It was the morning after launching our new report Defending the Philippines, and I was stuck in a Manila traffic jam, when my phone beeped to tell me that the government’s negative response to our report had intensified.
President Duterte’s spokesperson had warmed up the night before, using a press conference to accuse Global Witness of “generalizing” and insisting that more investigations were needed to find out what was behind the wave of killings we’d exposed. We couldn’t agree more on the latter point – prosecuting those who attack land and environmental defenders is the only way to truly stem the tide of violence.
Nevertheless, he was wrong to try to undermine our meticulousness: the report is the fruit of a three-year investigation using a range of techniques including long trips to interview eyewitnesses in remote locations, undercover investigations, rigorous desk research and thorough legal checks. Our key ask: justice for those killed, responsibility and action taken by business and governments alike, to tackle the root causes of attacks against activists and stop them happening again.
However, that morning’s statement - WhatsApped to the Philippines media en masse - represented a full-on smear, leaving us no choice but to respond. In calling us a “purveyor of falsity and a subservient machinery for political propaganda”, the government hoped to do what it has done so often in the face of criticism by NGOs by undermining the message, and discrediting the messenger.
In the weeks that followed, we would join local activists in multiple public events, raise the alarm regarding defenders at risk, sit across the table from the investors and businesses named in our report, speak to tens of journalists and take the message straight to the top at the UN, the diplomatic community and beyond. This couldn’t be happening at a more critical time, as the issue of land and environmental defenders in Philippines hits the headlines with increasing intensity.
A pattern of stigmatisation
The response which came from Duterte’s office is standard practice by his government, which regularly paints rights activists as terrorists, rebels or anti-development.
We were fortunate the attacks were only verbal. As revealed in Global Witness’s July report Enemies of the State?, those calling out abuses by big corporations and corrupt politicians are too often literally shot: the Philippines registered more killings of land and environmental defenders in 2018 than anywhere on Earth. When the New York Times picked up on this fact, Duterte’s spokesperson had again gone on the attack.
So we were apprehensive as we travelled to Manila in mid-September, ready to announce that our latest research demonstrates how these murders have almost doubled – facilitated by the current government’s violent policies and aggressive rhetoric.
It’s never good when you receive simultaneous urgent messages from activists in the Philippines. A couple of nights prior to report launch, one of our principal partners, the environmental network Kalikasan PNE, had been tipped off to surveillance by the security forces and a pending order for their offices to be raided.
An attack in the making, or calculated harassment? Either way, we were on high alert and the message to our activist friends – who that week were part of protests to denounce martial law and demand climate action – was clear: with increased mobilisation will come increased reprisals.
Three days later we held a private meeting with brave colleagues from across the country who had contributed to Defending the Philippines: environmentalists, NGO workers, indigenous communities and farmers’ leaders came together to discuss strategy and security. The sense of strength, good humour, creativity and resilience shone, though the apprehension was palpable.
In the preceding weeks, a forest ranger from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Bienvinido Severino Veguilla Jr., was hacked to death by a suspected illegal logger on the tourist island of Palawan, and an indigenous leader had been shot point blank in in Mindanao after protesting mining. Along with large-scale plantations and dirty coal projects, these were the two irresponsible industries covered in our report. Everybody wanted our findings published, but we knew we’d need to pull together to resist the backlash.
Once our report was published, interest spanned beyond Presidential spin doctors and malevolent security agents. Global outlets like the BBC, Al Jazeera and the Independent complemented widespread national coverage. An online conversation sparked. “Wanna be a Greta Thunberg?” asked an Interaksyon columnist - “It’s dangerous to be one in the Philippines”.
Climate protesters marched through Manila with a ‘coal demon’ effigy representing the country’s doomed reliance on fossil fuels. Stood alongside huge sculptures of defenders that activists had marched through the city to protest the threats they face, we met with officials from the national Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations, and promised to feed into their official inquiries. A sense of momentum was growing.
Diplomats met activists, who asked for increased support for under-pressure civil society. Their governments have committed to supporting at-risk human rights defenders, and rarely has such support been more necessary than in the Philippines today. Defenders need more from diplomats right now.
Our report was built around the President’s own promises to combat corruption, protect the environment and support marginalised communities. Yet his government ignored or rejected the majority of our requests to meet them and discuss what more can be done to support organisations working towards these same ends.
Justice would be a huge step.
We met officials at the Department of Justice to discuss why nobody has been prosecuted for the attacks recorded in our report. They committed to look into these emblematic cases, and floated the idea of applying Administrative Order 35 to mandate prosecutor-led task forces to investigate the victims’ advocacy as the likely motive for these crimes. Swift and successful prosecutions would go a long way towards restoring the faith of other victims to engage the DoJ, as we found out when we travelled down to Mindanao and met indigenous and farmers leaders from the island where almost half of the killings occur.
Legislators in the upper and lower chambers demanded the government protect defenders. Their fellow law-makers will need to pass the Human Rights Defender Bill as soon as possible to help make this happen. Across the sea in the US, Senator Patrick Leahy called on the US government to ‘ensure that those in the Philippine armed forces who receive our aid respect the rights of civilians and are accountable to the rule of law’.
The role of irresponsible business
Together with a delegation of Filipino defenders, we’ll make the same point in Washington later this month. We’ll also meet the World Bank’s IFC to discuss not only how they can provide redress for the victims of abuses caused by the Limay coal-fired power plant, but also how they intend to swiftly and effectively put into practise their zero-tolerance policy on reprisals against civil society.
They are not the only business actor that needs to make changes fast. Our report had revealed how Filipino companies like Dole Philippines, Del Monte Philippines and San Miguel Corporation - as well as their Japanese backers Itochu and Mizuho Bank - apparently failed in their due diligence, and consequently backed projects linked to known attacks against indigenous leaders. In private meetings in Manila and Tokyo, these companies committed to continue discussions with civil society on how to strengthen their policies and practices. We will do everything we can to ensure they do so.
I’m arriving back to London from Tokyo tired, but inspired. Determined to support the brave Filipinos on the frontlines of a battle for their country and our planet’s future.
We will fight for justice for Renato, Ruben, Jimmy and Gloria – the murdered defenders whose stories are etched in our report.
We will monitor the situation. We will push for national and international action. And we will stand alongside our friends and allies in the Philippines to demand that their government, our governments, their companies and our investors prevent threats against activists, support those at risk, and ensure accountability where attacks occur.
Land and environmental activists are defending the Philippines. They deserve our support.