Desperate for protection, environmental defenders pin hopes on proposed bill, UN intervention

Jauhn Etienne Villaruel, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 22 2019 04:37 PM

Environmental activists, like these ones patrolling a forest in Palawan, are under threat according to a new study by international watchdog Global Witness. The study said 48 environmental campaigners were murdered in 2017, a 71 percent increase from the 28 killings in 2016. Karl Malakunis, AFP/file

MANILA — In a tiny and dimly-lit room in UP Diliman last November, lawyer Ericson dela Cruz found himself bombarded with question from embattled fisher folks, land rights activists, and other environmental defenders. 

"Ano po 'yung presumption sir?" a forest ranger from Palawan asked. (What is a presumption?)

"Meron na ba nito sa ibang bansa?" another lady from Cordillera region inquired. (Do they have something similar in other countries?)

Dela Cruz, a senior legislative officer of Bayan Muna Party-list Rep. Eufemia "Ka Femia" Cullamat, was eager to answer the questions. 

He then attempted to elaborate, in simple terms, the sophisticated legal concept of presumption.

"'Pag nagpunta ka sa korte o saan mang investigating body, agad niyang tatanggapin [ang alegasyon mo bilang] katotohanan kahit hindi ka nagbibigay ng ebidensiya. Ito 'yung mga tinatawag nating presumptions sa batas."

(When you go to court or any investigating body, they will automatically take as truth your allegation, even without you providing evidence. That's the power of presumption.)

However, he cautioned that these are "juris tantum" presumptions and may be disputed with stronger evidence. 

Just a few minutes ago, Dela Cruz was reading aloud some of the salient features of the draft "Environmental Defenders Bill."

The subject sparked interest and invited hope for the environmental activists who took part in the "Defenders Fighting Back" forum organized by Center for Environmental Concern and Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan), with the support of United Nations (UN) and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

The bill was made for them, Dela Cruz noted, and would serve as their safeguard against harassment and violence while protecting the environment. 

"Ang bill na ito ay ginawa natin para proteksiyunan 'yung mga aktibistang gaya niyo." (This bill was made to protect activists like you.)

DANGER

The curiosity from the group was something Dela Cruz understood, given the climate of violence that has emboldened the perpetrators against environmental activists. 

According to a study by UK-based watchdog Global Witness, there was a "disturbing" rise of murders of environmental and land defenders in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte took office.

"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 Agence France-Presse.

The 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.

The same group last year ranked Philippines as the deadliest country in the world for land defenders, with 30 recorded killings.

The report likewise linked soldiers or security forces in 56 percent of the murders.

UN MECHANISMS AND PROCEDURES 

With the involvement of state agents in the killings, environmental activists are left with no choice but to seek remedy from the international community.

This is when the mechanisms laid out by the UN become handy.

The UN defines an environmental defender to be "anyone who is defending environmental rights, including constitutional rights to a clean and healthy environment, when the exercise of those rights is being threatened."

According to Mika Kanervavuori, senior human rights advisor at UN Office of the Resident Coordinator, aggrieved groups or individuals may avail of UN remedies through human rights treaties or special procedures of the Human Rights Council through special rapporteurs.

Kanervavuori admitted, however, that attempts to communicate with the UN will not always be successful. 

Complaints given due course will merit an investigation from the UN, and the outcome of which may be submitted as evidence during a local court proceeding. 

But aside from the difficulty of accessing these remedies, the aversion of the government towards the UN and other international bodies was also a challenge, Kanervavuori said. 

'SUNTOK SA BUWAN' 

Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan, told ABS-CBN News that they hope to finally file the bill at the House of Representatives next year. 

Kalikasan was one of the groups that helped Bayan Muna craft the Environmental Defenders Bill. 

"Maganda sana kahit sa Earth Day next year mai-file. Pero patuloy na nag-e-evolve 'yung bill bago pa ito ma-file," Dulce said. 

(It would be good if we could file it during Earth Day next year, But the draft is still evolving.)

Dulce said getting the bill passed will be "suntok sa buwan" or nearly impossible. 

"Pero sa amin kasi ang concern namin 'yung journey... Gusto namin mapag-usapan lang ito sa Kongreso." 

(What's important is we discuss this in Congress and get people to talk about it.)

This article was published through the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Climate Tracker’s Climate Journalism Fellowship.