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The Philippines is one of the most dangerous places for environmental defenders. Previous authoritarian policies have led to business capture and environmental plunder that have put the lives of environmental defenders at risk. However, in the existing sociopolitical milieu, not much attention is given to them. The issues related to the environment are not heavily emphasized compared to other political issues such as foreign affairs, international relations, and interstate conflicts, whose consequences appear to be more direct and immediate to the national interest.
Moreover, even though environmental issues are included in formal institutional discussions, there is little to no mention and recognition of the condition of the people who continuously fight for environmental protection, even if it means facing threats and receiving baseless accusations. However, it is important for every Filipino to know the names and stories of their environmental defenders. After all, albeit less popular in the general public sphere, environmental concerns affect every facet of our life, thereby making the experiences of the environmental defenders relevant.
Last December 28, 2022, the Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) and its partners recognized and honored the environmental defenders of the country by launching its 7th Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan (GBK). It is a unique initiative that focuses on the work and experiences of ordinary people, grassroots organizations, and communities to spread awareness and encourage people to become environmental advocates. It biennially gives honor to a roster of seven awardees composed of three individuals, three organizations, and one most distinguished individual or organization. The dedication and passion of these heroes can serve as an inspiration in recognizing the urgency of the climate crisis. But beyond being a model for inspiration, their stories reveal the state of the environment in our country and the serious urgency of defending the defenders.
This Earth Day, the 53th, we remember these heroes.
The individual awardees for the seventh Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan are Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, Daniel Jason Maches, and Vertudez “Daisy” Macapanpan.
Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo supports local communities and helps them in their environmental struggles by providing technical expertise such as analysis and explanation of the effects of various profit-driven projects on the environment. For example, he exposed the possible effects of the reclamation undertakings in Manila Bay and the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. He is also known for promoting the inclusion of Filipino scientists in the drafting of policies for critical projects with the aim of removing the reliance on foreign consultants in the assessment of such projects. His effort in defending the environment is recognized by various People’s Organizations such as the National Federation of Small Fisherfolks Organizations in the Philippines or PAMALAKAYA, Alliance for Stewardship and Authentic Progress, the People’s Network for the Integrity of Coastal Habitats and Ecosystems (People’s NICHE), and the No to BNPP Revival Alliance.
Daniel Joson Maches is a young environmentalist whose advocacy centers on the conservation of the forest and the culture of his Liab tribe in Barlig, Mountain Province. He also started an agroecology coffee farm that is environmentally sustainable. In pursuing these advocacies, Maches faced challenges as his active opposition to the suspension of a road project that would make Barlig forests vulnerable to exploitation gained accusations as he was red-tagged and called a “communist.”
Vertudez “Daisy” Macapanpan is a leader in protecting the mountains of Southern Tagalog from projects that harm the environment such as the 1400 MW Ahunan Pumped-Storage Hydropower Plant Project which threatens the fragile ecosystems of the Pakil, Laguna Portion of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range. When she was an educator in the 1980s at the University of the Philippines (UP) Baguio, she joined the national campaign for the opposition to the Chico River Dam Projects. She also co-founded and worked with organizations such as the Timpuyong (worker’s union in UP Los Banos, Protect Sierra Madre for the People, No to Kaliwa, Kanan, Laiban Dam (KKLD Network), and No to Dam Movement. Macapanpan is also not exempt from the danger of being a critic of business interests. In June 2022, she was arrested a few days after she delivered a speech on the dangerous impacts of the Ahunan project on the local ecosystems and culture. She was charged with rebellion which was related to an incident that happened in 2008. Eventually, she was released on bail.
The Award for Organizations was given to Samahan ng mga Mangingisda at Mamamayan sa Latian ng Bulakan (SMB), Masungi Georeserve Foundation, and Tumanduk nga Mangunguma nga Nagapangapin sa Duta kag Kabuhi (TUMANDUK).
The Samahan ng mga Mangingisda at Mamamayan sa Latian ng Bulacan (SMB) is a local people’s organization of fisherfolk and urban poor communities in Taliptip and Obando,Bulacan that actively fights against the New Manila International “aetropolis” project of the San Miguel Corporation which is pointed out to displace more than 700 fishing and urban poor families in Bulacan and can destroy the marine and aquatic resources in the Manila Bay.
The Masungi Georeserve Foundation takes the lead in the reforestation and defense of the watershed around the Masungi site in Baras, Rizal. The area was deforested by illegal mining and large-scale quarrying in the late 1990s. It is also a dangerous place for forest rangers as goons who defile the protected area status of the watersheds resort to violence. The foundation’s restoration of the degraded forestland started under the landmark agreement with the late former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez. It is active in creating campaigns and calls to address environmental issues and uphold climate justice. It won the global model for conservation innovation and excellence at the inaugural Pathfinder Awards 2021 presented by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), and WildArk. In 2018, it was also nominated as a global finalist for the UNWTO Awards for Enterprises.
Tumandok nga Mangunguma nga Nagapangapin sa Duta kag Kinabuhi (TUMANDUK) is an organization that leads the indigenous Tumandok people in their fight for ancestral rights and the right to self-determination. Specifically, they led the resistance campaign against the Jalaur River Multipurpose Project which had threats to local habitats, ecosystems, and the culture of the Tumandok people. In December 2020, nine Tumandoks were killed and 16 were arrested in a police operation because of their opposition to the Jalaur mega-dam. Their communities also remain to be under militarization.
Most distinguished awardee
The most distinguished award for the 7th Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan was given to Chad Errol Booc, an activist, teacher, and advocate for the Lumad’s right to education, ancestral lands, and self-determination. His activism and intellectual contributions were well-known during his college days at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. After his graduation, he volunteered as a Mathematics teacher at the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV) which is an alternative learning school for Lumad children in Surigao del Sur. For decades, ALCADEV and other Lumad schools were wrongfully tagged by the military as NPA fronts, and the communities hosting these schools were militarized, attacked, and bombed. Despite these challenges, Booc continued to fight for ancestral and indigenous rights.
The forcible closure of Lumad schools made Booc return to Manila to help in organizing the Lakbayan, an annual march/rally/camp-out of various national minority groups. It was followed by the establishment of the Save Our Schools Network which advocates for Lumad rights. He also helped in organizing the Lumad Bakwit School, where he continued to teach. Amidst the pandemic, Booc spearheaded the volunteer teaching program for the Lumad Bakwit School in Cebu. Despite these efforts, he was continuously red-tagged and harassed. But the threats did not stop him from persistently working for the people and the environment. He even created a map revealing the scale of mining plunder in the region and brought the Lumad stories through offline and online realms.
In 2021, Booc and six other teachers were arrested in Cebu during a police raid and were slapped with trumped-up charges of training minors to become “terrorists.” The charges were dismissed three months later for lack of evidence so Booc and the teachers were released. They returned to their work in the Lumad schools. After less than a year, on February 24, Booc, together with fellow Lumad school volunteer Jurain Ngujo, community health worker Elegyn Balong, and drivers Tirso Añar and Robert Aragon were murdered in cold blood by government troops. The killing was claimed by the soldiers as an “encounter” but the reports and autopsy disprove the said claim. Their deaths were widely denounced by rights advocates and Booc was called a “hero” by the College of Engineering of the University of the Philippines, Diliman. – Rappler.com
Tony La Viña is Head of the Klima Center and Deputy Executive Director of Manila Observatory. Dinah Faye Balleco is from Kidapawan, North Cotabato and a collaborator of Dean La Viña’s.