Murders of environmental activists and land defenders in the Philippines have risen sharply under President Rodrigo Duterte, an international rights watchdog said Tuesday, alleging his speeches and policies have “emboldened” the killers.
The Global Witness report said the toll was at least 113 since Duterte became president in mid-2016, while no fewer than 65 were killed in the three years before his rule.
Campaigners who challenge powerful logging, mining and fruit growing interests have long faced deadly violence in the Philippines, but the recent increase marked a “disturbing” jump.
“Since President Duterte came to power, there’s been a huge increase in the killings of land and environmental defenders including indigenous activists,” senior Global Witness campaigner Ben Leather told AFP.
“The President’s aggressive rhetoric against defenders, coupled with the climate of violence and impunity fostered by his drug war, has only made things worse,” Leather added.
In July, the group said 30 killings in the Philippines last year made it the deadliest country in the world for land defenders—a first since the group began reporting such deaths in 2012.
The report cited a series of killings carried out since Duterte won a landslide election victory on his promise to fight crime and corruption.
In 2017, a member of an environmental watchdog group was shot dead while attempting to confiscate illegally cut timber destined for boutique hotels being built amid a tourist boom on Palawan island, known as the country’s last ecological frontier, the report said.
The victim was the 12th member of the group to be killed since 2004, it added.
A community leader in Mindanao was shot dead in a 2016 ambush after speaking out against a mining project run by a company headed by a businessman who was an election campaign donor for Duterte, Global Witness said.
It said it also investigated cases of ranchers growing pineapples and bananas for fruit multinationals on land claimed by tribesmen, one of whom was killed—allegedly by security guards of a Del Monte Philippines contract grower in 2017.
In 2016, security guards of another rancher who grows bananas for Dole Philippines destroyed the houses of tribesmen claiming the land, uprooted their crops and chased them off the property with gunshots, the report said.
Dole and Del Monte dominate the industry in the Philippines, which the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization ranked as the world’s second-largest exporter of both bananas and pineapples last year.
Del Monte Philippines, in a statement, denied the report’s allegations, adding that it “vigorously promotes the welfare of stakeholders across its global supply chain.”
Dole Philippines, controlled by Japan’s Itochu Corp., did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
“The Philippines has become the most dangerous country on earth with more killings,” Leather said.
At least 46 percent of these killings were allegedly carried out by armed state forces, and 44 percent of these occurred in Mindanao; 27 percent of those killed were members of indigenous groups.
Meanwhile, 36 percent of these cases were linked to agriculture while 27 percent were about mining issues.
“When somebody dies, we have to investigate if its related advocacies or is personal thing,” Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
Meanwhile, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu urged the Philippine National Police to identify and arrest those behind the killing of an informant in Nueva Ecija.
“I hope the PNP will look deeply into this case and bring those perpetrators to justice so that we can say that the death of yet another environmental defender has not been in vain,” Cimatu said.
Two unidentified motorcycle-riding men attacked and gunned down Gaudencio Arana, a long-time informant of the DENR, on Sept. 11.
Arana was the second environmental worker killed in a span of a week this month.
On Sept. 4, suspected illegal loggers stabbed forest ranger Bienvenido Veguilla Jr. to death using a jungle bolo in El Nido, Palawan. With AFP