[Only IN Hollywood] Journalist directs powerful docu on Palawan’s environmental crusaders

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Journalist directs powerful docu on Palawan’s environmental crusaders
'I’ve never met Filipinos like the people of Palawan, whose lives are indivisible with nature,' says producer Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala

LOS ANGELES, USA – On a car drive with friends from El Nido to San Vicente about four years ago, I saw a side of Palawan beyond the stunning white beaches that are always ranked among the world’s best.

Journeying inland for about two hours, we drove through the lush countryside on a surprisingly good road, dotted on each side by verdant rainforests.

Watching Karl Malakunas’ Delikado, a quietly powerful documentary about a small group of environmental crusaders trying to protect Palawan’s natural resources, I remembered that car drive alongside forests.

In his documentary feature directing debut, Karl, an Australian journalist who was based in Manila for over a decade, comes up with an absorbing environmental thriller as he follows these activists as they try to defend one of the Philippines’ last ecological frontiers amid deadly threats.

Karl, who got to know the courageous work of these Palawan volunteers when he wrote a story about them as an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent, crafts a documentary whose low-key, un-sensationalistic approach makes the subject even more compelling.

In Delikado, Karl follows Bobby Chan, a Palawan-based environmental lawyer who heads a small but committed group of land defenders that go on expeditions into the forests to peacefully confiscate (invoking a little-known citizen’s arrest law) the chainsaws of illegal loggers. They also try to protect Palawan’s rich marine life by confiscating cyanide fishing gear.

The journalist-filmmaker and his cinematographer, Tom Bannigan, also follow Nieves Rosento, who was El Nido’s mayor at the time of the filming, an ally of the activists defending her hometown’s natural resources.

In our email interview, Karl explained his film’s title, Delikado. “I first heard Efren ‘Tata’ Balladares whisper, ‘delikado’ (risky) to the other para-enforcers while they were tracking illegal loggers in Palawan’s forests. It was a word that they repeated again and again in the forests.”

“When we were filming Bobby interacting with other PNNI (Palawan NGO Network Inc.) team members at their headquarters, ‘delikado’ was peppered through their conversations. While following Nieves on the campaign trail after President Duterte threatened to kill her, I would hear them repeatedly say, ‘delikado.’”

“So I had always felt, from the days filming in Palawan, that Delikado would be an apt title for the film. We brainstormed lots of other title options. But settled on Delikado.”

“It felt like the title that emerged from our three main subjects’ thoughts and fears. We also wanted to give the film a Filipino name.”

Delikado, which will have its World Premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on April 29 in Toronto, is produced by Karl, Marty Syjuco, Michael Collins, and Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala. Michael and Marty are the tandem behind award-winning documentaries, including Give Up Tomorrow. Kara is a prolific producer of documentaries, led by PJ Raval’s acclaimed Call Her Ganda.

TEAM DELIKADO. From left: Karl Malakunas, Michael Collins, and Marty Syjuco. Contributed photo

Michael, also interviewed via email, shared how he and Marty, who are two-time news and documentary Emmy Awards nominees, got to collaborate with Karl on Delikado. “After Give Up Tomorrow premiered in the Philippines nearly a decade ago, Karl interviewed Marty for AFP. The article landed on the front page of the South China Morning Post.”

“Sometime later, Karl reached out to tell us about a film he hoped to make based on an investigation he was conducting in Palawan. There were many similarities to our film, and as a first-time filmmaker, he was looking for some collaborators to help bring the story to life.”

“After some time giving advice, we joined the team as producers. Once the key photography was completed, Karl came to San Francisco where Marty and I were, and cut a fundraising teaser. We saw that we had good chemistry in the edit room so I decided to dive in as an editor as well.”

Michael recounted seeing for the first time some footage shot by Karl for Delikado. “As Karl started sharing his first dailies, we knew something special was brewing. He clearly had access to a world that few people have seen, going deep in the forest for days with a group of brave para-enforcers, and we felt this was an urgent and universal story.”

“The footage itself was terrifying, beautiful, and shockingly intimate – but it was the intimacy that excited me most. We knew that to tell this story properly, we had to not only cover what these land defenders were doing (risking and sacrificing their lives to protect their home) but why. We had to get to know them and see the world through their eyes.”

Karl began filming his eye-opening documentary, taking the viewer beyond the famous white sand beaches Palawan is famous for, in early 2017, and finished in late 2019, just before the pandemic began.

At Hot Docs in Toronto, Delikado debuts at the Isabel Bader Theatre on April 29, 5 pm, followed by a Q and A with Marty, Laura Nix, writer and executive producer, and James Costa, executive producer, and May 2, 10:30 am at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 1.

The following are excerpts of my email interviews with Karl, Michael, and Kara.

In your director’s statement, you wrote that in 2011, you were going to Palawan to write an AFP article on eco-tourism. But your contact was shot and killed. What did you learn about his murder? How did that motivate you to make this documentary?

K (Karl Malakunas): The person killed was “Doc” Gerry Ortega. When I was in Palawan, I was shocked to see the dangers that people in their communities faced in trying to protect their environments. I wrote an article for AFP in 2011 about this that was published widely in Philippine media and abroad.

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During my research for this article, I met Bobby Chan and was particularly intrigued with his “Swift Justice” program, in which he was using the nation’s citizen arrest laws as the architecture to allow confiscations of chainsaws from illegal loggers, boats from illegal fishermen, and other equipment from people who were illegally destroying Palawan’s environment.

I eventually went to do another story for AFP on PNNI’s confiscation operations. This report won a merit award for multimedia reporting at the 2018 Amnesty International-HKFFC Human Rights Awards.

During the filming and research for this report, I went with the para-enforcers into the forests around El Nido and filmed them confiscating two chainsaws from illegal loggers. “Kap” Ruben Arzaga was one of the para-enforcers. I was struck by his humbleness and his devotion to his family.

He said he was performing these chainsaw confiscations so the forests would still be standing when his daughters became adults. About six months later, he was shot and killed while trying to confiscate another chainsaw nearby.

Did Arzaga’s death happen while you were with him and his fellow land defenders out in the rainforests? Were his killers brought to justice?

K: Two men, brothers from El Nido, have been charged with his murder and alleged to have been at the forest site when Kap was killed. The trial has been going on for years but remains unresolved and continues.

It is an emotionally exhausting and expensive process for his family, and they are desperate for closure on this case.

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What does the murder of Arzaga and several other land defenders say about the culture of impunity in the Philippines?

K: It is no secret that the Philippines is one of the most dangerous nations in the world for people – whether they be environmental campaigners, rights campaigners, or journalists – who are trying to stand up to wealthy, powerful interests.

In the case of Kap Ruben Arzaga, while two relatively poor men who are accused of being small-time illegal loggers have been charged with his murder, there are questions over whether there was a mastermind behind the killing who has not been brought to justice.

GRIEF. Adelita Arzaga comforts her youngest daughter while surrounded by other family and friends at the funeral for her husband, murdered para-enforcer ‘Kap’ Ruben Arzaga. Photo by Karl Malakunas

And as in many cases of killings of rights and environment campaigners or journalists in the Philippines, whether events surrounding Kap’s murder are seeing just the “lower-level” people in the alleged crime who have been identified and caught.

Meanwhile, the ex-governor of Palawan, Joel Reyes, who was accused of orchestrating the murder of Doc Gerry Ortega in 2011, is back in Palawan and running for his old post.

Can you give an update on Bobby Chan, a lawyer who leads this group of land defenders who confiscate chainsaws from the illegal loggers, and Nieves Rosento, an environmental heroine-turned politician who was named by President Duterte in his controversial and allegedly politically motivated “narco list” in the name of his drug war? And Tata Balladares who leads the land defenders in the rainforests?

K: Bobby continues to run the PNNI network. The Palawan congress declared Bobby “persona non grata,” an act he has seen as one of intimidation and aimed at silencing his criticism of powerful voices in the province.

BOBBY. Bobby Chan stands in front of chainsaws at PNNI HQ. Photo by Thom Pierce

Nieves continues her grassroots activism and maintains her political ambitions in Palawan. She is running for a provincial board position in the upcoming elections. Social media disinformation has resurfaced during the election campaign against her in relation to the narco list.

Despite the president publicly naming her as a drug trafficker more than three years ago, she has never been charged with any such offense.

Tata spends a lot of his time now tending to a farm and looking after his local environment.

You slept in the rainforests with the land defenders as they tracked down illegal loggers and confiscated chainsaws. How much did you and the men worry about your personal safety?

K: The PNNI para-enforcers are among the bravest people I have ever met. They hike into the forests wearing flip-flops and their protective equipment limited to basically plastic ponchos for the rain. They know they may face people with weapons.

Snakes, exhausting hikes in incredibly hot and humid conditions, and muddy trails in which every step could lead to broken bones, are among some of the dangers they constantly face.

One of the para-enforcers broke his arm while on a reconnaissance trip into the forest but refused to abandon his team on the actual confiscation mission a few days later. He bandaged his arm and hiked for two days – sleeping just on a plastic sheet in the forest – with a swollen, incredibly painful arm.

He helped lead the successful confiscation of two chainsaws. A few days later, when the team returned to Puerto Princesa, he went to the hospital and had his arm put in a cast. This is just one of many stories of incredible strength and courage that I witnessed while having the privilege of being able to be among them.

These men understand the dangers they face. They know they may be killed for their work, like Kap and a dozen other para-enforcers. Yet they continue so that they can protect Palawan’s forests and mountains and seas for their children, and all Filipinos.

What were the conditions like filming in the rainforests? How many were you and your crew? Most of the land defenders were barefoot – did they feel more comfortable walking on the slippery ground without shoes?

K: Yes, they do feel more comfortable in flip-flops or barefoot than in hiking shoes! They are of the land, and I felt their connection with the earth while walking bare feet was almost a spiritual act. They were connected and protected.

Amazingly, they did not suffer any foot injuries while I was with them. Meanwhile, my hiking boots were heavy, uncomfortable, and seemed to deteriorate in the forests faster than their ultra-cheap flip-flops.

The conditions were incredibly grueling. In the heat and humidity, it was almost impossible to drink enough water. Tata and the other para-enforcers have amazing stamina and strength and trying to keep up with their relentless marching through the forests was extremely hard.

We kept the smallest crew possible while filming in the forests for security reasons. The bigger the crew, the more danger that one of us would break a leg or make a mistake in terms of security protocols.

Our crew was mostly two people – cinematographer Tom Bannigan and me. Manila-based video journalist Gretchen Malalad also hiked into the forests for some of the missions and was the first Filipina to document a chainsaw confiscation.

KARA AND GRETCHEN. ‘Delikado’ producer Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala (left), with video journalist Gretchen Malalad, who was the first Filipina to document a chainsaw confiscation. Contributed photo 

What happened to the hundreds of chainsaws confiscated by the land defenders from the illegal loggers which were eventually taken by the Palawan government (correct)? Where are those chainsaws now?

K: My understanding is that the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development ordered that they be taken back into government custody.

What do you hope this film imparts to the thousands of tourists who only see the stunning beaches of Palawan and are unaware of the environmental devastation being wrought on by illegal loggers inside Palawan?

K: To understand how fragile Palawan’s natural resources are, and to try and make conscious decisions about where they stay and visit while visiting the Philippines’ “last ecological frontier.”

The film’s debut ahead of the Philippines’ national elections on May 9 is timely.

K: This was a fate of festival programmers, rather than a specific decision by us. Nevertheless, if our film can help generate conversations about corruption and the system of governance ahead of the elections, then I believe that can only be healthy for any democracy.

What are your other hopes for the film as it debuts in the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival and gets shown all over the world?

K: Each year a record number of land defenders are being killed. Last year, 227 land defenders were recorded killed around the world.

The battles being fought by Bobby, Nieves, and Tata are the same as those being fought in Brazil, Colombia, and elsewhere around the globe. We want to celebrate the courage and strength of the land defenders of Palawan, which will hopefully inspire and drive action in the Philippines and globally.

TATA. Tata Balladares rests on a fallen tree while searching for illegal loggers in the forests of southern Palawan. Photo by Karl Malakunas

We want to elevate the plight of all land defenders who are risking everything on the front lines of the battle to restrain climate change and protect our diminishing natural resources.

As a producer of a slew of documentaries, what do you think is unique about Delikado?

Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala (KA): It’s the first time the audience will get a glimpse of what land defenders and para-enforcers do deep in the forests of Palawan. It’s the first time the viewer will witness land defenders, armed only with commitment and courage, save a tree, the forest, the ecosystem that thrives on it.

Our director, Karl Malakunas, and our filming team, took the challenge of trekking the mountains, roughing it, to document the risk these rangers took. The land defenders are willing to pay the ultimate price to protect their only home and the future of their children.

In fact, even the families of these land defenders don’t really know what happens in the forest. We showed rushes of the film to the family of one of our main characters. The family was shocked.

They always knew the job was risky but didn’t realize the physical hardship involved. They beamed with pride as they watched their father and his friends. Their pride eclipsed the anxiety they felt every time their loved ones went to the forest to stop illegal loggers.

It’s humbling how these environmental champions, who never get the spotlight nor the support, do their mission without question or fanfare. They feel it is their inherent right, their spiritual right, and obligation to protect the forests of Palawan.

DESTRUCTION. Tata Balladares and other PNNI para-enforcers walk through a patch of destroyed mangrove forest. Courtesy of Delikado LLC

What are your other hopes for the film as it debuts in the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival and gets shown all over the world?

MC: I hope audiences feel the connection to the earth and a responsibility to protect it the same way Tata, Nieves, and Bobby do.

And that they walk away feeling not only empowered to stand up to political and cooperate corruption and greed but also inspired to look around their own communities and see how they can take immediate action to be a land defender as well.

KA: I’ve never met Filipinos like the people of Palawan, whose lives are indivisible with nature. Even their idle talk or gossip is environmentally related!

But this mission to conserve our forests in the last frontier of the Philippines is not exclusive to them. It’s everyone’s crusade. We are all connected and we must get involved.

Hopefully, this film will deepen one’s appreciation for the people who embark on what seems like a suicidal mission to save precious finite resources. Hopefully, it will make the viewers feel the sense of urgency to live consciously in a way that no creature, human being, or home is harmed or displaced.

Hopefully, the children and the grandchildren of the greedy and powerful illegal loggers will convince them to stop the rape of our forests and the killing of the children of these forests. –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.