environmental defenders

[OPINION] Guardians of planet and people

Tony La Viña
[OPINION] Guardians of planet and people
'We call on everyone to [sign a] unity statement against the red-tagging of environmental defenders in the Philippines'

One thing we are grateful in this challenging year are the people who guard and protect the environment even if it means being red-tagged, harassed, and attacked by those who benefit from ecological destruction – including, unfortunately, agents of the state. With the world and our country suffering in 2020 from a pandemic that has its roots in ecological irresponsibility, their work has become even more critical.

This is why Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan, now on its sixth year, is important. It recognizes the exemplary roles played by these individuals and organizations. Aimed at promoting awareness of critical environmental issues and acknowledging the struggles of the people defending the environment, the Center for Environmental Concerns, together with its partners Alay Bayan-Luson, Inc., Kalikasan PNE, Masipag, Panalipdan Southern Mindanao, PNFSP, Nilad, and FSMRC, launched the sixth Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan to give emphasis to the efforts and courage shown in championing environmental causes. 

The awards are divided into 3 categories: Most Distinguished Award, Individual Award, and Organizational Award. 

Most Distinguished Awardees

The recipients of this award for 2020 are Regina Paz “Gina” Lopez and Roberto S. Verzola, both of whom were awarded posthumously.  The Panel of Judges (disclosure: author La Viña is a member of this panel) felt that both had unique and equivalent contributions that had to be recognized.

Gina Lopez is not unknown to us since her tenure as environment secretary, albeit short-lived, was characterized by a strong vision and determination to do right by nature and people. Even after the rejection by the Commission on Appointments of her position in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, she continued pursuing her environmental advocacies. Among others, her show G Diaries was used as a platform to educate people regarding environmental conservation, area development, and innovations to empower local communities across the country. 

Roberto “Obet” S. Verzola was a champion of sustainable agriculture and renewable energy, among many advocacies. A survivor of imprisonment and torture during the Martial Law years, Obet wrote books such as Society, Ecology, and Transformation and Crossing Over: The Energy Transition in Renewable Energy, which deeply inspired green activists and magnified issues surrounding the environment. He used information technology for the progress of society and for the empowerment of different advocacy groups. His technical knowledge and altruism unified well in his pursuit for environmental conservation and social development. 

Individual Awardees

The individual awardees for the sixth Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan are Robert Chan, Alberto Roldan, and Cristeta M. Sison. 

Bobby Chan is an environmental lawyer. He is known as the “chainsaw man” of Palawan for confiscating more than 700 chainsaws, dynamite fishing boats, and mining equipment, and as the leader of the rag-tag squad of “para enforcers” under the Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) in enforcing conservation laws. Robert often receives death threats for his conviction in arresting illegal loggers, miners, and poachers. 

Alberto “Ka Bobby” Roldan, a fisher person, is one of the leaders in the campaign against the aggression in the West Philippine Sea. He is active in coastal community mangrove protection and rehabilitation activities in Central Luzon, working with fisherfolk affected by the Obando, Bulacan dumpsite and landfill project, assisting in strengthening several other small-scale fisherfolk organizations in Central Luzon, engaging in dialogue with local government units, and campaigning against large-scale black and nickel mining in Zambales. Just like the other environmental defenders, he often receives death threats and is labeled as a “terrorist.” But these attacks do not hamper him from exposing the injustices that require persevering action. 

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Cristeta “Ka Tita” Sison is a community organizer in Central Luzon. She was one of the founders of Sagipin ang Kalikasan, which strongly opposes destructive mining operations. She also headed the Agapan ang Kalikasan, (AGAP) which was composed of farmers and fisherfolk that opposed mining in the mountains of different provinces. Working with groups who have similar objectives, Ka Tita and her organizations also led medical missions and relief delivery operations in different barangays. They also imparted knowledge to these vulnerable barangays by conducting disaster preparedness trainings. Her dedication to supporting the masses is always backed by scientific awareness and technical knowledge, and she continues her fight despite constant surveillance and harassment.

Organizational Awardees

The Organizational Awardees for the sixth Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan are Nagpakabanang Mananagat sa Tigao (NAMATI), Sabokhan Unity of Lumad Women, and United Organization of Didipio Residents. 

NAMATI is an organization focused on marine protected area management. It voluntarily manages 57 hectares of marine area for 26 years in Barangay Tigao Cortes, Surigao Del Sur. The rampant illegal fishing using dynamite, cyanide, and other destructive practices urged the current chairperson to convince other fisherfolk to address and act on the issue. Given their drive to protect the marine area, they established NAMATI. They guard and patrol 24/7, maintain their equipment, and restore damaged coral reefs. Their efforts paid off as Surigao del Sur is one of the “top sources of high-value marine products.” Included in their work are coastal cleanups, mangrove planting, and environmental orientation. NAMATI also promotes awareness to encourage support for their organization’s aim. 

Sabokahan Unity of Lumad Women was founded in 2003 by Abiok “Bai Bibyaon” Ligkayan Bigkay and 8 other Lumad women, after their victory against the logging concession Alcantara and Sons. It is the only Lumad women’s organization and is composed of 8 ethno-linguistic tribes across Southern Mindanao that help their communities in their fight for the right to education, health, self-determination, ancestral lands, and a safe and healthy environment. Sabokahan protects biodiversity by leading the Save Pantaron and Pulangi River Campaigns, both of which are challenged by large-scale mining operations and military displacements. 

The United Organization of Didipio Residents (UODR) is an organization that actively opposes OceanaGold Philippines Inc., an Australian-Canadian mining company. It was lauded and known for its successful barricade against the said mining company, which continued to operate despite the expiration of its permit. This effort, alongside making checkpoints to “ensure that no copper concentrate gets out of the company” became victorious upon the failure of the company to fully operate. 

Defending the defenders

It is unfortunate that one of the organizations behind Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan – the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) – is being red-tagged by Philippine government officials, accused as so-called communist-terrorists. While clearly baseless and absurd, these accusations bring real danger to the organization and its leaders and staff. We agree with the latter on the motivation behind these attacks: “This is clearly a reprisal meant to discourage us and derail our work. We have been very vocal in exposing human rights abuses suffered by thousands of environmental defenders in the Philippines. Together with independent scientists who were also red-tagged in the same hearing, we recently uncovered the state of watershed degradation that led to the recent flood disasters affecting 8 million Filipinos and causing $862 million in damages.”

We call on everyone to  support these environmental defenders by signing this unity statement against the red-tagging of environmental defenders in the Philippines, which Kalikasan PNE plan to transmit to the Commission on Human Rights and the Congress of the Philippines. That’s the least we can do for the guardians of our planet and people. – Rappler.com

Tony La Viña teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government. 

Dinah Faye Balleco is from Kidapawan, North Cotabato and is a second year political science student at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is a research collaborator of La Viña’s.

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