Persecution of Environmental Defenders in the Philippines

by Calvin Manahan
Staff Writer

57-year-old Gloria Capitan was shot and killed in front of her 8-year-old grandson by masked assailants in the karaoke bar she owned just a few feet away from her house. Capitan was a beloved and active member of her community. She had been the leader of a movement to remove a coal power plant whose fumes had been adversely affecting the health of people in her village. The plant was owned by San Miguel, the largest corporation in the Philippines. To date, her killers have yet to be brought to justice


In many different television shows and movies there will be a scene in which a person chains themselves to a tree in an effort to stop a bulldozer from tearing it down. Almost every time, the bulldozer stops and the people chained to the tree are heralded as heroes for supporting an environmental cause. The unfortunate truth is that if this scene were to play out in real life, and more specifically in The Philippines, the ending would be a much more tragic and bloody one. In 2018, there were 164 reported deaths of environmental activists across the world. 30 of these came from the Philippines alone, making it the most dangerous country for defenders of the environment, according to a report published by the non-profit organization GlobalWitness. In their full report on the situation in the Philippines, they cite corporate greed as the primary motivator in these killings. Many of those who died were activists protesting against the aggressive and unethical practices of large-scale corporations. Rich in natural resources and one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, the Philippines has much to gain from protecting its forests and seas. However, those who do step up to the challenge of speaking in defense of the environment have been met with a shower of bullets. These casualties are comprised of members of numerous different groups including indigenous people, peasant farmer leaders, activists, and lawyers. Large-scale multinational companies have been linked to many of these killings, but no formal action has been taken against them. 

A group of indigenous people protesting the Duterte administration

A large portion of these deaths are indigenous people fighting for their ancestral land. Renato Anglao is a tribe leader of the indigenous Lumad people. He was driving home with his wife and child after shopping for school supplies when he was shot twice by unknown gunmen and died on the side of the road. Anglao had been a key figure in fighting against the land-grabbing of Lumad lands by international corporations such as Del Monte, one of the biggest food distributors in the world. The Lumad, one of the poorest ethnic minorities in the country, live on the island of Mindanao and have been at the forefront of environmentalism in the region, having been battling against mining and logging companies for years. They had hoped that President Duterte, being from Mindanao as well, would be sympathetic to their cause and help alleviate their problems. Instead, their already-unsuccessful struggle to defend their native home was further aggravated by President Duterte’s lifting of mining regulations. The situation for the Lumad has only worsened in recent years due to attacks by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the official military force of the country. Lumad tribe leaders cite harassment from soldiers and ransacking of their villages as having forcefully driven them from their ancestral homes. Although these military operations began during the previous administration, the Lumad have lost all hope that an administration under Duterte would be different after he threatened to bomb their schools

This spree of killings comes at no shock when placed in the greater context of the Duterte regime. The President’s primary advocacy has been his “War on Drugs” which has claimed the lives of upwards of 20,000 individuals with the vast majority of these coming from impoverished sectors. Silencing dissenters through lethal force is nothing new for this government with the President most recently making the airwaves for telling military officials that they have free reign to kill everyone in the island of Negros. In March of 2019, 14 farmers were massacred in Negros during a series of operations carried out by the Philippine police and military. The former head of the Philippine National Police justified the operations by claiming that the farmers were terrorists with links to Communist insurgency groups. This runs contrary to witness accounts and rights groups claiming that the victims were unarmed innocent workers. Red-tagging, the act of associating a person or organization with left-leaning rebel groups, has become the favored tactic of the Duterte regime to justify its attacks on human rights groups, worker unions, members of the academe, religious leaders, and environmental defenders. 

With the country averaging a murder of an environmental defender every 12 days, all eyes are on President Duterte to see how he will ensure the safety of his people. Unfortunately, with so many killings being perpetrated by the state itself, it is likely that this death toll will only increase by the end of his term in 2022. 

Photos by:

Stevan Baird

Keith Bacongco

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