Global Witness – Six months on: Defending the Philippines
May 4, 2020
For most of us, government ‘lockdowns’ are an extraordinary reality of
the COVID-19 pandemic. But for land and environmental defenders already
facing threats, fear is rife that the crisis could be manipulated to put
them at even greater risk. Six months on from publication of ‘Defending
the Philippines’, we take a look at what has changed for defenders in
the country – and what threats remain.
“Shoot them dead” is the order that President Rodrigo Duterte delivered
recently to Filipino law enforcement and the military regarding their
response to anyone found to be breaking the COVID-quarantine.
This is not the first time that Filipinos have heard the government’s
aggressive rhetoric and feared the consequences. Last year, our report
showed how officials branded protesting communities as “terrorists”,
activist grandmothers as “economic saboteurs” and environmentalists as
“narcos”. The criminalisation of land and environmental defenders is
part of a long list of tactics, used by governments and companies to
Not only that, our investigation showed how household brands such as Del
Monte Philippines and Dole Philippines, and international investors like
the International Finance Corporation (IFC), failed in their
due-diligence – backing projects opposed by local communities and
connected to the intimidation or murder of land and environmental defenders..
Despite President Duterte’s promises to tackle corruption, combat
environmental harm, and protect indigenous peoples, it is ordinary
Filipinos who are ‘Defending the Philippines’, protecting their land,
health and livelihoods from corporate greed and vested interests.
But what is being done to support them?
FILIPINO LEGISLATORS START TO TAKE ACTION
Two months after the launch of our investigation, legislators filed a
resolution in the Philippines Congress calling for an independent
investigation into the ‘staggering number of killings’ of land and
environmental defenders in the country, and demanding accountability.
This includes scrutiny over whether investors and companies have abided
by national laws that uphold international standards. It includes
addressing claims of corruption within the National Commission of
Indigenous People, whose responsibility is to protect indigenous
communities. And it includes scrutiny of the role of the military and
paramilitary groups, accused of using excessive violence to guard mines
The resolution could not be timelier. Our report documented at least 113
murdered defenders in the first three years of Duterte’s government –
over half allegedly by the army or paramilitary. Six months on, an
initial analysis of Global Witness’ 2019 data suggests that the overall
number may be even higher. – And ‘activists’ are not the only people
being targeted. Last year saw a growing number of attacks on government
officials employed to protect some of the Philippines most iconic
BIG CORPORATES LEAD ON BUSINESS AND HUMAN RIGHTS
In recent statements, Del Monte Philippines, Dole Philippines and the
International Finance Corporation (IFC) outlined positive action taken
on the back of our report.
The agribusiness companies acknowledged the need for clear and concrete
internal policies to address the issue of reprisals against those
speaking out about their projects. Dole Philippines announced that the
company has “undertaken a review of its internal processes to better
ensure that it shall not be a party to… violence against environmental
defenders and/or indigenous people”, and committed to “outlining more
concrete company policies”.
Del Monte Philippines have gone a step further, engaging with civil
society organisations as they review their “impact assessment and due
diligence processes”, while “identifying areas of no compromise or zero
tolerance.” The company committed to “preventing and responding to any
reprisals against persons who voice out issues about any of the
businesses our company is involved in,” and to translating these
commitments “into concrete action steps.”
Across the sea, the IFC confirmed that, following its 2018 Position
Statement on Non-Retaliation, the lender is “developing internal
protocols and guidance for staff on reprisals screening, prevention, and
response”. In December, the IFC launched a new “contextual risk tool”
which will be included as part of due diligence processes across all
investments. The IFC told Global Witness that the tool includes a
“reprisals-specific dimension… to screen for project contexts with high
risks of retaliation and violence”.
They also announced the creation of a “Stakeholder Grievance Response
team” reporting directly to the CEO, and committed to bring forward new
guidance on “stakeholder engagement practices” and to “engage with its
clients or other appropriate parties” when reprisals allegations are raised.
The challenge for all three business actors now is to use the next
six-months to turn intent into action, including by:
Ensuring transparent consultations with a diverse range of civil
Companies should ensure consultation with stakeholders throughout policy
development and project implementation. Though Del Monte Philippines
acknowledged that this may not be “without some discomfort”, it is an
obligation of business to engage stakeholders, as set out in the UN
Guiding Principles. Both Del Monte Philippines and the IFC have taken
positive steps in this respect. However, a crucial part of any
responsible business model is opening the door to robust and transparent
consultations with communities and a diverse range of civil society
experts from the Global South and North. Investors and financiers should
also take a closer look – see here for Responsible Sourcing, our
investor due diligence briefing, which outlines material risks and
actions for investors to take under increasing scrutiny around human
Reporting publically on the implementation of new policies
throughout their operations.
Human rights and environmental policies can only be judged by their
implementation. As such, it is important that the results of pilot
policies are shared, and that these companies follow through on their
commitments, with both strong public statements supporting defenders and
condemning reprisals, and transparent reporting on the practical
mechanisms being put in place to avoid abuses.
Providing redress for the victims of any abuses and environmental
harms associated with their operations.
Affected communities continue to seek redress for human rights abuses
and environmental harms connected to business projects. Rather than
remedy, many find only increased harassment.
In Bataan, for example, communities continue to face threats in their
struggle against coal-fired projects like the Limay coal plant,
controlled by San Miguel Corporation. Both San Miguel and investors like
the Mizuho Bank, Standard Chartered and the IFC have failed to make
reparations to those impacted by environmental damage and displaced by
Even more concerning are community fears that the Philippines reliance
on coal-fired power could lead to the expansion of projects in the
region. According to government statistics from February 2019,
coal-fired power makes up all 80% of production on the island of Luzon.
Almost 50% of coal production occurs in the province of Bataan.
FROM BAD TO WORSE – COVID-19 AND NEW THREATS OF CRIMINALISATION
Critics fear that the current public health crisis might be used to
further clampdown on activism, with few safeguards to prevent the misuse
of emergency measures.
As I write, civil society report on armed police misusing these powers
to arrest Rolando Pulido for preventing access to a controversial mining
operation, which locals claim is contaminating their local water supply
It has been widely reported that the mining licence expired in June
2019, but project opponents say operations continue. It appears that the
Office of the President has overruled the provincial government to allow
this to happen. Activists point out that the company is flouting the
quarantine order, leaving locals with little choice but return to the
barricade to protest, albeit respecting social distancing.
This heightens fears that legislative changes may be used to criminalise
rights activists. In February, the Senate approved anti-terrorist
legislation aimed to prevent collusion and financing of terrorist
activities. The bill stoked controversy and mistrust amongst civil
society groups, who fear it could be used as a smear tactic by officials
and state forces to target critics.
Indeed, the government used a recent session of the UN Human Rights
Council, to vilify the ‘hallowed status of human rights defenders’ and
accuse civil society groups of supporting terrorists and acting as
communist fronts. This is not a government which civil society trusts
with emergency measures. In this context of extended powers, restricted
scrutiny and smear campaigns, defenders will need more support than ever.
WHAT MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE?
Legitimisation of defenders, and the passing the Human Rights
Now, more than ever, action by the state to recognise and protect
defenders must not stall. In an unprecedented move, the House of
Representatives unanimously approved a Human Rights Defender Bill last
June. However, the Bill will only enter into force if it is also passed
by the Senate and approved by the President.
The development came shortly after the United Nations Human Rights
Council approved a resolution sponsored by Iceland to launch an
independent investigation into human rights violations within the
country – including abuses against environmental activists. Due for
publication in June 2020, the Philippines government should work with UN
experts and civil society stakeholders to act upon the report’s findings.
Justice for the victims and their families
There must be justice for Renato Anglao, Ruben Arzarga, Jimmy Saypan and
Gloria Capitan. These are emblematic cases that the Filipino government
must prosecute to send a message to other would-be assassins of land and
In several meetings with Global Witness, the Department of Justice (DOJ)
championed Administrative Order 35 – a measure that empowers them to
create a specific Prosecutor-led task force to investigate the
defenders’ advocacy as the potential motive for their murder. This
approach is a must if any investigations of threats against defenders
are to be successful.
In all four cases of murdered defenders featured in our report, the
victim had reportedly received threats before they were killed. In most
cases, they had directly alerted authorities at the time.
Yet six months on, and in spite of the additional evidence in our report
and meetings with both Global Witness and defenders, the Department has
failed to move any of these cases forward. It seems the burden is on the
victims to investigate and prompt the DoJ, in the hope they might act.
Creative action by diplomats.
Activists have urged diplomats to take creative action to support
at-risk defenders. Existing human rights defender policies, like the
guidelines published by the EU, UK and US, mandate embassies to take a
creative range of public and private actions to monitor the threats
facing activists, support them directly, and advocate for their
protection. Effective diplomatic action would also mean ensuring that
companies and investors implement responsible business practices.
Defenders have reported positive actions by some embassies in the past
six months. In light of the ongoing threats, international support for
those at risk is more crucial than ever. But in the context of the
pandemic, diplomats are going to have carry out their duty to defenders
creatively, if they are to carry it out successfully.
With communities remaining in lock-down in the near future, defenders
are facing greater pressures. It is more vital than ever that existing
promises and international obligations are upheld by business,
government and the international community. So long as good faith is
shown, Global Witness will keep working with these stakeholders to
ensure that defenders’ voices are heard, their rights protected and the
root causes behind their activism are resolved.
Responses from Del Monte Philippines, Dole Philippines and the
International Finance Corporation can be read in full here.
Global Witness offered companies we met with following the launch of our
investigation, ‘Defending the Philippines’ for updates on the actions
taken to support and protect defenders in the six months since our
DEL MONTE PHILIPPINES INC
“Global Witness’ campaign late last year made clear to us how there
could be a huge disconnect between how we see our company and how some
sectors interpret our actions. One of our affiliates’ watchwords is our
being “Growers of Good.” Being one of the good guys entails an
organizational mindfulness and focus on enduring principles such as
respect for human rights which we had always thought our company would
never have issues on. The growth of our business, our evolving supply
chain and the expanding reach of our operations require increased
vigilance to ensure that the lives our businesses cross paths with are
indeed enriched as stated in our company vision: Nourishing Families and
Enriching Lives. Such vigilance needs to be articulated in a very clear
policy, translated into concrete action steps within our company’s
existing business processes and ingrained in our culture.
Hence, we had embarked on a journey of reflecting on our beliefs as to
who we are and what we stand for, including identifying areas of no
compromise or zero tolerance. We are motivated as well by the prospect
of our employees, customers, investors and business partners being very
satisfied with our company’s human rights track record and
sustainability practices. We had taken pride in our practices as being
in step with those of other responsible corporate citizens. However, we
now take the challenge of reviewing our impact assessment and due
diligence processes including areas of focus and monitoring frequency.
It is true that we had internally reviewed these and made some changes,
but beyond doing these by ourselves and with our existing lens, we have
engaged (not without some discomfort as in any learning experience) with
civil society and human rights experts and advocates. We want to be
proactive, to the extent that we can, in preventing and responding to
any reprisals against persons who voice out issues about any of the
businesses our company is involved in. If all these mean that we would
lead the way on business and human rights in the Philippines, then we
will carry on.”
“Even prior to the current COVID-19 pandemic, Dole Philippines, Inc.. was
already in the midst of re-examining its company purpose and the core
principles that guide it in the operation of its business. Such
rethinking of its purpose as a producer of healthy food products is in
line with Dole’s goal of being more attune with the needs of its
surrounding community and stakeholders.
Dole shall continue to be guided by its own Code of Conduct and shall
adhere to the highest ethical standards and operate its business openly
and honestly within the spirit and letter of existing laws.
Dole is committed to following the UN Guiding Principles on Business &
Human Rights. As a socially-responsible corporate citizen, Dole fully
respects the fundamental and internationally-recognized human rights.
Dole looks forward to outlining more concrete company policies and
programs in support of the UN Guiding Principles.
With respect specifically to violence perpetrated against environmental
defenders as alleged in Global Witness’ “Enemies of the State” report,
Dole has undertaken a review of its internal processes to better ensure
that it shall not be a party to any such reprisals or violence against
environmental defenders and/or indigenous peoples. Additionally, it has
implemented a regular dialogue among its employees who are members of
indigenous groups to ensure that concerns from indigenous groups are
constantly discussed with company representatives.”
THE INTERNATIONAL FINANCE CORPORATION (IFC)
“Since releasing its public Position Statement on Non-Retaliation in
October 2018, IFC has been tracking reprisals allegations more
systematically and developing internal protocols and guidance for staff
on reprisals screening, prevention, and response. In December 2019, IFC
launched a new contextual risk tool to be included as part of IFC’s
Environmental and Social due diligence processes for all investments. In
recognizing the importance of early prevention, a reprisals-specific
dimension has been added to screen for project contexts with high risks
of retaliation and violence. New guidance is also forthcoming on
adapting stakeholder engagement practices and client grievance
mechanisms in these situations, including in the rapidly emerging
When reprisal allegations are raised, IFC works within the scope of its
role as a lender and investor to engage with its clients or other
appropriate parties, make its position against reprisals clear, and take
follow up action as and where needed. These efforts are being
strengthened through the creation of a dedicated Stakeholder Grievance
Response team, established in July 2019 as part of IFC’s new Environment
& Social Policy and Risk Department – which reports directly to IFC’s
CEO. This team and department are working to raise awareness and provide
guidance to operational teams regarding retaliation risks and threats,
with a focus on early prevention and engagement efforts.
We look forward to continued engagement and collaboration with Global
Witness and other key stakeholders on this important and challenging