Members of Filipino indigenous 'Tuwali' tribe display their farm produce during a protest near Malacanang Palace in Manila on Nov. 18, 2019. The protesters held a rally against the Australian-Canadian mining corporation, OceanaGold Philippines, asking the government to reject the financial or technical assistance agreement renewal application (Photo: AFP)
There are many unsung brave Filipinos willing to stand up with the people and fight for their human rights and lands, and to protect the environment.
Among them are courageous journalists who continue to tell the truth despite harassment and death threats, and bishops and priests who have spoken out to defend the innocent for which they have been falsely accused to tarnish their reputations.
An international environmental group has said that the Philippines is the most dangerous place in Asia for defenders of ecology and land rights.
More than 114 of the total 270 defenders of land and environment, who were murdered between 2012 and 2020, were indigenous leaders trying to protect their way of life and lands. Most of the murders and land grabbing have been done in Mindanao.
The research was undertaken by Global Witness, an environmental NGO based in the United Kingdom. Its researchers found that most of the murders were because of “protests by defenders against company operations.”
“A third of the killings are linked to the mining industry, closely followed by the agribusiness sector,” they said in their report while alleging that “state forces are behind the majority of killings in the few cases where the identity of the perpetrators is documented.”
It is the duty and role of government agencies to actually protect human rights and defend the people, yet the shameful fact is the authorities are frequently the violators.
The human rights defenders are the true heroes, who are not recognized for their commitment and dedication. Instead many of them are unjustly imprisoned and others are “tagged” as rebels, communists, or subversives by a small band of military officers allegedly working with the rich oligarchs.
These super-rich families are well-connected and they make millions of dollars with their partner foreign investors that are mining the mineral resources of the nation, grabbing indigenous ancestral lands for plantations.
There is a thin veil of legality when a mining corporation gets a “permit” or "title" to mine or set up yet another plantation on ancestral lands, especially in Mindanao. That is why some of the family dynasties tenaciously hang on to power, manipulating elections, buying votes, and grabbing power to sequester the national wealth for themselves.
The Philippines is not really a democracy but a “dynocracy” where family dynasties rule the nation.
The mining corporations backed by a few powerful politicians and their cronies cut down forests and pollute rivers. They drive out indigenous people from their ancestral lands that are considered sacred to their way of life and have provided food and other resources for their survival.
Some government officials tell them to go to the cities and find jobs. This is impossible for indigenous people. The situation is similar in many other countries where ingenious citizens are driven out from ancestral lands and not recognized as the true owners.
When they organize and campaign for justice they are slandered, falsely branded enemies of the state, unjustly accused of being criminals and rebels and wrongfully jailed or killed.
Some brave bishops have spoken out to condemn the killings and the “systematic abductions” of defenders of the ecology and lands.
He demanded that the “perpetrators, including military and police officers, as well as officials of state institutions… involved in abductions and kidnappings, must be held accountable.”
In Brazil, the Supreme Court ruled by a majority on Sept. 22 to recognize the land rights of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people who have been campaigning for justice since the 1980s.
They were driven off their ancestral lands by the military and powerful politicians connected to agri-businesses, logging and mining cartels. But the top court established the inalienable rights of indigenous people to millions of hectares of their ancestral lands, much of it in the rain forests.
There is great rejoicing among 1.7 million Brazilian indigenous people.
It gives hope that one day there will be justice for the brave Filipino hero-activists helping to defend the environment, the waterways, beaches, forests and lands of the people.
More bishops should speak out and not leave it only to Bishop Alminaza and a few other bishops. Under the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte, four Philippine prelates and several outspoken priests defended human rights.They spoke against the “war on drugs” and rallied their communities to protest the killings of thousands of Filipinos by the state-sanctioned “death squads.”
They were falsely and maliciously charged with ‘sedition” and ludicrously and falsely accused of planning to oust Duterte.
The courageous bishops and priests that stood against his tyranny include Archbishop Socrates Villegas, Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, Bishop Honesto Ongtioco, retired Bishop Teodoro Bacani, Father Robert Reyes and La Salle Brother Armin Luistro, Jesuit priest Albert Alejo and Divine Word priest Flaviano Villanueva, besides nine others.
The manufactured cases against them were a travesty of justice. But eventually, the ridiculous allegations were dropped when they failed to silence the church leaders.
There is no greater shame for a nation when its government agencies persecute human rights defenders and deprive the indigenous people and poor farmers of their land rights. May all people of conscience and good hearts continue to work for social justice, human rights and dignity.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.