According to eco-watchdog Global Witness, the Philippines was the ‘world’s deadliest country’ for environmental and land defenders in 2018, supplanting Brazil for the first time since monitoring began in 2012. At least 30 people who resisted land grabs by mining, agribusiness or logging industries were killed last year (down from 48 deaths in 2017), reportedly by military or paramilitary groups.
Following President Duterte’s announcement to extend martial law and allocate 1.6 million hectares of land to commercial plantations, the island of Mindanao has become a hotspot for murder. In 2017, eight indigenous villagers were killed by military personnel for opposing a coffee plantation on their ancestral land. Officials deemed it an accident amid ‘legitimate’ attacks on a guerrilla base.
Murder is just one example of the unspeakable horrors activists face on a day-to-day basis. Many are subjected to non-lethal tactics designed to stifle dissent and exonerate the perpetrators of violence. This might include arrests, death threats, house demolitions and smear campaigns that brand protestors as ‘terrorists’ or ‘communist rebels’.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo has since condemned the report, describing Global Witness as “a purveyor of falsity and a subservient machinery for political propaganda”.
The killings are symptomatic of a culture of impunity created by Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’, which has seen over 12,000 Filipino deaths to date. Under martial law, military presence in poor urban areas and the attacks that ensue are justified, signalling to big business interests that defenders are ‘open season to be intimidated, harassed and eventually silenced’. This is exacerbated by governments and international organisations that fail to carry out due diligence checks and ultimately profit from the collapse of the rule of law.
The reinterpretation of laws to criminalise land and environmental activists under the guise of ‘national security’ is not unique to the Global South. Since Donald Trump was elected, at least 17 states have passed laws that increase penalties for those who interfere – or plan to interfere – with ‘critical infrastructure’, including controversial oil and gas pipelines. Earlier this month, the Metropolitan police passed a London-wide ban on Extinction Rebellion protests. All have profound consequences for the future of democracy and dissent - as well as for the environment.
As we hurtle towards climate catastrophe, breaking the cycle of silence that entraps land and environmental defenders worldwide is critical. In what ways can governments ensure that the land they are profiting from has been leased legally, with the consent of indigenous communities? How can we better negotiate the tensions between democracy and economic greed?