Number of environmental defenders killed increases to 49 in 2019

ALBAY, Philippines – Forty-nine environmental defenders were killed in the Philippines in 2019, according to the yearend report of Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment (KPNE). 

The 2019 figure represents a 63% increase from the 30 deaths among environmental defenders recorded in 2018.

Farmers and agricultural workers remained the most targeted, representing 63% of deaths, followed by government officials, 22%; indigenous people, 20%; and forest rangers, 13%. 

"These deaths represent the arduous people’s struggles to protect a total of 1.2 million hectares of forest and agricultural landscapes that provide valuable ecosystem services amounting to P212.8 billion annually," the report said. 

It added, "Despite a whopping 80% of the cases linked to identified state security forces or perpetrated in the notorious death squad fashion, even forest rangers and other government officials working to protect the environment are not spared from this climate of impunity."

Land conflicts driven by agribusiness 

The report showed that the worsening land conflicts driven by agribusiness and other land grabs comprise 70% of these recorded killings.

Of the 29 farmers and agri-workers killed, 21 fell under the concern of agribusiness and land grabs.  

In the island of Negros, police operations and counter-insurgency programs have applied brutal force against the land occupation and cultivation campaigns by landless agriworkers and small farmers under the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW).

Instead of targeting insurgents, these operations serve to secure almost 428,000 hectares of undistributed agrarian reform lands still controlled by landowner families and agribusiness companies, said the KPNE. 

Struggles of small farmers, Lumad

The small farmers and indigenous people in the watersheds of Bukidnon have been attacked under blanket military rule, according to the report – all for their struggle against more than 100,000 hectares of agribusiness plantations and mining application interests covering 31,180 hectares across the Pantaron Mountain Range.

At the same time, paramilitary groups and riding-in-tandem assassins are systematically targeting members and leaders of farmers group Unyon sa Mag-Uuma sa Agusan del Norte (UMAN) and indigenous groups under the Kalumbay Regional Lumad Organization.

Rise of attacks against forest rangers

The report noted that the rise of attacks against government forest rangers and other local government officials, which combine for 22% of all recorded cases, count as a significant trend in 2019.

Last September 4, El Nido forest ranger Bienvenido Venguilla Jr was hacked to death by illegal loggers from whom they confiscated a chainsaw, despite having a firearm with him for protection. 

Militarization hotspots; Negros as epicenter

Through a spatial analysis of the spread of killings, KPNE found that the areas subjected to heavy militarization supposedly for internal security are the areas where the most number of environmental defenders are being killed.

According to the report, 11 Mindanao defenders were murdered with positive identification or corroborating circumstances linking to state forces, such as 8th, 75th, and 88th infantry battalions and their attached paramilitary groups, such as the Alamara.

"Mindanao also remains a restive hotspot with the extended declaration of Martial Law over the island being leveraged to crack down on mineral-rich and agricultural lands within indigenous Lumad territories and land reform struggles," the report said.

But "Negros is clearly the epicenter, as it continues to face a crackdown" initiated first through President Rodrigo Duterte’s Memorandum Order 32 declaring a State of Emergency from Lawless Violence over the areas of Negros, Bicol, and Leyte-Samar, said the report.

This was followed by the establishment of inter-agency task forces on counter insurgency through Executive Order 70 s. 2019, which has leveraged local governments, line agencies, and other branches of government to vilify, harass, and ultimately ‘neutralize’ activists and defenders they have labeled as enemies of the state.

The 26 cases were the result of active police or military combat operations or hits where perpetrators were identified by witnesses. Death squad assassinations that followed the modus of "drug war" operations were observed in at least 11 of the cases.

Call for action

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), through its regional offices, has ongoing investigations into some of these cases.

During an environmental defenders forum held in Quezon City in November, lawyer Jenin Rosanne Velasquez of the CHR Legal Division said, "Our regional offices handle cases from the frontlines, so that when there's an appeal due to an unsatisfying conclusion, the central office can handle it."

KPNE called on congressional representatives and senators to take action on this urgent issue.

According to KPNE, these defenders protect valuable resources which our country stand to lose if we don't protect them. "These are ecosystem services fundamental to our country’s resilience in the face of the global climate emergency," it said.

The country is already losing P61.2 billion annually from disasters. – Rappler.com