A Filipina environmentalist and human rights campaigner tagged as a “terrorist” communist leader by the government is among this year’s recipients of a top UN environmental award, the world body said Thursday.
Joan Carling, an activist for the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development, was named in February to a list of 600 alleged communist insurgents the government is asking a local court to classify as “terrorists.”
Carling received this year’s Champions of the Earth Award, described as the highest environmental award bestowed by the world body, for lifetime achievement. She joined French President Emmanuel Macron as well as Indian leader Narendra Modi in receiving the award, which was given during the UN’s 73rd UN General Assembly in New York.
Also on the list was Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, who, like Carling, has denied the accusation and claimed the terror tag has potentially placed their lives in danger. The U.N. has asked the government of President Rodrigo Duterte to remove both women from the list, a request it has so far rejected.
“I have dedicated my life to teaching about human rights. I have spent much of it campaigning for environmental protection and sustainable development. So, I was surprised to learn that I was labelled as a terrorist,” Carling said in a statement.
Since being named a “terrorist,” Carling said she has not been back to the Philippines fearing “for the safety of my family and friends.”
She said that while the red tagging has uprooted her, she is more motivated than ever. “I cannot give up the fight for my people.”
Carling traces her roots to the Kankanaey tribe in the northern Cordillera, a mineral rich northern Philippine region that sits on huge deposits of gold, copper and manganese.
The mountainous region, she said, is under threat from mining companies. She estimates that since 2000, more than half of the region was covered by mining permit applications.
Mining in the area has led to environmental disasters, including a typhoon-triggered landslide that hit the mining town of Itogon three weeks ago.
Carling spent most of her youth in the mountains and recalled having seen the displacement of about 100,000 members of a tribal community by a huge hydroelectric dam. She said that those who had opposed the dam were jailed, and a tribal leader was killed.
“What I learned from indigenous communities is this – when we destroy our landscape, we destroy ourselves. By defending our land, we also defend our future and the generations to come,” she said.
Carlin said she earned death threats by saying massive mining operations and dam construction to extract resources were not in the name of development.
“Mines leave massive toxic waste, and communities collapse. These projects cause mass displacement, worsen poverty and destroy the cultural heritage of our people,” she said.
Both Carling and Corpuz have been included in the “terrorist” list because of their alleged ties to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, which has been waging Asia’s longest running insurgency since 1969.
When Duterte, a self-described leftist, took power in 2016 he immediately invited the CPP-NPA to the peace negotiating table, hoping to end the insurgency that has left thousands dead. He had also named several known leftists to his cabinet.
He ended peace talks with the communists in November 2017, saying the guerrillas had reneged on their commitment to peace when members continued with attacks despite a agreeing to a ceasefire.