Killings of Environment Advocates Unpunished

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    (New York) – The Philippine government’s failure to address threats and killings of environmental advocates worsens a climate of lawlessness just as the Aquino administration is pushing for new mining investments.

    On July 2, 2012, President Benigno Aquino III signed Executive Order No. 79, which aims to institutionalize reforms in the Philippine mining sector by “providing policies and guidelines to ensure environmental protection and responsible mining.” However, the executive order is silent on the issue of human rights abuses arising from mining investments and on the deployment of paramilitaries at the mines.

    “President Aquino has enacted decrees to encourage mining investment in the Philippines but has done little to stop attacks on environmental advocates,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director. “He should recognize that respecting human rights is crucial for economic development.”

    The government should redouble its investigations into attacks on advocates, particularly when evidence points to the involvement of the military or paramilitary forces, arrest and prosecute all those responsible, and protect witnesses at risk.

    Human Rights Watch has documented three cases since October 2011 in which critics of mining and energy projects have been killed, allegedly by paramilitary forces under military control. The activists had been vocal in opposing mining and energy operations which they said threatened the environment and would displace tribal communities from their land.

    Margarito J. Cabal, 47, an organizer of a group opposing a hydroelectric dam in Bukidnon province, was gunned down on May 9, 2012. Relatives allege that the police have not investigated the killing, and no suspect has been arrested. Cabal had told relatives that he was under military surveillance and had been called to meet the military regarding his activities.

    On March 5, a leader of a paramilitary group with a dozen of his men allegedly shot dead Jimmy Liguyon, a village chief in Dao, San Fernando town, Bukidnon province, in front of family members. Relatives said he was killed because he refused to sign an agreement needed to secure a mining investment, and that he had been under military surveillance. The main suspect, the leader of a group called the New Indigenous People’s Army for Reforms, faces a warrant for his arrest, but has been seen going about his usual business in the village.

    The local paramilitary group Bagani (“tribal warriors”), reportedly under military control, was allegedly responsible for the fatal shooting of Italian priest Father Fausto Tentorio, 59, in Arakan, North Cotabato province on October 17, 2011. Fr. Tentorio was a long-time advocate of tribal rights and opposed mining in the area. No one has been arrested for the killing, although the National Bureau of Investigation has recommended charges against four suspects. Tentorio’s colleagues have alleged that some suspects with military ties have been deliberately left out of the case, and two witnesses and their families are in hiding while others have been threatened.

    “While mining and other environmentally sensitive projects promise economic benefits for Filipinos, they should not come at the expense of basic rights, particularly the lives of environmental advocates,” Pearson said. “The Aquino government should ensure that those responsible for these attacks are brought to justice.”

    Many mining investments in the Philippines are in areas with large indigenous populations or are controlled by tribal groups. Philippine law requires the “free and prior informed consent” of the local tribal communities for these investments to proceed. This often has divided tribal communities, some of whom back investors with the support of the military to acquire the necessary permits, while tribal factions opposed to the investments sometimes get support from the communist New People’s Army or other armed groups. This has resulted in proxy conflicts pitting tribal groups against each other, resulting in numerous rights abuses.

    Media and local human rights and environmental groups have reported other attacks against anti-mining and environmental advocates. Sister Stella Matutina, a Benedictine nun who led a grassroots campaign to oppose destructive mining in Davao Oriental, told Human Rights Watch that she continues to fear for her life as the military persists in vilifying her as a communist. She and her fellow advocates say that she is being targeted because of her opposition to mining in the province.

    And even in cases where suspects have been identified and face an arrest warrant, they may go unpunished. For instance, former Palawan governor Joel Reyes remains at large despite an arrest warrant for his role in the killing of journalist and environmentalist Gerry Ortega on January 24, 2011.

    On July 9, the United Nations special envoys on human rights defenders and on extrajudicial executions issued a joint statement criticizing the Aquino administration for the attacks on human rights and environmental defenders, saying these abuses “have increased significantly over the past few months.”

    Human Rights Watch reiterated its call to President Aquino to ban all paramilitary forces in the Philippines because of their long and continuing history of serious human rights violations. Aquino has backtracked from earlier pledges to dismantle paramilitaries, saying that getting rid of military-supervised groups “is not the solution.” The government claims that paramilitary forces are now better trained and better regulated than in the past. Until such groups are banned, Aquino should revoke a 2011 directive that permits these forces to provide security for mining companies.

    “Aquino should disband paramilitary groups that are being used to divide tribal communities and instill fear among the residents,” Pearson said. “The government crucially needs to hold accountable the military officers who are behind these abusive forces.”

    Source: Human Rights Watch