Philippines’ war on drugs fuels attacks on land defenders – report
Study shows martial law in an island territory is also being used as
pretext for violence
Carmela Fonbuena in Manila
27 September 2019
President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and declaration of martial law
in an island territory are being used as a pretext to attack people
defending their land and environment in the Philippines, new research shows..
The resource-rich archipelago in south-east Asia is the world’s most
murderous country for people who oppose logging, destructive mining and
corrupt agribusiness. At least 30 people were killed in the Philippines
last year, following 48 in 2017, dislodging Brazil from the top spot for
the first time since the independent watchdog Global Witness began
monitoring in 2012.
In Palawan, illegal logging is the dark side of the tourism boom as the
island province rushes to construct hotels and resorts. At least 12
local environmentalists have been murdered since 2004, including Ruben
Arzaga, the head of El Nido village, who was shot in September 2017 by
Global Witness said the threat against defenders in Palawan has
escalated with Duterte’s brutal campaign against illegal drugs. Some
environmental activists have been named on a list of “narco-politicians”
created by Duterte’s administration.
Ruben Arzaga (L), who was shot dead by illegal loggers
Ruben Arzaga (L), who was shot dead by illegal loggers in September
2017. Photograph: Karl Malakunas/AFP/Getty Images
“The president’s brutal ‘war on drugs’ has fostered a culture of
impunity and fear, emboldening the politically and economically powerful
to use violence and hitmen against those they see as an obstacle or a
threat,” the report said.
The report says the same is true for attacks against people opposing the
coal industry, illegal mining, and corrupt agribusiness around the
country. Many deaths involve armed men on motorcycles, the same modus
operandi employed in the war on drugs.
Global Witness said the militarisation of communities due to the
declaration of martial law in Mindanao has also increased the danger for
local land defenders. Almost half of the murders since Duterte assumed
the presidency have taken place in the region.
“The imposition of martial law on the island of Mindanao has empowered
an army already known for protecting business projects and attacking
those who oppose them,” the report said.
Global Witness said violence had got worse as the government continued
to attract more investment into the region. Members of the army and
paramilitaries are the suspects in almost three-quarters of the murders.
Duterte declared martial law during the 2017 siege of Marawi City by
supporters of Islamic State. He kept extending it despite the end of the
crisis, citing the need to eliminate terrorist cells operating in other
parts of Mindanao.
Global Witness said martial law was also used for the purposes of the
military’s drive against the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which
“may be operating in and around some of the rural communities opposed to
abusive business projects”.
The research cited the 2017 massacre of eight indigenous activists
opposing a coffee plantation on their ancestral land in south Mindanao.
The military claimed they were communist rebels killed in a legitimate
encounter, but the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) disagreed and held
two military commanders liable for the killings.
The Philippines has laws in place to protect and uphold the right of
communities to decide how their land and resources are used, but natural
resources are often found in ancestral lands and indigenous peoples are
frequently shortchanged or excluded in consultation processes. Conflicts
then erupt between locals and intruding investors.
The report also criticised funders such as the World Bank’s
International Finance Corporation, Standard Chartered and Mizuho Bank
for financing projects and dealing with corporations linked to violence.
It also called out countries such as the US for assisting the Philippine
military, the UK for failing to insert a human rights element into its
trade policy, and the EU for providing financial support to projects
with human rights risks.
The report, which serves as a midterm assessment of the Duterte
government, called on the populist leader to take action against the
killings in the remaining years of his presidency.
“Land and environmental activists will only be able to carry out their
activism safely when Duterte’s government and those doing business in
the Philippines take action – as international law requires them to – to
prevent land rights and environmental abuses, protect defenders at risk,
and hold the perpetrators of intimidation and violence to account,” the
However, the Philippine government dismissed the report. “The palace
considers the UK-based group Global Witness as a purveyor of falsity and
a subservient machinery for political propaganda,” a spokesman for
The CHR chair, Chito Gascon, confirmed attacks on environmental
defenders were continuing. “It is unfortunate that rampant violence and
criminal activity have gone unabated over several years, exacerbating a
climate of impunity and injustice in this country. The [Global Witness]
report focused on attacks on environmentalists and land rights advocates
which is one of the several areas where the violence continues,” Gascon
“We call on law enforcement to do everything to end this violence and
hold perpetrators to account.”