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Filipino eco-warriors fight losing battle

Deadly attacks on anti-mining activists in the Philippines part of a global trend, according to new report.

Last updated: 16 Apr 2014 13:27
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Local residents and environmental groups have clashed with mining operations in the Philippines [AFP]

As his family's first-born son, Jordan Manda was groomed as the future chieftain of their Subanen tribe in the mountains of southern Philippines.

His father Lucencio Manda is the current chief of their clan. Jordan, 11, excelled in school, ranking in the top five of his class while helping his parents look after their farmland. In late 2012, the fifth-grader was hitching a ride to school on his father's motorbike when a bullet pierced his back and killed him.

The elder Manda survived the ambush. He said they were attacked because he had opposed mining in their resource-rich ancestral land. Manda said he had received death threats for years and in 2002, his cousin and former tribal leader, Giovanni Umbang, was also killed. He, too, had vocally opposed mining exploration. The two murder cases remain unsolved. Local activists told Al Jazeera the presence of large-scale mining was to blame for the outbreak of violence in the Subanen community. 

It has never been more important to protect the environment, and it has never been more deadly.

- Global Witness, watchdog group

Deadly attacks in the Philippines reflect a "rapidly worsening" global trend occurring against a backdrop of "extreme global inequality", according to a new report released on Tuesday

London-based Global Witness, an international NGO that documents the links between natural resource exploitation and conflict, said between 2002 and 2013 at least 908 environment and land defenders were killed worldwide. Brazil ranked as the most dangerous with 448 cases, followed by Honduras with 109, and the Philippines with 67 deaths.

"More and more ordinary people are finding themselves on the front line of the battle to defend their environment from corporate or state abuse and unsustainable exploitation," the report said. "And it has never been more deadly."

The bloodiest year for land defenders and environmental activists was 2012 with 147 deaths globally. In the past four years, an average of two activists have been killed each week.

Bribery and intimidation

Indigenous people have been particularly hard-hit, partly because of a lack of legal protections, the report said. Even where laws exist, they are disregarded by powerful economic interests. "Often, the first they know about the deal that goes against their interests is when the bulldozers arrive in their farms and forests," reads the report.

That is also true among the Subanens of Mindanao, said Daniel Arias, of the anti-mining group Alyansa Tigil Mina. He said multinational mining companies come into communities with bribes or armed private security companies to intimidate the locals.

"Subanens have been living peacefully in their communities for centuries," Arias told Al Jazeera. "All of a sudden, mining companies come in and create trouble. So the logical conclusion is that mining breeds conflict."
   
Leonita Cabando, who heads the anti-mining coalition Social Action Center, told Al Jazeera that mining companies have also employed different strategies to divide the loyalties of tribal leaders.

'Military involvement'

In the Philippines, the government has often been accused of militarising the conflict and siding with the interests of big business over indigenous groups such as the Subanens, said Hirohito Cadion, a journalist in the Zamboanga Peninsula. Cadion said he had been threatened for reporting alleged abuses against indigenous people. He told Al Jazeera that former military officials had been hired to provide security for mining companies, and that some local government officials joined in harassing indigenous people.

In one incident cited in the report, Philippine soldiers shot and killed Juvy Capion, the pregnant wife of B'laan tribal leader Daguil Capion in Tampakan town in Mindanao. Also killed in the attack were the couple's two sons, seven-year-old John Mark and a 15-year-old named Jordan. 

The Philippine military said the deaths were part of a legitimate operation. Human rights advocates, however, said there was no armed encounter and called the incident a "massacre". Juvy and her husband Daguil had been blocking the gold and copper mine operated by Sagittarius Mining Inc (SMI), in which Swiss-based Glencore-Xstrata owns a majority stake. Daguil, the chieftain, had declared a "tribal war" and took up arms against the project, making him a target of the military, with a $7,000 bounty on his head.

Asked for comment about the alleged complicity of Sagittarius Mining in the deaths, Manolo Labor, the company spokesman, told Al Jazeera that the SMI was "never a party to the investigation".

"This particular issue was covered by an investigation, first by a military tribunal and second by the commission on human rights," Labor said. "According to the military, they had a valid arrest warrant for a certain individual, and that was covered by a military order."

'Total impunity'

A vast majority of perpetrators "appear to enjoy total impunity for their crimes", according to the Global Witness report.

Environmental activist deaths on the rise

Of the 67 confirmed killings in the Philippines, only two suspects have been jailed. Conflicts over mining accounted for 42 of the murders.

Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's Deputy Asia Pacific Director, said in a statement to Al Jazeera that impunity for murder "is a critical human rights concern" in the Philippines.

"Effective investigations and prosecution for crimes involving human rights violations are rare in the Philippines," he said. "This is actually a systemic problem in the country's criminal justice system as a whole."

Frederick Ian S Capin, a lawyer for the Philippines' Human Rights Commission, told Al Jazeera that many of the cases reported were difficult to verify, because of the remote locations of the villages. Over the past two years, his office reported finding at least six abuse cases.  

"Security and safety of going in and out of the places of the incident are a challenge," Capin said. He added that trying to get witnesses to talk is even more difficult because many fear for their lives.   

Criminal prosecution

The report said countries such as Brazil and the Philippines "must take immediate steps" to investigate the deaths, and prosecute the killers. "There can be few starker or more obvious symptoms of the global environmental crisis that this dramatic upturn in killings of ordinary people who are protecting rights to land and a healthy environment," the report said.

Amnesty International director Rupert Abbott told Al Jazeera that it was not enough for countries such as the Philippines to investigate the problem, they needed also to bring those responsible to court and punish them, while providing reparations to family members of the victims.
 
"All of us need to keep [up] the pressure and need to keep on repeating ourselves until the government makes a commitment," he said.

Meanwhile, Jordan Manda's father vowed to continue to seek justice for his late son. He stood for election as a town council member in May 2013 - and won. "It is very painful and I thirst for justice," he was quoted as saying after his son's death. "I vow to continue my struggle in order not to make my son's death in vain."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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