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Dead man’s land: On the ground with environmental activists

The Philippines is renowned for its rich biodiversity, boasting around 240 protected areas of land and water. But all this is under threat as wide-scale infrastructure, modernization, and resource extraction displace indigenous peoples (IPs) and propel the encroaching climate emergency.

Moved by this purpose, environmental activists are on the frontlines, advocating for concrete policies and raising awareness to mitigate this threat. But aside from standing up for their stances, environmental activists are met with a far more dangerous fight—one that involves risks to their own lives.

A united front

The scope of environmentalism is broad—it addresses multiple issues, easily overwhelming people. For Paula Bernasor, Visayas coordinator for The Climate Reality Project Philippines, her environmental awareness started at a young age when she survived the 1991 Ormoc flash flood. This inspired her to join the movement, focusing on marine life preservation.

With climate change affecting aquatic ecosystems, marine protected areas (MPAs) have to be legally established. Bernasor works on many of these MPAs—conducting coral restorations, underwater clean-ups, and area assessments. However, she notices that there are “several lapses” from the local government units from the MPA she has visited, citing the lack of urgency in implementing environment protection policies.

Meanwhile, mining has long been an issue in the country. In 2004, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered the revitalization of the mining industry in the Philippines, in which large-scale excavations of land and natural resources were widely permitted. Back then, Jaybee Garganera was part of a rural development non-governmental organization that advocated for land reforms. He recalls farmer leaders telling him, “Lahat ng panalo natin sa land reform...at ‘yung mga [katutubong] nabigyan ng titulo ng lupaing ninuno [nila], malamang lahat ‘yan mawawala dahil papapasukin ‘yung malalaking mining company.”

(All our achievements in land reform…and indigenous peoples reclaiming their ancestral land will be for nothing when big mining companies are invited.)

This led Garganera to form Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM)—a coalition of over a hundred organizations that condemns the destruction of indigenous lands caused by large-scale mining projects. Now its National Coordinator, Garganera leads the organization in assisting communities and mobilizing with other environmental movements to propose better environmental policies. Although environmental laws already exist, Garganera laments, “Ibang kwento ‘yung enforcement tsaka pagpapatupad,” as many areas remain inadequately protected.

(Enforcement and implementation are a different stories.)

Growing pains

Unsurprisingly, Bernasor calls the government’s urgency on environmental issues “lousy”. “There are still a good number of questionable transactions being allowed by the government, from mining operations to reclamation projects,” she furthers, especially after the ban on new mining agreements in the country was lifted.

Garganera agrees, recalling an issue involving the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) of a mining project. Since an EIA is a requirement for all projects that will affect environmental quality, each one must be exhaustive. However, “Ang EIA na dapat sa Caraga (Administrative Region), kinopy na para sa [isang project sa] MIMAROPA; nakalimutang i-edit ‘yung mga pangalan ng lugar,” he exposes.

(An EIA for a project in Caraga (Administrative Region) was copied for a project in MIMAROPA; they forgot to edit the names of the places.)

Furthermore, the national coordinator cites the Green Thumb Coalition, a local organization that highlights its Green Scorecard to prove the Duterte administration’s lapses. With the highest possible score of 10, the card sums up the average of nine categories to evaluate government response over the past year. The administration’s performance in 2020 only averaged a mere 1.55, rating as a “dismal failure”. This score was a far cry from when the administration started, ”Medyo pasang-awa pa, five pa [‘yung score].”

(It barely passed, the score was only five.)

It’s clear that economic development pushes the destruction of environmental property. “Most of the threats to the environment come from capitalists and private organizations [who are] fixated on making the most profit,” Bernasor points out. This focus on consumption, production, and profit without concern for third-party effects forms a vicious cycle that comes at the cost of our ecosystem. Unfortunately, this bitter clash between the environment and economic interests threatens to jeopardize and even take lives away. 

Under pressure

Some of the most intense clamors for proper enforcement of environmental laws come from IPs. Working closely with several indigenous communities, Garganera argues, “Ang lupa ay buhay at ang buhay ay ang lupa.”

(Land is life, and life is land.)

As such, environmental activists and IPs march together, criticizing massive government-sponsored infrastructure projects like the Kaliwa Dam and the Masbate Gold Project. In return, however, many are accused of being “anti-development” by pro-government groups, coupled with near-deadly repercussions.

The Philippines, according to London-based environmental organization Global Witness, is currently the second deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders, with many being red-tagged, threatened, or killed.

Garganera knows the danger all too well. He was faced with threatening texts and phone calls, a voice on the other end saying they know his vehicle color, plate number, and the address where he lives. But he also warns, “Mas malaki ang risk kung…katutubo ka, lalo na nga tinitingnan ang katutubo na taga-recruit at sympathizer ng mga insurgents.”

(The risk is more significant if you’re part of an indigenous group, especially since  IPs are seen as recruiters and sympathizers for insurgents.)

Rising above grassroots

While environmental activists are at the frontlines of defense, it seems that government negligence and climate change are winning the battle. However, both coordinators remind us that it’s never too late to spark change.

For Bernasor, she suggests that change must come from the individual. “Think of yourself as an Earth storyteller,” she reminds. From there, empowering environmental protectors on a national level is the next step forward. Garganera concurs, suggesting that a change in leadership, one “who will understand that the crisis goes beyond economics,” is necessary.

Both hope for a future where our environment will stand the test of time. Garganera hopes that we continue to have “active engagements with the human rights community” in the fight to topple the exploitative system. With our future on the line, he reminds, “Hindi namin maipapanalo ‘yung laban sa community, or ‘yung pinaninindigan ng community, nang kami lang.

(We can’t achieve the fight of the community or what they stand for if we’re on our own.)

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