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Who were the 11 Philippines environmental defenders killed in 2022?

by Keith Anthony S. Fabro

21 September 2023

* The Philippines is now Asia’s deadliest country for land and environmental defenders, recording 281 deaths in the last decade, with roughly one-third linked to mining, according to Global Witness.
* Despite a decline in attacks from 29 in 2020 to 11 in 2022, advocates argue that the current administration has not sufficiently addressed human rights violations and continues to engage in “red-tagging” or labeling defenders as terrorists.
* In 2022, the killed defenders were deemed insurgents and died in “encounters” with state forces, yet their families and organizations argue they were civilian advocates for the environment, climate and farmers and Indigenous peoples’ rights.
* The Philippine Commission on Human Rights, an independent government body, considered red-tagging as “a systematic attack” on human rights defenders and urged the government to enact a law safeguarding them and their communities.

The Philippines has gained the grim distinction of being Asia’s deadliest country for land and environmental defenders, with 281 deaths over the past decade, roughly one-third of which were linked to mining, according to the nonprofit Global Witness.

This figure is a part of a larger global tally of at least 1,910 defenders killed between 2012 and 2022, a new Global Witness report shows. In 2022, an average of one defender was killed every other day globally, totalling 177 fatal attacks.

According to the organization’s findings, the Philippines has consistently ranked as the top Asian country each year, though it observed a decline in fatal attacks against defenders in recent years, dropping from 29 in 2020 to 19 in 2021 and further down to 11 in 2022.

Despite the decrease in murder counts, Global Witness and its Philippine-based environmental advocacy partners believe that Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who assumed the presidency in June 2022, “has so far failed to address human rights violations.”

“Impunity continues and there is a concerted effort to undermine our work by continually branding us as bad people,” says Rodne Galicha, Executive Director of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines. “The involvement of politicians and their families who hold business interests creates a more dangerous environment for defenders speaking out in the Philippines. Real-estate, mining, large-scale agriculture and many of the reclamation projects we see across the country are connected to decision-makers with a vested interest to turn a profit, leading them to cut corners and importantly to prioritize laws and practices that benefit industry over people and planet.”

The continued existence of laws like the Anti-Terrorism Act and Executive Order 70 threatens the safety of environmental defenders who resist industrial or mining projects by arbitrarily branding them as terrorists and criminalizing them, Galicha tells Mongabay by email. These policies established a national task force to address insurgency-driven security threats, granting broad powers to the police and military, which legal experts warn may lead to discriminatory enforcement, privacy violations, and the stifling of nonviolent oppositions.

The Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHRP), an independent government body, acknowledged the constant red-tagging problem in an email to Mongabay and called it “a systematic attack” on human rights defenders and “an intentional distortion of human rights to undermine and even vilify those who advance them.”

Widespread criminalization, ‘red-tagging’

Even before Global Witness began tracking attacks on land and environmental defenders, the Philippines had a notable example in Macli-ing Dulag, an Indigenous Butbut tribe leader in the Cordilleras region.

Under former President Marcos Sr.’s authoritarian regime, Dulag’s resistance and murder by government soldiers in 1980 led to the World Bank abandoning a major dam project. Dulag’s case has since inspired environmental movements and policies in the Philippines and beyond for generations.

More than 40 years later, during the presidency of Marcos’ son, land and ecological defenders continue to live in a perilous environment, marked by widespread criminalization and “red-tagging” aimed at silencing them, Global Witness says.

“Red-tagging” is the practice of accusing critics of being involved in what is now Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency, which began during Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship.

Once “red-tagged,” activists, often affiliated with groups labeled as state enemies, face threats of intimidation and violence, frequently resulting in fatal attacks, according to Amnesty International. Many in the country’s rural and mountainous areas have been gunned down in broad daylight, either by unidentified assailants or state forces, as seen in the 11 cases in 2022.

“The pattern of violence enabled by the weaponization of laws against dissidents occurs in an overall climate of impunity,” the CHRP tells Mongabay by email. “All these contribute to the continued shrinking of civic and democratic space in the country.”

The 11 Filipino defenders killed in 2022

Rose Marie Galias and Silvestre Fortades Jr., a couple, were both members of Anakpawis, a progressive partylist championing peasant and worker rights in the Philippine Congress. On Jan. 15, four unidentified men on two motorcycles approached the couple at their store in Sorsogon province in the eastern Philippines, fatally shooting them as they sold garlic, onions and other agricultural produce. The men’s identities remain unknown, and the couple’s killing was considered politically motivated. According to the national union of agricultural workers, UMA, Philippine peasant activists are targeted for resisting feudal exploitation and demanding democratic reforms, including improved wages, fair working conditions, relief from high-interest loans and land rights.

To the west in central Philippines’ Masbate province, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) accused the police and military of abducting and killing Richard Mendoza, a civilian farmer, falsely portraying him as a Communist member who died in a military encounter on Feb. 9. Mendoza’s body was found in a rice field. He was a member of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Bicol, a local organization promoting peasants’ rights, and was affiliated with the nationwide progressive group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas.

Chad Booc, a human rights and environmental activist who also served as a community school teacher, tragically met his end in what the military termed an “encounter” in southern Philippines’ Davao de Oro province on Feb. 24. In early 2021, Booc faced accusations of links to the insurgent group New People’s Army and training students for combat. Booc and others were charged with child trafficking, but the court later dismissed these charges, resulting in his release from jail.

Gelejurain Ngujo II, another volunteer teacher at Lumad (Indigenous) schools, met the same fate as Booc. They were part of a team conducting field research on Lumad schools to raise awareness about their concerns, intending to advocate for these issues with the incoming Philippine government administration following the 2022 elections. Alongside them, community health worker Elegyn Balong and drivers Robert Aragon and Tirso Añar were also killed. According to Global Witness, Aragon and Añar supported Indigenous communities. The military had accused these schools of being breeding grounds for communist rebels, but both students and teachers consistently denied this allegation.

In South Cotabato province, southern Philippines, village councilor and former chairman Eugene Lastrella was ambushed on April 27 while driving a multicab to assist a relative about to give birth. His killing occurred before the May 9 Philippine elections, but the police considered it unrelated to the elections. As an active member of the militant group Bayan Muna, Lastrella was a well-known leader and activist who strongly opposed mining and aerial spraying by multinational plantation companies in his province.

Artist and poet Ericson Acosta lost his life during an “encounter” with state forces in central Philippines’ Negros Occidental province on Nov. 30, along with his companion, peasant leader-organizer Joseph Jimenez. Acosta of the CPP’s political arm National Democratic Front was killed while consulting farmers on the Comprehensive Agreement on Social Economic Reforms, a key document of the peace talks that began in 1986, aiming to address poverty and end Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency.

Mineral exploration, extraction in Asia

Building on his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to lift the ban on new mining operations in 2021, Marcos has underscored the significance of mineral exploration and extraction in advancing his administration’s economic plan to transition toward green technology and renewables.

“[Ferdinand Marcos Jr.] has focused his agenda on business and economic interests, raising continued concerns about an increase in mining and other resource exploitation at the cost of human rights and the safety of defenders,” Global Witness noted.

Global Witness traces this push to the rush by manufacturers of green transition technologies, like wind turbines and electric cars, to secure rare earth minerals that power them in Southeast Asia. These technologies heavily rely on nickel and copper, both of which have untapped reserves in the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.

As mineral demand outstrips supply, it prompts governments and companies to exploit new mining opportunities in the region, leading to increased investments in Asia through domestic efforts and international partnerships, Global Witness says.

“For defenders whose communities are under threat, the impacts of global markets at the local level invokes legacies of colonial extraction across the region,” the group adds.

The CHRP is pushing for a Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill to address red-tagging, reprisals, killings and disinformation aimed at environment advocates while establishing a legal framework to protect them and their communities, especially under a changing climate that significantly impact their rights.

“The CHRP strongly urges the State to support and provide adequate legal protection to environmental defenders and climate activists, land rights defenders, and human rights defenders,” the body states.