent of mining in the Philippines is Canada-owned, with six Canadian companies operating in the country, the ministry said.
Ryan Nearing, a spokesperson for Canada’s ministry of international trade, said, “We expect that (Canadian mining companies) uphold a high standard of responsible business conduct,” and pointed to an ombudsperson role established last year to ensure companies pursue “socially responsible business practices.”
The Mining Association of Canada did not respond to several VICE News’ requests for comment. Australian-Canadian company OceanaGold, owner of one of the largest gold-copper mines in the world out of the Philippines, said in a statement it is committed to responsible mining, which necessitates human rights and transparency, and follows or has spearheaded several responsible mining frameworks. “We do not have firsthand knowledge of what is happening at other mine sites across the Philippines,” said OceanaGold spokesperson Melissa Bowerman.
And yet, people who have been affected by Canadian mining sites say companies are failing to meet their own high standards.
“Canadian mining companies are complicit in the violations of the rights of Indigenous peoples not only because there is no free, prior, and informed consent, but also in the violation of their rights to their land and way of life,” said Claver.
Julie Simongo, an Indigenous Ifugao leader, found her name and 26 others printed in posters and widely distributed pamphlets in October 2018, calling them “allies” of communist rebels and telling the public to “be careful of these groups.” Most of those named were farmers and Indigenous peoples. They had been red-tagged.
Simongo said the 27 had one thing in common: they were critical of human rights and environmental abuses at the gold and copper mine in Didipio village, about 280 kilometres northeast of Manila. The mine was acquired by OceanaGold in 2006.
Members of the community had opposed the mining site since the 1990s, but after OceanaGold began commercial production as an open-pit operation in 2013, villagers have complained about the lack of safe drinking water, polluted surface water, and the loss of more and more land. “They said it would have a positive impact on the community but it only made things worse,” Simongo said.
In June 2019, the company’s 25-year licence expired. OceanaGold told VICE News it had permission from the Department of Natural Resources and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau to continue operating legally during the waiting period. The company says the authority over the Didipio mine rests with the national government, and not local officials.
In response, the Didipio community, backed by the local government, set up a barricade the following month to block access into the mine. OceanaGold claims it suspended operations in October 2019, but activists continued to object to trucks making deliveries to the site.
The barricade was broken this April, when the police violently dispersed 30 people who were peacefully blocking three tankers from entering the site. Photos and videos of the clash obtained by VICE News showed activists shoved to the ground by police using riot shields. The dispersal injured some community members and at least one activist was beaten and arrested, according to the watchdog group MiningWatch Canada.
“I admire the community because they remained steadfast, even if there were 100 police, to prove they were adamant about stopping the tankers,” Simongo said. “We had the barricade for so long and it just ended like that. With three fuel tanks forcing entry,” she added. “But we couldn’t stop them. They had guns.”
Spokesperson Bowerman told VICE News the trucks were there to replenish a critically low fuel supply needed to stave off environmental damage and damage to the site. “If the power grid supply at the mine is disrupted...and there are insufficient diesel reserves on hand to generate back-up power, the underground pumping station will not operate, flooding the underground mine,” Bowerman said.
According to Bowerman, OceanaGold didn’t participate in April’s fuel delivery, but spoke with the Philippine National Police beforehand to ensure it would be peaceful. She denied excessive use of force at the barricade site and said police escorted the three trucks to ensure they weren’t stopped at the government checkpoints. The governor approved the fuel delivery, Bowerman said. (The regional police refused to comment, and said a report had already been submitted to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The department did not reply to requests for comment.)
Earlier this summer, the Philippine Court of Appeals rejected OceanaGold’s bid to continue operating the Didipio mine as it waits for Duterte’s signature on its renewal application. The company has said it is willing to challenge the decision all the way to the Supreme Court.
April was not the first time land defenders and residents in the area said they were targeted. According to the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, security forces stormed the same site in 2008 and allegedly destroyed and displaced 187 family homes, beat residents, and used tear gas, truncheons, and shields. The UN Human Rights Council also received a report in 2019 detailing similar allegations.
In response to the human rights council, Mick Wilkes, the president and CEO of OceanaGold, wrote, “We are not aware of any forced evictions of 180 families from their homes in connection with the Didipio Mine in June 2008. This does not accord with our records or understanding of activities at that time at all.”
OceanaGold’s response said more than 600 residents were asked to relocate for the development and construction of the mine, 26 of whom refused. The company then reached out to arbitrators. In the end, some residents settled with the company, four families were ultimately allowed to stay, and two families were evicted. “While a company bulldozer was used for the dismantling process in February 2008,” he wrote, “it is not correct that any homes were burned down in 2008.”
Bowerman denied beatings targeting residents, and said the people who have opposed the mine represent a “small number.”
“It is our understanding that the majority of the community, who self-Identify as Indigenous peoples, support continued responsible mining,” Bowerman said.
“From then until now, it’s all been lies. They are liars,” she said. “Please, just stop the operation. Just leave.”
It’s easy to see why the Philippines attracts foreign mining interests: it ranks as the fifth most mineral-rich country in the world, with an estimated $1 trillion of untapped minerals like gold, copper, zinc, and silver.
The government has also made it especially easy to invest. The 1995 Mining Act, which caters to foreign mining investors, was introduced as the country was grappling with national debt accrued during Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship and a decrease in mining operations in the early 1990s. The act also reflected the pursuit of rapid privatization and free market economies encouraged by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. It made taxes and royalty payments to the government low, and gave companies de facto ownership over land and mining assets for up to 25 years with the possibility of extension.
While the act mandates environmental impact assessments and compels developers to get consent from Indigenous communities before setting up mines in ancestral lands, activists say companies have skirted the rules—with government support. This has resulted in alleged human rights abuses and long-lasting environmental destruction. “The Mining Act has led to the onslaught of big mining corporations against the environment, against the Indigenous peoples, against the country in general," said human rights lawyer and former Philippines senatorial candidate Neri Colmenares, in 2019.
The Mining Association of Canada claims that the industry directly benefits local economies, due to the positive impact on local workers and businesses.
However, the benefit to local employees, and the Philippines itself, is negligible compared to the profit margin for these companies. The mining sector in the Philippines employed 212,000 Filipinos in 2018, and in 2017, paid $529.6 million in national and local taxes, fees, and royalties, according to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau—less than 1 percent of the country’s GDP. Mineral exports, however, amounted to $4.26 billion in 2018, with Canada, Japan, Australia, and China as the major countries of destination.
Mining propped up by military
Activists say infractions caused by mining companies are made possible because the Philippine Army and other state security forces have a government mandate to protect projects deemed essential to the Philippine economy.
In a statement to VICE News, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Marine Major General Edgard Arevalo said that the deployment of military personnel “is necessary to establish a secure environment to allow the smooth implementation of government projects and provide security of vital infrastructures in the hinterlands.” This deployment is by virtue of a memorandum of agreement between the Department of National Defense and companies, he added.
Arevalo said that the armed forces deploy official paramilitary units—composed of army reservists, inactive soldiers, and volunteers—to guard mining sites. The government created these civilian paramilitary units more than 30 years ago, with the prime purpose of dealing with local insurgency threats. Over the years, they have been accused of various human rights abuses and at one point were even disbanded, only to be revived again. In 2018, Duterte granted them financial support.
“These policy mandates are cited by military officials as the basis as to why they have presence in mineralized lands…and why they are harassing and militarizing communities opposed to these projects,” said Dulce, Kalikasan’s coordinator.
While this exists however, Dulce said foreign “companies have always been complicit”—and Canadian corporations are no exception. “You’ve never seen them condemn or make proactive efforts to diffuse tension in the area,” Dulce said. “The state security is their biggest investment guarantee.”
Canada has a lot to gain
“The mining industry is Canada’s flagship industry overseas,” said Catherine Coumans, a research coordinator with MiningWatch Canada.
In 2017, the minerals sector directly and indirectly contributed 5 percent—$97 billion—to Canada’s total GDP and held $169 billion in assets overseas. Canada also boasts that the industry has directly or indirectly created 630,000 jobs in urban, rural, and remote regions domestically.
Several Canadian mining companies are also publicly traded on the Vancouver and Toronto stock exchanges. Even the Canadian Pension Plan, a publicly funded retirement plan that Canadians contribute to through their taxes, has several equity holdings in publicly traded mining companies, including B2Gold, which indirectly owns the Masbate gold site where the three young farmers were killed. (The Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Despite mining’s lucrative impact, some communities in the Philippines are still reeling from decades of unresolved ecological degradation at Canadian mining sites, and advocates say they worry it will continue to worsen under Duterte. Coumans said mining is particularly dangerous in the Philippines because the country is made up of thousands of small islands and has a dense population. Waste from the mines typically contaminates the ocean and other waterways, which are heavily relied on for fishing, bathing, drinking, washing clothes, and more. From an environmental and human rights standpoint, “the Philippines is not a good place for mining, but Canadian companies are showing up there anyway,” Coumans said, adding that she believes “every single mine” has displaced people and polluted waterways.
Canadian mining companies dispute this claim, with OceanaGold pointing to their environmental standards and efforts, including collaboration with local communities, governments, and other stakeholders, over water management and related concerns. However, Coumans noted that such efforts are voluntary, so mining corporations don’t face consequences if they don’t follow the standards they promote.
Unenforceable rules may have long-term consequences: One of the Philippines' worst ever environmental disasters took place in March 1996 at a Canadian mining site in Marinduque, an island in the southwest. Toxic leftover waste leaked out of the Marcopper Mining site, run by Marcopper and its parent company, Placer Dome, a Canadian corporation that has since been taken over by Barrick Gold. The waste flooded nearby villages and the Boac River, which was full of fish and shrimp. Hundreds of people were displaced, including 400 families who lived in Barangay Hinapulan, a village that was buried in 6 feet of muddy water.
Marcopper, Placer Dome, and Barrick Gold have faced several legal actions since the disaster, including a civil suit launched by the provincial government of Marinduque in 2006 in Nevada. (Barrick Gold became a party to the suit after it acquired the company.) Placer Dome had more earnings from mines in Nevada than those in Canada, so the rationale for launching the suit in the state was that “in a globalized world where mining companies can be headquartered in one country, be on stock exchanges and raise funds in multiple countries, and mine in yet another country, they should be able to be held to account in any of the jurisdictions where they have a significant nexus,” Coumans said. Ultimately, the Nevada court said the suit should be decided in either Canada, where Barrick is headquartered, or in the Philippines, where the alleged infractions took place. The suit is now on hold, yet to be resolved, and failed settlement attempts have marred negotiations.
In 2014, Earth Rights International accused Barrick Gold of “coercive settlement provisions,” alleging the company tabled $20 million with a stipulation that would “prohibit the province from using any of the settlement fund to rehabilitate and remediate the environmental damage caused by the mine’s operations or to stabilize the dangerous mine structures abandoned by the company more than a decade ago.”
In a statement to VICE News, Barrick Gold spokesperson Kathy du Plessis said Placer Dome spent over $50 million remediating the spill. “We do not believe that the lawsuit has any merit. We are vigorously defending the case,” she said. Plessis also noted that the company no longer has any operations in the Philippines.
According to a 2019 two-part series by independent media outlet VERA Files, the Boac river is still biologically dead and local residents in Marinduque, including Racquel Logatoc, the chief of the affected Bocboc village, continue to suffer from skin irritation, fatigue, and body aches as a result of heavy metals—like lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, copper, and chromium—flowing through their blood. Doctors blame interactions with a toxic environment for the health problems, VERA Files reported, and a health emergency was declared in the region in 2016.
Things are getting worse
At least 157 land defenders had been killed since Duterte came to power, according to Kalikasan. This is an annual rate that far outstrips his predecessors: it’s more than three times higher than occurred under Benigno Aquino III, and eight times higher than under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
This is not surprising, given Duterte’s ongoing brutal drug war that has resulted in the deaths of about 27,000 Filipinos through alleged extrajudicial killings at the hands of police. The controversial new anti-terror law doesn’t allay fears, either. The law, which barrelled through Congress this year, gives police and military broader powers to go after suspected terrorists. The definition of terrorists is disturbingly vague, say critics, who worry that the law will be used to silence dissenters.
Dulce said Duterte “has taken opportunity of the (pandemic) to railroad the passage” of the law, and he believes Duterte will not enact a stronger human rights policy, or strictly regulate foreign interests. In August, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau announced it was looking for new mining projects, and that the environmental “trade-off” will help the economy recover. “With (Duterte’s) kind of fascist thinking, there’s no way we can get out of this way through dialogue,” said Dulce.
Dulce and other activists have asked the United Nations to intervene, especially because its declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples compels governments to consult with Indigenous communities before any development takes place on ancestral lands. But the declaration is not legally binding, unless countries legislate it themselves.
Against the backdrop of a pandemic—which Duterte has responded to by mobilizing police and military to the streets rather than health workers—environmental defenders on the ground are left with little hope.
At least nine human rights defenders have been killed since March despite the COVID-19 movement restrictions, said rights group Karapatan, while Dulce said they have monitored at least 555 environmental defenders who have suffered human rights abuses during the lockdown. Among that number is Zara Alvarez, a human rights activist who documented the murders of farmers and land defenders and had been red-tagged. She was gunned down last month while walking home from the grocery store.
The Office of the Presidential Spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, Arevalo, the spokesperson for the armed forces, said that whenever they name individuals as supporters of communist parties, “those are based on information in our possession sourced from captured documents, forensics of computers, cellular phones, external hard drives, and other data storage seized during combat operations.” He said the information also comes from former terrorists who now assist the government in its counterterrorism operations, and denied any accusations that the military was behind any killings of environmentalists or land defenders. “These, again, are mere accusations against the AFP to discredit the government and tarnish our reputation,” he said.
Arevalo also claimed that Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore have themselves declared the Communist Party of the Philippines a terrorist organization. Canada’s public safety ministry does not include the Communist Party on its list of international terrorist entities, and Australia’s national security site doesn’t either.
“We are really hoping for accountability over the crimes and killings perpetrated by the state,” said Dulce. Since 2001, he added, “not a single case (of killings) has sufficiently been resolved.”
Canada is turning a blind eye
The land defenders have also turned to the companies, as well as the countries where their headquarters are based, to take responsibility.
“Shouldn’t the mother countries be accountable for allowing their corporations to take advantage of weak policies overseas? They’re benefiting from human rights violations here in the Philippines; they’re benefiting from natural resource plunder,” said Dulce.
After being red-tagged in 2018, Simongo and others named in the posters made the seven-hour road trip from Dipidio to Manila to appeal to the Canadian embassy for protection.
“We wanted to ask for protection and to ask Canada to investigate the violations of the company,” said Simongo, “so people would know the truth.”
The four red-tagged eco-defenders detailed human rights violations at the Didipio mining site and showed pictures of the pamphlets connecting them to communist guerrilla insurgents, said Coumans, who accompanied the delegation. They wanted the embassy to denounce Duterte’s practice of red-tagging, and wanted to know if Canada could offer support, including amnesty, if dangers escalated.
The answer to both requests was no, and according to Coumans, the diplomat they spoke with said he wouldn’t issue a public statement because he didn’t want to spark conflict. Instead, Coumans said the embassy grilled Simongo and the others, and the diplomat questioned whether they had legitimate ties to the Communist Party. “It was like an intelligence-gathering exercise for the embassy,” Coumans said. “There was no follow up...I don't think they understood or cared about us.”
“Maybe it was our lack of finances and resources. We weren’t able to return and keep asking for help. Maybe that’s why,” said Simongo.
The Canadian embassy in Manila did not respond directly to the allegations but spokesperson Michel Cimpaye said, “Promoting respect for human rights is at the heart of Canada’s international policies and engagement, and the Embassy in Manilla has been responsive in bringing the concerns raised by the miners to the mine operator.”
Canada’s Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, Sheri Meyerhoffer, is supposed to hold corporations accountable. The ombudsperson role, introduced last year, is tasked with reviewing claims of human rights abuses by mining and oil and gas companies, although according to Myerhoffer’s spokesperson, Nelson Kalil, she has not undertaken any investigations yet. Kalil said they are aiming to launch their complaints and dispute resolution mechanism in November.
Not everyone thinks Meyerhoffer will be successful. Penelope Simons, a University of Ottawa legal scholar specializing in resource extraction, thinks Meyerhoffer’s role won’t work in practice because the ombudsperson cannot compel or summon corporations to participate in investigations, and all participation is voluntary.
Meyerhoffer has acknowledged this: When the government first introduced the role in 2018, “it stated our office would have the powers to compel testimony or documents from companies,” Meyerhoffer said in a statement. “These powers were not granted.” Meyerhoffer said while she can’t force companies to participate in investigations, those that don’t cooperate could face consequences, including loss of government funding, which provide “leverage to encourage companies to meaningfully participate in the process.”
Ten years ago, Liberal MP John McKay introduced responsible mining legislation, Bill C-300, which would have forced corporations to comply with widely accepted international human rights and environmental standards. Consequences for not doing so would have included loss of financial support and withheld support from Canadian embassies.
The legislation, unsurprisingly, failed. “The extractive industry is a large, wealthy and well-connected interest group, with prominent ex-politicians, including former Liberal Minister of International Trade Jim Peterson, among its lobbyists,” said an op-ed co-authored by Simons at the time.
“You can never, ever underestimate the influence of the mining industry—ever,” McKay told VICE News. After nearly a decade, McKay said some of the companies in the industry have signed a bunch of self-policing protocols, especially the “more legitimate” companies “concerned about reputational damages.” But not much has changed. Until the ombudsman can investigate and expose violations, “we will continue to have egregious situations that embarrass our nation and diminish our brand,” McKay added.
Six months after surviving his assassination attempt, Claver received a tip that he was in danger again.
“Around the New Year (2007), we received very reliable information that, because I was difficult to pin down, the military was planning on utilizing my children to get to me,” Claver said. “That changed everything… I knew I had to get out.”
Claver organized a vacation to Canada with his daughters and immediately claimed refugee status when they landed. They were granted amnesty as political refugees in 2007, applied for permanent residency in 2010, and have lived on the West Coast since.
Today, Claver does advocacy work for Migrante Canada, a group supporting Filipino migrants, but he’s also pushed back against Canadian mining interests as an international representative with Cordillera Alliance and Bayan Muna, a left-leaning party-list in the Philippines. Several additional groups in Canada continue to call out the link between Canadian mining and human rights violations in the Philippines.
Filipinos who end up in Canada often face xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments, even though Canadian corporations may have contributed to the displacement and migration in the first place. Still, Claver said he’s one of the lucky ones. Other Filipinos who end up in Canada have to spend huge amounts of money working with a recruiter to get placement as labourers through temporary foreign worker programs, which are also exploitative.
“I declared myself as a refugee, but I could do that because I had resources,” Claver said. Some people who have been red-tagged and reach out to Canada for support go to the Canadian embassy, but “the batting average is very, very low,” he added.
The embassy did not respond directly when asked why it’s so difficult for red-tagged people protesting Canadian operations to seek amnesty. Cimpaye pointed to Canada’s guidelines for supporting human rights defenders, but did not specify how they are applied in the Philippines.
This mirrors issues present in Canada. Claver said he noticed how similarly Canadian resource extraction companies and the Canadian government treat Indigenous communities in the Philippines and those in Canada, and said, “I can’t help but see a racial aspect to all of this.”
Indigenous communities across Canada have a long history of pushing back against resource development on their ancestral lands, with Wet’suwet’en land defenders advocating this year against the Coastal GasLink oil and gas pipeline. Militarized police were deployed against them in February.
‘We need to defend what is ours’
In the Philippines, most activists and Indigenous peoples continue to defend their communities and the environment largely on their own.
Simongo continues to hold onto hope that the Duterte government will not renew the OceanaGold licence. “We believe that by approaching different embassies, and our supporters, they might help us get to the president,” Simongo said.
Cullamat, who witnessed the Lumad killings in 2015, also refuses to back down. She is now a congresswoman for Bayan Muna, and said the murders gave her the courage to tell not just the country but the rest of the world about the dire situation of Indigenous communities and environmental defenders in the Philippines. “While Filipinos are killing each other, foreigners that are taking our resources are turning a blind eye,” she said. “They are making us fight against each other because of foreign interests in our own country. We should be the ones benefiting from our natural resources.”
Cullamat knows that her vocal opposition to the government’s mining policies could kill her. She has already been red-tagged by a government official on Facebook, while the military has accused her of defending communist rebels. But she is convinced the defence of Philippine land, especially ancestral land, is her life’s purpose. “When I saw the killings, I was afraid. I’m still afraid. I’m afraid even today,” she said.
“But we need to defend our lands because there is nothing more important for our future generation,” Cullamat added. “No matter how big the money is, it doesn't matter because that is finite. But if we take care of our lands, that will be enjoyed by many generations. We need to defend what is ours.”
Slain rights worker Zara Alvarez laid to rest
Kristine Joy Patag
August 26, 2020
MANILA, Philippines — Slain Karapatan paralegal Zara Alvarez was laid to rest on Monday amid growing calls for justice and independent investigation into human rights killings in the country.
Alvarez was gunned down in a private village in Bacolod City on August 17. She was the 13th rights worker of Karapatan and, according to a United Nations expert among the more than 200 human rights defenders killed since the start of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.
“Today, we bury and honor Zara, a fierce and determined human rights defender, with strong indignation. As we grieve the loss of one of our colleagues, we do not relent in our calls for justice and an independent and impartial probe on her killing,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said.
In her short life, Alvarez had led campaigns against human rights violations, served as advocacy officer of a community health program and paralegal of Karapatan.
The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers-Panay Chapter honored Alvarez for helping them in cases of human rights violations in Negros islands that, in 2018 and 2019, saw several killings.
“From Canlaon to Manjuyod, Sta. Catalina, Sagay, Escalante, Kabankalan, and Bacolod—wherever famers, peasant leaders, and rights advocates were imprisoned or killed—Zara was there to help the victims and their families get through the hardships brought by state-sponsored terror,” the lawyers’ group said last week.
Alvarez’s name was reportedly included in the more than 600 people tagged in the Department of Justice’s proscription petition in 2018, hundreds of names from which were later removed. She was also included in the red-tagging posters that circulated in Bacolod City along with other activists and human rights lawyer Benjamin Ramos, who was killed in 2018.
The red-tagging and threats that Alvarez said she was receiving in the days leading to the day of the killing did not deter her from human rights work.
Bulatlat.com reported that on the night of her cold-blooded killing, Alvarez had been preparing for the arraignment of a political prisoner. She had been coordinating with the lawyer and the family of the accused.
Impartial investigation sought
Palabay said that Alvarez suffered years-long harassment from State forces that ranged “from trumped-up charges and imprisonment to death threats and even judicial terror-tagging.”
“There could be no other culprits behind this brutal and cowardly act that the fascist butchers of the State,’ Palabay added.
She reiterated her call for an independent and impartial investigation into the killing of Alvarez’s murder that should cover State forces, “precisely because of the pattern of threats and vilification she and other slain human rights workers had been subjected to from the police and the military.”
Karapatan was among the groups that sought the issuance of a protection writ from the court but failed. Palabay and other rights leaders instead were dragged back to court over revived perjury charges — stemming from a complaint from by National Security Adviser Hermones Esperon Jr. — for supposedly lying in their petition for writ of amparo previously filed before the Supreme Court.
The Department of Justice’s Administrative Order 35 Task Force, the panel looking into politically-motivated killing, is one of the agencies conducting a probe into the case—but Karapatan had earlier expressed doubts in the panel, noting that it failed to make substantial progress in past investigations.
United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Agnas Callamard also urged the international community to establish an investigation into the human rights situation in the Philippines and initiate sanctions against government officials who committed abuses.
The Commission on Human Rights said the killing of Alvarez shows the danger of red-tagging as it launched a motu propio (on its own initiative) investigation into the case.
Palabay stressed: “Only through an independent and impartial probe can we bring the perpetrators to justice.” — with reports from Gaea Katreena Cabico