Mining rights behind many wrongs, including murder
Asean is rife with violence against activists who stand up for those
illegally removed from their homes and land in the quest to plunder
Bangkok Post –
20 April 2014
Juvy Capion didn’t see her killer. Nor did her two young sons.
Instead, the Capion family’s killers attacked with terrifying efficacy,
spraying their home in the Philippines’ southern Mindanao region with
bullets, fatally pinning them inside.
Capion’s only crime, according to activists, was that she and her
husband, members of the B’laan indigenous community, spoke out against a
mining development encroaching on their community.
Killings such as this highlight what Global Witness – a group that
tracks the intersection of human rights and natural resources – says is
part of a pattern of activists who have been slain for defending their
land rights and the environment in the face of relentless corporate
pressure; it has claimed at least 908 lives worldwide since 2002 and
shows no sign of abating.
“Governments are failing to protect their citizens and people that
ultimately they should be celebrating as heroes,” Global Witness senior
campaigner Oliver Courtney said. “This is about violence and
intimidation and everything else that stops environmental activists from
doing their work that puts them under threat.”
Land-intensive industries including mining and logging are behind much
of this push, using secretive deals to pluck vast tracts of land away
from often indigenous and rural communities that have reaped their
natural rewards for generations. It is an alarmingly common story in
Southeast Asia, activists say.
“The people who live on the land, who often have relied on it for
generations, need to be consulted about what is happening before a deal
is done, and if their consent isn’t gotten, the deal shouldn’t go
through,” Mr Courtney said. “That doesn’t appear to be happening in a
vast number of cases.”
In Thailand, Global Witness reported 16 murders related to land or
environmental activism since 2002. These include several activists in
northern Thailand confronting deforestation caused by illegal logging,
as well as land-rights campaigners across the country and Phuket
journalist Wisut “Ae” Tangwittayaporn, who was shot by unknown
assailants in 2012.
Most recently, Prajob Nao-Opas, a campaigner against toxic waste
dumping, was murdered in February last year. In a departure from the
norm, three suspects have been arrested. As head of his village, Prajob
had battled to save his central Thailand community from the illegal
dumping of toxic waste; he filed petitions and led villagers to block
trucks carrying the stuff – until a gunman fired four shots into him in
His three alleged killers, including a senior government official, are
on trial for murder. The dumping has been halted and villagers are
erecting a statue to their slain hero.
Sunai Phasuk, of the US-based Human Rights Watch, told the Associated
Press that prosecution of Prajob’s suspected killers was a “welcome
rarity” in a country where investigations have been characterised by
“half-hearted, inconsistent and inefficient police work and an
unwillingness to tackle questions of collusion between political
influences and interests and these killings of activists”.
“The convicted tend to have lowest levels of responsibility, such as the
getaway car driver. The level of impunity is glaring,” he said.
After Prajob’s murder, villagers lived in fear, but in the end decided
to sue the illegal dumpers and landfill owners, said the victim’s
brother, Jon Noawa-opas. “Prajob’s death has led us to fight for justice
in this town,” he said. “We can be disheartened and we were, but we also
know that we have to do the right thing for our community.”
But an outcome such as in Prajob’s case is a rare exception. A Global
Witness survey released on Tuesday – the first comprehensive survey of
its kind – says only 10 killers of 908 environmental activists slain
around the world in the past decade have been convicted.
The rising deaths, along with non-lethal violence, are attributed to
intensifying competition for shrinking resources in a global economy and
abetted by authorities and security forces in some countries connected
to powerful individuals, companies and others behind the killings.
Three times as many people died in 2012 than the 10 years previously,
with the death rate rising in the past four years to an average of two
activists a week, according to Global Witness. Deaths in 2013 are likely
to be higher than the 95 documented to date.
In the Philippines, mining companies are afforded liberal rights over
land they acquire, resulting in an unwanted side effect that has plagued
many farming communities.
“The result is land grabbing, even if there’s still no mining
operations,” Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of the
Philippines-based Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, said.
“The usual experience is that mining companies will get into their
lands, and they will be forcefully displaced in their communities. In
some communities where there are mining operations, they lose their
Yet all too often the people who push back find themselves facing the
barrel of a gun or vanishing in the night. The Capions were among at
least 67 activists killed in the Philippines, Global Witness reported.
Mr Courtney notes that the true number of activists killed globally is
likely higher than what Global Witness reported, given the remoteness
and secrecy obscuring many of these disputes.
In the Capion case, the Filipino government claims the soldiers accused
by eyewitnesses of opening fire in the small village that October day in
2012 were part of a broader military operation, despite witnesses
suggesting the soldiers targeted the family specifically, leaving behind
Juvy’s wounded, four-year-old daughter and a traumatised 11-year-old
Little has come in the way of justice for the Capions. The killers, like
so many people who have brazenly murdered activists across Southeast
Asia who are struggling to defend their land and livelihoods, remain
A group of army officers and soldiers alleged to have participated in
the killings briefly faced indictment last year. Activists say that
government pressure, and not a lack of evidence as the prosecutor
claimed, was the real reason their charges were dropped.
“If you will look at it in context there’s a lot of similar incidents
that happened in the past. People were killed by the military, saying
that these were rebels, or were caught in the crossfire,” Mr Bautista
said. “There’s a sense of impunity in the Philippines, particularly on
issues of killings of environmental activists. Most of the suspects are
elements of the armed forces of the Philippines, or Philippines national
The fact that army soldiers often double as private security guards for
the mining sector is emblematic, activists say, of how deep the ties run
between the government and private development.
That no progress has been made on the Capion massacre doesn’t surprise
researchers at Global Witness.
“In the vast majority of cases very little is known about who the
perpetrator was, so there just isn’t any information,” Mr Courtney said,
noting that the absence of prosecution has a chilling effect on dissent.
The situation in Cambodia is not much better. Hun Sen’s long-standing
government ranks among the most corrupt in the world, Mr Courtney said,
and its relentless pursuit of land in collusion with corporate interests
only worsens the situation.
“There has been a policy of selling off peoples’ lands, particularly to
rubber companies, without consent, and often using state forces to
forcibly evict people from their land,” Mr Courtney said. “So it remains
one of the big, dominant issues in Cambodia, and it’s yet to be resolved.”
Global Witness reported 13 land-related killings in the country between
2005 and 2012, including the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old girl by
military police dispersing a protest.
Two other villagers were injured in the same incident, protesting
against eviction from their land by an agribusiness company. The gunmen
Although Global Witness was unable to report directly on the situation
in Myanmar, 107 alleged killings were reported by other NGOs between
2002 and 2009 related to resistance against a 290km oil pipeline
stretching from Kanbauk to Myaing Kalay in the country’s southeast.
Environmental activists in the rapidly liberalising country continue to
face a wide array of hardships.
“There are plenty of cases across Myanmar where they are being harassed,
intimidated and thrown in prisons for protesting against unlawful land
grabs by the government, government cronies and the military,” said Saw
Greh Moo, a programme officer with the Salween Institute for Public Policy.
Myanmar’s remote fringes, inhabited mostly by minority groups, are
particularly vulnerable, Saw Greh Moo said, as companies affiliated with
the former military junta cast their nets across mostly undeveloped
swathes of land.
Several reports, like those published by the Karen Human Rights Group,
paint a recurring picture. Developers or military officials swoop in to
grab land for lucrative rubber plantations, consolidating fields once
used to grow rice or the pungent dogfruit nut, and the land’s former
tenants are forced to move, set adrift with negligible compensation for
their life’s work.
Gold and antimony mines are also a growing threat to livelihoods in
eastern Kayin State’s rugged hillsides, where according to reports
cliques of elite businessmen, government officials and ethnic rebel
leaders exploit the land with little oversight. Chemicals used in the
mining often end up dumped in the region’s abundant rivers and streams.
“While only a tiny number of people, especially businessmen and local
officials with good connections, benefit from these mining activities,
you can see the damage done to entire communities because villagers
along these rivers are no longer able to use water from the river,” Saw
Greh Moo said. “In many cases the environmental consequences of the
development projects have outweighed the benefits to the communities.”
Activists say responsibility for reckless development, and the
relentless violence used to stifle its resistance, doesn’t rest solely
with the local government that has often aggravated the situation.
For some, like Mr Bautista of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the
Environment in the Philippines, the course of action should be bolder,
and he recommends immediately suspending all contested large-scale
mining operations and “radically changing” the country’s mining law.
Already, Mr Bautista said, several campaigns have met with success, and
he looks forward to continuing Kalikasan’s legislative push.
Global Witness suggests that stopping the killing and destruction will
require an international effort. “Bodies like Asean’s human rights
commission should really be establishing a mechanism that provides
protection for human rights defenders,” Mr Courtney said. “Companies
also have a big role to play. They should be making sure that they don’t
have anything to do with the violence that’s happening, and they can do
that by carrying out checks on their supply chains and not going ahead
with any projects unless they’ve got the consent of the communities and
the people who live on the land.”
In the Philippines, many people feel they cannot afford to wait. Entire
villages have taken matters into their own hands and, after finding
efforts to stop development in the courts futile, have started erecting
barricades and arming themselves in self-defence.
Capion, three months pregnant at the time of her death, was part of a
battle bigger than herself or her family. It’s a battle that activists
say could determine the fate of entire communities in the face of a
global land grab.
“The killings and violence that the Filipino government is using against
the people has not lessened the people’s resistance. It further angers
and fuels the campaigns against disruptive projects. It also strengthens
the efforts of the communities to protect their resources and their
environment,” Mr Bautista said. “That’s happening now. The people are
being pushed to the wall.”
Andy Whitmore (Whit)
Indigenous Peoples Links (PIPLinks)
Finspace, 225-229 Seven Sisters Road, London, N4 2DA
Ph: +44 (0)775 439 5597
“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell