Philippine environmentalist groups raise alarm about abduction of 2 activists

BenarNews staff
Philippine environmentalist groups raise alarm about abduction of 2 activists Climate activists hold signs and banners during a protest in front of the headquarters of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila, Philippines. September 29, 2022.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

Two Filipina university students active in environmentalist protests against China-backed reclamation projects in Manila Bay were abducted by unidentified men over the weekend, their colleagues confirmed Thursday.

Their case marks the latest abduction in the Philippines, where environmental or grassroots activists are targeted for kidnapping or “red-tagged” as communist sympathizers, according to human rights advocates. An official at the National Security Council denied that any government-linked groups were involved in the latest case.

Activists Jhed Tamano, 22, and Jonila Castro, 21, were working with families in Bataan, a province by the bay, when armed men seized them and drove off in a sports utility vehicle on Sept. 2, police said.

“Yes, this is being investigated by the Bataan PPO (provincial police office),” said Col. Jean Fajardo, a spokeswoman for national police. 

The motive for the abduction was not known, Fajardo said. The Bataan police opened the case after the parents of the two students, together with the Commission on Human Rights, sought help from police, she said.

The two women, both enrolled at Bulacan State University, are activists with AKAP Ka Manila Bay, a group that opposes the reclamation projects in Manila Bay, the commission said Thursday. 

A “quick response” team has been sent to investigate the abduction, according to the commission, an independent body. 

“CHR is gravely alarmed by this latest case of alleged abduction only a few days after the observance of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances,” the commission said in a statement. 

“We call for immediate and exhaustive efforts from law enforcement agencies to search for the missing young environmental advocates.”  

The commission said that its initial findings showed the two activists were taken while they were conducting research on families from fishing communities displaced by the reclamation projects. 

Bay projects

More than a dozen Manila Bay projects were approved during the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2022).

One is a U.S. $1 billion, 890-acre reclamation project in Pasay City, part of Metro Manila. A subsidiary of the state-run China Communications Construction Co. Ltd. (CCCC) is one of two firms contracted to build three artificial islands in the bay. 

The company also is involved in the 655-acre Pasay Harbor City Reclamation Project, a joint venture between Pasay City and Pasay Harbor City Corp., with two companies owned by friends of Duterte. 

In 2020, the U.S. blacklisted CCCC and 23 other Chinese state-owned companies for their alleged role in helping Beijing’s “expansionist agenda” in the South China Sea.

Last month, the Philippine government ordered the reclamation projects suspended until it could carry out a study into their environmental impact, after the American embassy and green groups had complained about their potential destruction to the bay.

Boats sail past a reclamation project in Manila Bay, Philippines, Aug. 10, 2023. [Ted Aljibe/AFP]

Raoul Manuel, a Philippine congressman who advocates for youths, warned Thursday that the case was “neither the first nor the last abduction.”

“The narrative is the same. Because of their advocacy, they encounter powerful individuals who threaten them, monitor their activities, harass them, label them as terrorists and eventually abduct them suddenly, possibly never to be seen again,” Manuel told reporters in Tagalog.  

The human rights group Karapatan, the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment and the Environmental Defenders Congress have linked the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) to abductions of activists. 

NTF-ELCAC is an agency implementing the government’s strategy of ending the communist insurgency, which began in 1969.

‘The usual Karapatan playbook’

On Thursday, Jonathan Malaya, assistant director-general of the National Security Council, rejected allegations that state forces had anything to do with the abductions. Malaya is also spokesman for the NTF-ELCAC.  

“This is the usual Karapatan playbook where the NTF is the convenient scapegoat by this front organization for any alleged deficiency of government,” Malaya said. 

“We challenge Karapatan to come up with any evidence or proof of wrong-doing and submit the same to the Department of Justice for preliminary investigation. If they have none, then they should let the police conduct its investigation,” he said. 

Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said her organization was checking available leads into the activists’ abductions.

“Considering the current human rights situation and trends wherein state actors, including NTF-ELCAC, are reported to be involved in human rights violations such as killings, abductions, red-tagging among others, we are not discounting their possible involvement,” Palabay told BenarNews. 

07 PH-abduction2.JPG
Members of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment stage a rally against a mining operation in central Sibuyan island, in front of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources headquarters in Quezon City, Philippines, Feb. 6, 2023. [Gerard Carreon/BenarNews]

Rep. Manuel said there had been at least 15 cases of abductions of community organizers and activists since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office in June 2022.  

In recent years, activists and personalities associated with progressive groups were killed in assassinations or in police operations, often after they were accused of being members of communist front groups.  

Last year, Global Witness, a London-based environmentalist and rights advocacy group, reported that police and military in the Philippines had randomly accused groups of being fronts for communist insurgents. 

It described the Philippines as the world’s deadliest nation in 2018 when 30 environmental activists were killed – a number that jumped to 43 the following year when it trailed only Colombia, which recorded 64.

The Kalikasan People’s Network called for the “immediate surfacing” of the missing environmentalists, noting their dedication to protecting the environment “has come at a steep price.”

“A playbook of attacks has been systematically deployed against these defenders, beginning with vilification and red-tagging which falsely portrays them as enemies of the state,” the group said.

“Often, this is swiftly followed by the criminalization of their work, resulting in their arrest and detention on trumped-up charges.” 

Jeoffrey Maitem and Jojo Riñoza in Manila contributed to this report.


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