FEATURE: Philippines global hotspot for environmental murders

AFP, EL NIDO, Philippines

Thu, Dec 07, 2017 - Page 6

Environmental activists are being killed in record numbers around the world, with the corruption-plagued Philippines one of the most dangerous nations, watchdog Global Witness said.

At least 200 community activists, non-governmental organization (NGO) workers and other civilians on the frontlines of protecting the environment were reported murdered worldwide last year, the highest on record, the group said.

In the Philippines, an environmental activist was recorded to have been killed at a rate of every 12 days last year, with only Brazil and Colombia having more murders.

As in other hotspot nations, the deaths in the Philippines are rising as communities stand up against corrupt politicians and businesspeople intent on securing increasingly scarce natural resources.

“Voracious industries such as mining, agribusiness and logging are trampling over people’s rights to take part in decisions that affect their land and environment,” Global Witness environmental and land defenders campaign leader Billy Kyte said.

“Forced into activism, many of these marginalized communities then receive threats and attacks for defending their rights. The government does little to stop the ensuing violence and rarely holds anyone to account for the killings,” he said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial crackdown on drugs, which has seen police and suspected vigilantes kill thousands of people, further highlights the culture of impunity, rights groups said.

Father-of-five Ruben Arzaga was one of the most recent land defenders murdered in the Philippines when he was shot in the head in September, as he tried to approach illegal loggers on Palawan island, a popular tourist destination.

Arzaga was an elected village captain in Palawan’s El Nido, famed for its idyllic beaches and limestone cliffs, and had been trying to confiscate illegally cut timber as part of a personal crusade to stop rampant deforestation.

“If this illegal activity is not stopped, I think before my youngest daughter becomes a young adult and has a family of her own, all the big trees here will be gone,” Arzaga, 49, said in February during another mission to confiscate chainsaws from illegal loggers.

Police said Arzaga, who was leading a small group of local officials, was ambushed at the logging site.

Two brothers from Arzaga’s local community have been charged with murder over his killing.

Arzaga belonged to the Palawan NGO Network Inc (PNNI), a non-profit group made up of so-called para-enforcers that uses a citizen’s arrest law to confiscate equipment that is being used to destroy the island’s environment.

Arzaga was the 12th member of the group murdered since 2001.

“The PNNI’s environmental enforcement work is an example of concerned citizens willing to risk their lives to save Palawan’s precious environment. It’s a selfless, courageous task that should be celebrated,” Kyte said.

El Nido Mayor Nieves Rosento, a friend of Arzaga’s who is struggling with few resources to stop environmental destruction in the area, said the work of PNNI was essential.

“We have a lot of battles here and they help a lot,” Rosento said a day after attending Arzaga’s funeral.