When defenders of the environment and rights face threats themselves

Gaea Katreena Cabico, Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
When defenders of the environment and rights face threats themselves
This photo was taken on Sept. 18, 2020 when the Center for Environmental Concerns Philippines filed their petition against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 before the Supreme Court.
Center for Environmental Concerns Philippines Facebook page

Part 2 of a two-part feature.

Read Part 1 here.

MANILA, Philippines — Last February, weeks before the historic Palawan plebiscite vote, long-time environmental lawyer Gerthie Mayo-Anda found photos of her sporting devil horns and of her home with Ipil-Ipil trees made out to be a haunted house in social media posts.

Environmental defenders like her were among the loudest voices in campaigning for the “no” vote on the proposed Palawan split — and won — a move largely seen as a threat to the ecosystem of the country’s “last ecological frontier.”

But Mayo-Anda, founder of Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), acknowledged she is fortunate to only deal with maligning on social media, as other lawyers and environmental defenders experienced much worse for the profession and cause they chose.

ELAC was founded in 1990 and incorporated in 1997. The Palawan-based non-government organization engages in advocacy, education work and litigation.

Her fellow lawyer and environmental defender Robert Chan, who also vigorously campaigned for the “no” vote, found himself banned from returning to Palawan.

Chan is the executive director of Palawan NGO Network Inc. For more than a decade, the environmental lawyer worked on protecting coastal forests and reeds in Palawan.

New data from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers showed that in the last ten years, Philippine lawyers and judges reported at least 176 “prima-facie profession or work-related” attacks, including 73 killings.

In 2019, international watchdog Global Witness said that the Philippines is the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders in Asia and second in the world, next to Colombia. A separate data release from Kalikasan Peoples Network for the Environment said that in the same year, 46 environmental defenders in the country were killed, a 53% increase compared to 2018 which only documented 30 deaths.

READ: 'A threat on a lawyer is an assault on the Judiciary,' SC says amid rise in lawyer killings

When defenders are threatened

Even as sentinels of the rule of law, Filipino lawyers are not cloaked with immunity from violence or threats — especially in the Duterte administration, Mayo-Anda said, where many of her colleagues were murdered.

"That kind of atmosphere, why should people have the kind of temerity to take the law into their own hands? Because that’s the context: There’s a conducive climate, sorry for saying this, but the climate seems to be conducive to take the law into your own hands," she said in an interview with Philstar.com.

READ: IBP: With lawyers killed and murders unresolved, people will lose trust in justice system

Threats against lawyers go for decades back. NUPL, and now-defunct Counsels for the Defense of Lawyers (CODAL), have been documenting such incidents since 1977: Their matrix showed that in April 2006, then-IBP National Environmental Action Team chairperson Antonio Oposa Jr. reported receiving death threats "in relation to his work against illegal fishing practice in Visayan Sea."

In September 2005, anti-mining advocate and activist-lawyer Norman Bocar was gunned down. June of same year, lawyer Tonyboy Azarcon, counsel for groups that expose militarization and illegal mining and logging, reported that his office in Surigao del Sur was ransacked and case files were stolen.

In its report to the Supreme Court, the NUPL said: "The highest number of incidents was documented in 2019, with at least 39 prima facie profession or work-related attacks. A steady increase in the number of such attacks has been observed since 2016."

Mayo-Anda said that her being a lawyer, of course, has value to a community but "it is not a fool-proof guarantee that you will not be killed under the Duterte administration."

"Because if you’ve been red-tagged, even if you’re a lawyer, you can be injured, physically harassed," she added.

Increasing attacks on lawyers

In recent years, attacks increased and the most common of them, according to NUPL data, is vilification or labelling of lawyers.

The group monitored 50 incidents of red-tagging of lawyers and 36 cases of threats, intimidation and harassment. Most of the victims of these attacks are public interest or human rights lawyers.

For environmental lawyer Robert Chan, the threat did not end with a declaration of persona non grata, which barred him from returning to Palawan.

In a webinar hosted by the Central for Environmental Concerns – Philippines on April 22, Chan shared he received praises after he was declared persona non grata — he was even treated like a celebrity or hero.

But when he was alone, he saw social media posts bearing his name in all bold, capital letters. “So you get to be unsettled and unsure of yourself and you tell yourself, you’re afraid,” the lawyer said.

After the persona non grata declaration, threats of rebellion and sedition complaints followed. “We countered that, it went into hatching of a plot to plant evidence against my person,” Chan said.

The probable complaint? Drugs.

In the end, he opted not to return to Palawan and not contest the charge.

A climate of impunity

Chan said that when he was declared as persona non grata in Palawan, the residents saw the system of impunity in the province more clearly.

He shared that in the past, impunity was connected with land grabbing, which went on to water grabbing and then protected are grabbing — and a town mayor was suspended too.

"It became more clear that there was being promoted a system of impunity in our province and my being declared as persona non grata was only the flashpoint that gelled everything together," he added.

ELAC’s Mayo-Anda also noted that under the Duterte administration, “civic space becomes really constricted.”

When ELAC members surveyed forests in previous years, they were more relaxed, but due to skirmishes with the military, they have to be proactive and talk to them — which they did not do in the time of former President Benigno Aquino III.

“The political atmosphere, you know, because we’re an NGO, there are NGOs being red-tagged, we also want to make sure that we are not included here and if we are, then we should be removed,” she added.

In the past, ELAC’s dealings with the military only revolved around environmental enforcement, but they have since coordinated with them for security matters.

"The fact that we are going through a security training is just a reflection of our cautiousness and wariness under the Duterte administration because civic space seems to be getting narrower," the lawyer also said.

Drawing up protocols

ELAC has since become more proactive in dealing with security concerns. Mayo-Anda said they reach out to the key officials of the military to let them know the nature of their work and the issues they tackle that relate to some politicians and government agencies.

ELAC and other NGOs also held security training with military officers as resource persons. Mayo-Anda said they attended a national-level security training in 2017, and another in Palawan in 2018.

They also set up internal protocols such as ensuring that when she would have a companion when goes out to attend evening meetings or even simply sending out a text message for staff leaving the office and arriving at their destination.

Terror in the law to counter terrorism

But support from the national government will give environmental and human rights defenders would go a long way.

Echoing the call of several rights groups, Mayo-Anda said the Duterte administration must certify as urgent the Environmental Defense Act of 2020 and the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act that both remain pending before the House.

RELATED: UN expert calls for legislation on protection of human rights defenders

She also urged for a review of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, noting that in the current atmosphere, those who are angry at the government are easily tagged as Reds.

Environmental defenders joined in the fight to strike down anti-terrorism law as unconstitutional at the Supreme Court. In the petition led by Coordinating Council for People’s Development and Governance, environmental and humanitarian groups told the SC that in promoting their cause, they have been "very vocal against large scale mining and construction of large dams that destroy the environment."

In turn, they “earned the ire of the mining capitalists who are aided by the armed forces of the state in quelling their opposition.”

They argued that the anti-terrorism law will justify the harassment against them and the aid they deliver to communities, especially far-flung barangays hardly reached by government help, can be branded as "support for terrorist activities." These communities that they have been helping will suffer too.

A gargantuan challenge

Mayo-Anda said the government should conduct dialogues with communities within certain identified hot spot areas where red-tagging or killings are rampant, “rather than putting a lot of money on security and anti-terrorism."

“As long as there is poverty and injustice and corruption, you cannot really eradicate rebellion,” she continued.

The lawyer also pointed out that other groups of Indigenous Peoples in far-flung communities rarely see government officials but they would instead see armed men in their area.

“The basic services of the government should be funded well. If you can eradicate corruption, those are the basic components, but [that] requires funding and political will, resources, warm bodies and you can only do that if you develop a confidence-building process,” she said.

Mayo-Anda however recognized that there are no quick fixes in the current situation. She said:  “Whoever becomes the next president will have a challenging task of undoing other things."

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