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.

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