[OPINION] When we’re scared to share: Thoughts from an environmental advocate

Issa Barte

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[OPINION] When we’re scared to share: Thoughts from an environmental advocate
'They were already able to red-tag us without the bill, how much more so if it's passed?'

Last June 3, 2020, the Anti-Terrorism Bill was passed by the House of Representatives. A few days later on June 9, Congress transmitted the bill to Malacañang despite calls to junk it.

To take the bill for what it is and what it seems to stand for, on regular cases, wouldn’t cause such an upheaval of dissent. It could’ve been a good bill hellbent to protect the Filipino people from terrorists, yet it’s a different story to read between its lines and in the context of this government. It’s not a secret that this administration turns to bloody solutions for the issues they face. Duterte’s Drug War with an estimated number of 27,000 killings, Duterte’s threats to murder those violating quarantine protocols, and again, Duterte himself personally admitting to killing at least 3 men in Davao where he served as mayor for over 22 years, are just testament to the answer they continue to honor. This is the kind of solution this government imposes— and it’s killing us. (READ: Still no ‘meaningful accountability’ over drug war killings under Duterte – Amnesty Int’l)

Drug pushers aren’t the only ones they red-tag as threats. The Philippines just last year replaced Brazil for the most dangerous country for land and environment defenders. This was due to the 48 murders in 2017 and the 30 others that happened in 2018. The country’s top botanist, Leanardo Co, fell victim to this. Reported by ABS-CBN, Co was gathering seedlings of endangered trees when he was caught in a crossfire between the military and suspected communist rebels. But there is belief that Co’s group was mistaken to be part of the rebel group, and the scenario was not a tragic event, but an inappropriate use of power due to mere and inefficient suspicion. He was killed together with Sofronio G. Cortez, a forest guard of the Energy Development Corporation (EDC), and Julius Borromeo, a local farmer who was the group’s guide. 

Incidents like Co’s are not uncommon, and due to the government’s decision on this bill especially while the Philippines plummets deeper into the intricacies of a global pandemic, will continue to be familiar. We have to ask ourselves: why now? Why was it deemed urgent amid rising COVID-19 cases, amid unemployment, prioritized amid hunger? Why has it been left with vague definitions despite protests of not just activists, but lawyers, journalists, and institutions?  

I was scared after reading it. A team and I run operations of our own non-profit project where we raise funds to support vulnerable communities in rural areas and immediately saw the danger of the bill. In our fear, even when we know our actions aren’t wrong, we consulted lawyers and other organizations with the same concerns of being red-tagged. The main question was: we know we aren’t terrorists, so why were we afraid? The turmoil was succeeded learning non-state recognized organizations could fall into the wrong side of this bill as well. What a feat to this government, really. If the intent of this bill was to instill fear, it worked wonders. Not only are we scared to lose our freedom of speech, but we also feared losing our ability to help. 

To advocate for something like the environment, you are also speaking out about the interweb of other issues entangled with it. To fight for our oceans, you have to address our issue on poverty — because poverty is an environmental issue. 17% of our population of about 110 million live as the poorest in the country. How can you afford to be sustainable when you can barely afford food to eat? Numbers like these lead to about 163 million pieces of sachets thrown away everyday according to GAIA in January 2020, mostly landing in our water if not in our landfills. (READ: #EarthDay2020: PH facing its ‘worst ecological crisis’ – IBON Foundation)

And we have to remember, they’re not just numbers. These are real people, with real hunger, living through a global pandemic, surviving as the poorest in our country. When you speak about the ocean, you speak about the oceans of people who need help as well. To fight for the forest, you have to address deforestation due to mining, logging, and agriculture that have cleared over 1,118,788 hectares of forest.

You have to learn why communities turn to logging their lands, and why farmers are poor. You have to ask why the people putting food on our plates barely have any on theirs. When you advocate for the environment, you have to advocate for the people that depend on nature, advocate for the millions of animals losing their homes, and you have to know why it’s happening in the first place. We have to question the people with the power to make a difference.

When we advocate for the environment, we are advocating for the vulnerable communities, we advocate to halt hunger, uplift the impoverished, and truly, we advocate for justice. 

The vagueness of this bill has and will continue to ring alarm bells for advocates no matter the field. It has already made us question if what we continue to shed light on will put us on the radar. If we continue to speak out for our partner communities, continue to fundraise, continue to shed light on the inadequacy of this government, if we continue to dissent on its actions and its consequences, what will be of us? They were already able to red-tag us without the bill, how much more so if it’s passed?

If the intent of this bill was to silence us, we cannot let them succeed. We have to be loud about what is right, we cannot waiver, we cannot let our fear deter us from our work. When we are scared to share, afraid to continue operations to help those who need it, we lose more than just the opportunity to. We lose the chance to make things better when we can. 

And losing is not an option. Not at a time like this. – Rappler.com

Issa Barte is a digital artist and the founder of Fund The Forest. Email her at louissabarte@gmail.com, or visit her IG: issabarte.art/fundtheforest.ph.

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