Monday, November 5, 2012

Wanted: Environment Defenders

(A revised version of this essay was published in Manila Standard Today on November 5, 2012)

Five years ago, I found myself riding in a tricycle within Ateneo de Manila campus heading out to Katipunan Avenue – in silence.

Suddenly I noticed that tears began to flow from eyes. The lady beside me who happened to be one of our local organization’s trustee embraced me and she began to cry, as well.

Yes, one of our leaders was shot to death that very day in an isolated island called Sibuyan. He was killed by an armed mining security officer while leading a protest against a research activity funded by a mining company. He was infuriated by the fact that mining conglomerate dummies were given special license to cut some 70,000 trees and the world’s largest nickel mining company was trying to invest in the island.

To my knowledge, this is the only environmental killing case which a court tried to resolved – with three years imprisonment for the killer, after five years of seeking for justice.

Weeks after the court decision, the local government units of the province of Romblon, from the governor down to the lowly concerned barangay captain were sued by a mining company for their local issuances against mining aiming to protect the environment and the rights of the their constituents.

Three years ago, I was invited to visit a municipality in the northernmost part of the country where both onshore and offshore sands are being extracted for magnetite. The local executive sought our help on how to halt the mining operations in which, ironically, allegedly the legislative chief fully supported.

For the record, the local executive broke the chain of decades-long political dynasty when he won the 2007 local elections. However, he was charged with a lot of administrative cases at the provincial council and was suspended twice. The vice-mayor then took over the mayoralty twice.

I was there in the last take-over. I was with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) team to visit the magnetite mining site. When we went back to the municipal hall, we were barred by armed policemen to enter. But I argued that my bag is in the mayor’s office. I was allowed to enter but the CHR was disallowed. To my dismay, they left the area in which until now the reason is unknown to me.

The mayor stood up by his principles and the municipal hall was locked inside. He declined to step down. Hours passed by, the electricity line was cut, no water - with armed men around the area. Evening came and thanks to an internet broadband stick with a fully-charged laptop, I was able to communicate to Manila.

At last, through our religious connections, I was able to jump out from a window and was escorted by armed men to a makeshift police security station where I was interrogated. The police head in command told me that the vice mayor wanted to see me and that I should go to his place. I declined because I knew my life and security were highly at risk given the situation.

I was allowed to go away, alone. I walked for almost a kilometer in the dark while at one time men riding in a motorcycle approached me and asked questions in a language I was unable to comprehend. I just walked and walked until I reached the place where I was fetched by church representative for safety.

The mayor gave up his post the following day. After a year, his close confidante and leader of the anti-mining movement was shot to death.

To date since year 2007, there are more than 30 environment activists who were murdered, almost all have been receiving threats and being harassed.

Most recent were the murders of children Jordan Manda of Zamboanga del Sur, Jordan and Janjan with their pregnant mother Juvy Capion of Davao del Sur. Capion’s family has been opposing the largest copper mine in Southeast Asia, the Tampakan Copper-Gold Project of SMI-Xstrata.

On the day when the Capion massacre happened in that gruesome morning, one of our anti-mining leaders Esperlita ‘Perling’ Garcia of Cagayan province was arrested for an alleged libelous Facebook post against magnetite mining in her town.

The day before, we marched from CHR to the House of Representatives to halt mining operations until policies on mining industry are put in order. We were calling for the enactment of the Philippine Mineral Resources Act of 2012 or the Alternative Minerals Management Bills (AMMB) which aims to put environment conservation, protection and rehabilitation first respecting the right of the communities to decide, and push for concrete mining no-go zones.

In the evening, we went to Mendiola to voice out the sentiments of indigenous peoples, farmers, fisherfolks and mining-affected communities who had joined the AMMB Caravan from more than 15 provinces in the country. We were joined by indigenous women who were vocal on their stand against the atrocities brought about by the mining industry among other development aggression. The president of the republic did not show up.

Last week, Dr. Isidro Olan, an active anti-logging and anti-mining leader in Surigao del Sur survived in an ambush.

Some say ours is a risky advocacy. The number of environment defenders may be few but the impact of what they do is for the benefit of all.

Threats are challenges. If we yield to threats, fear comes. The risks involved in this advocacy are inevitable. Being an environment advocate is a lifelong commitment. We are all called to discover for ourselves the amazing link of our lives to nature. Unless we are unable to accept that we are part of the totality of nature, we will continue to look at it as a mere object for utilization. This we do to learn from the past, address the abuses of the present and pay for our ecological debts for the next generations to come.

With the blood of those who died for the environment, environment defenders become warriors.  

And I am afraid, yes, we are becoming endangered species.

We may belong to the one percent of our country’s population, but we are everywhere, unnoticed. We are not left-winged, we are just ordinary citizens promoting the constitutional rights to a healthful and balanced ecology for all.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

People power abused: mutant candidates in the making

(An edited version of this essay was published in Manila Standard Today on October 3, 2012.)

Nobel laureate and former United States vice president Al Gore when asked about the inaction of politicians on the present climate crisis, he answered back poignantly – political will is a renewable resource.

To my surprise, in another instance I have heard him suggesting that in a crisis wherein governments and businesses are unable to act, we should emulate the people power revolution of the Philippines.

People power? Where is it now? Gone were the days when we had to take up arms and kill people, and be killed, for our sovereignty as a nation. Gone were the days when we held our arms close to each other to trample down a dictator.

We are facing a bigger crisis. Economic fall-down? No, in the eyes of our present and former administration – a transcendent perspective of investment based on how we flaunt our country’s natural resources and sovereignty in a pompous and seductive way.

A self-crisis created by ourselves being puppets of the power shared to the supposed leaders and defenders of our inherent human and natural rights. A self-inflicted crisis, a disease brought about by apathy and blind obedience to the mutant power. And the only cure is to reclaim such power and make it again of the people, by the people, for the people.

Recent studies say that the Philippines is the most typhoon-vulnerable country in the world, second in economic risk for natural disasters and third most prone to hazards of climate change.

We have swum in floods, our relatives and friends buried in landslides, drowned in raging seas. From the bellies of Manila Bay tons of plastic wastes showing off how irresponsible we are and how the implementation of laws are inutile. Not counting the industrial wastes which are legally exported by overly consuming countries and accepted by us with open arms as if we are happy to be called a sovereign state of dumps.

We have not learned from the lessons of the past such as the Marinduque mine disaster, and now, the leak of water and sediment wastes from a mine in Padcal, Benguet. The mutant power behind the venerable flag of the country is bullying the very honorable statesmen to continuously flaunt our mineral resources almost to be given free to aliens, forcing to lastly give an environmental compliance license to the future biggest mine in Southeast Asia situated in South Cotabato, displacing indigenous peoples communities, thousands of trees to be cut, huge mine waste pits near an active volcano with thousands of hectares agricultural land downstream.

Gradually, the mutant power opened wide the gates of our gardens and farms to mutant agricultural species, or monsters – controlled by one or few transnational corporations. Unknowingly, in our veins flow unnatural modified nutrients which will result eventually to a mutation of our genes. Safe food mixed with genetically modified organisms, less rationality with more profits.

In this country where freedom of expression is recently suppressed, how can we reclaim the power we just lent to the leaders who now become mutants?

We put our hopes in the chosen few, as of now. There are still a handful trusted leaders in our society but are endangered, either by suppression or death.

Today, we commemorate the fifth anniversary of a man who sacrificed his life for his people, Armin Rios Marin. He was elected councilor for his staunch stand to defend the fragile ice-age island ecosystem of Sibuyan in the province of Romblon. As he joined the island’s defenders, they successfully kicked out the world’s largest nickel mining company. Though he only served for three months, he lived by his principles and public trust to the last breath of his life – we have given him the power and together with the community, nourished and made it a platform for selfless public service and payment for ecological services.

How many of our leaders now are willing to stand up selflessly for the general welfare, for a healthful and balanced ecology?

Yes, the biggest crisis we have now is ecological crisis and to solve this is to reclaim and exercise power we have as a people. This week, people who seek power are lining up asking us to lend our sovereign power to them.

They are pleading to borrow our natural power. We shall not allow them to abuse it; else our society shall become a dynasty of mutants.

The natural environment is the center of our life. It is where biodiversity gives life, clean water, clean air, food, medicine, shelter and clothing. It is where the non-living things serve as platform and balancing system for the whole life-cycle.

God-given, yes. And we should manage it responsibly with accountability. The real essence of sustainable development must be exercised.

Remember, mutants may be heroes on silver screen – but in public service, no way.