14th September 2023, London - Global Witness strongly condemns the reported abduction of Jhed Tamano (22) and Jonila Castro (21), two youth environmental advocates last seen more than a week ago in the province of Bataan, on the Philippines island of Luzon.

On 2nd September, Jhed and Jomila were snatched from the street, according to eyewitness accounts. Several local residents reported the incident and confirmed that both women were violently abducted by armed men, who shoved them into a vehicle. A sandal and shoe belonging to the women that were found at the scene suggested they'd put up a struggle before being forced into the car. Details of the incident, including the make and plate number of the vehicle, have already been reported to local authorities.

Jonila is a community organiser at the local group Alliance for the Defense of Livelihood, Housing and Environment in Manila Bay (known as Akap Ka Manila Bay), while Jhed is a programme coordinator of the Community and Church Program for Manila Bay of the Ecumenical Bishops Forum. Both were known for their opposition to land reclamation projects in Manila Bay – including the construction of the US $15 billion New Manila International Airport (NMIA). Since the project was given the green light in September 2019, it has already displaced hundreds of families, destroyed climate-critical habitats and devastated wildlife, as highlighted by a Global Witness report earlier this year.

Philippine conglomerate San Miguel Corporation (San Miguel) is building and managing the airport project. Two Dutch companies are involved – dredging giant Royal Boskalis Westminster N.V. (Boskalis) has signed a contract worth €1.5 billion to construct the first phase of the project. This was insured by the by the Dutch state via export credit agency Atradius Dutch State Business (Atradius DSB).

Rosielie Castro, mother of Jonila Castro said

“Jonila is a kind and helpful daughter. She always thinks of people in need. As a mother, I understand what she does as a community volunteer since projects that negatively affects Manila Bay and communities' homes and livelihood should not be allowed by the government. Whoever has Jonila and Jhed, please surface them alive and safe.”

The Philippines has an appalling record of attacks against land and environmental defenders with at least 281 murdered between 2012 and 2022. The country has the highest number of killings in Asia every year without exception according to Global Witness.

Two days after the abduction, the families of Jhed and Jonila, and representatives of an independent fact-finding mission went to the local police station to get an update on the case and to file a police blotter report. They were met with a refusal to cooperate and were, instead, interrogated about the activities of both women. More than a week later, Jhed and Jonila are still missing.

Rachel Cox, Interim Campaign Strategy Lead at Global Witness, said:

“This brazen and shameless attack on two young women activists is yet another sobering reminder of how dangerous it is to be an environmental defender in the Philippines. Allegations of intimidation and threats linked to opposition to Manila Bay reclamation projects have not been taken seriously. 

"It is the role of governments to protect these extraordinary people who willingly speak out against multi-billion-dollar corporations and advocate for human and environmental rights. Global Witness joins the Philippines Commission on Human Rights and the young women’s families to demand an urgent and decisive investigation that leads to their safe release and the capture and prosecution of their kidnappers.”

Prior to the attack, the youth activists had been volunteering with Akap Ka Manila Bay to document climate impacts on fisherfolk as well as emerging issues with reclamation projects. Global Witness recently published a report documenting harassment and intimidation against anti-reclamation activists and fishermen affected by the development.

Their families and colleagues have denounced the possible state involvement in the attack.  

Prior to the alleged abduction, both Jonila and Jhed have reportedly experienced intimidation and harassment , and had also been subject to red tagging - a pernicious tactic whereby a defender is deliberately blacklisted as either communist or terrorist. It is a common means of criminalisation in the Philippines, intended to silence critics.

The Philippines Commission on Human Rights said:

“This latest case of twin abduction manifests the continuing susceptibility of activists to enforced or involuntary disappearance. We hope that the State will take decisive action before another case of missing human rights defenders is reported. It is crucial to resolve all cases of ‘desaparecidos’ to curb the impunity that enable human right violations to continue."