Forty-three environmental activists were killed in the Philippines last year, almost a 50 percent increase from the nationwide toll in 2018 when watchdog group Global Witness named it the world’s deadliest country for environmental defenders.
The London-based group said 2019 emerged as the “highest year ever for killings” worldwide with a total of 212. Colombia topped the list with 64 activists killed, more than double the Philippines’ total of 30 in 2018.
“The Philippines remains among the deadliest countries in the world for land and environmental defenders, ranking second in the world and first in Asia in 2019,” said a report published on Wednesday by Global Witness.
The group pointed out that more than half of the reported killings in 2019 occurred in the Philippines and Colombia, adding “the true number of killings was likely much higher.”
The Philippines saw the most killings of government employees working in environmental protection – six of the global total of 19, the report said, warning that “countless more are silenced by violent attacks, arrests, death threats, sexual violence or lawsuits.”
Global Witness said almost half of the documented killings of land and environmental defenders under the government of President Rodrigo Duterte were “linked to armed forces or paramilitary groups.”
Spokesmen for Duterte were not immediately available to comment on the report.
Reacting to the report, the Philippine NGO Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) expressed concern over a possible link between a perceived crackdown on environmental defenders and a worsening climate breakdown.
“It is alarming that Filipino environmental defenders confronting these existential planetary crises are still increasingly criminalized and murdered,” said Leon Dulce, Kalikasan PNE national coordinator.
Dulce’s organization is a partner of Global Witness who released the report, “Defending Tomorrow: the Climate Crisis and Threats against Land and Environmental Defenders.”
The crackdown of forest defenders here “will undermine the defense of forest areas crucial to reducing the spread of zoonotic infectious diseases like COVID,” Dulce said during an online news conference tied to the release of the report.
“The potential forest loss represents an 89.8 increase in the rate of malaria spread, for instance,” he said.
Dulce said Global Witness expected attacks to increase under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 signed by Duterte earlier this month.
Philippine opposition figures said the act was meant to go after Duterte critics and opponents, a charge denied by the government. At least 19 petitions have been filed before the Supreme Court.
Dulce said killings, threats, arrests and harassment directed against environmentalist, as well as the mass dislocation of indigenous people’s communities from their resource-rich ancestral domains, could be considered “crimes against humanity.” The consequences would affect not only individuals “but on the landscapes and seascapes that benefit the Filipino people and the whole world.”
In 2020 alone, he said, Global Witness has documented 260 human rights abuses committed against environmental defenders, including two killings, 173 arrests and detentions, and 25 physical assaults in the Philippines.
Dulce said environmentalists were alarmed “but not surprised” at the recent announcement by Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu that the government would allow the reopening of mines closed by his predecessor, the late Regina Lopez.
Lopez, who died in August 2019 was a scion of the family that owns ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest broadcaster, which was forced to shut down by Congress. During her brief stint as environment secretary, Lopez shut down 26 mining companies over alleged violations.