MANILA - The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reiterated its call for the creation of the Environmental Protection and Enforcement Bureau (EPEB) to help protect environmental defenders in the country.
This developed after a Global Witness report released on Monday said 29 Filipino environment defenders were killed last year. This made the Philippines the deadliest in Asia and the 3rd globally.
A record-high 227 environmental activists worldwide, meanwhile, died defending their land, homes, environment, and important ecosystems, with the actual figure believed to be higher due to unreported cases.
Environment Undersecretary Benny Antiporda told ABS-CBN News that establishing EPEB would at least give forest rangers in the country the power to arm themselves during their rounds to protect themselves from violators.
People encroaching protected areas in the country usually carry high-powered firearms, based on stories on the ground, according to Antiporda.
"First, we are on the same plight on this... We are trying to move heaven and earth to make it sure that we can protect our environment and at the same time, the lives of our people," Antiporda said in an interview Wednesday.
"We can assure a better Philippines when it comes to defending the environment because of the creation of the enforcement bureau of the DENR."
At present, forest rangers can only report violators to law enforcement authorities when they spot them. But because those violators are sometimes armed, some environmentalists are killed while on duty, he explained.
"The environmental defenders are not in any way armed Yet these people, or the illegal loggers are heavily armed... We all know na yung mga forest na yan, walang tao diyan, walang testigo. Walang tatayo para sa atin eh," said Antiporda.
(Nobody can testify in the forest. Nobody will stand for the environment defenders there.)
"We still need to go to the military, to seek for their help and go to that area and apprehend the culprits. Hindi na nga nangyayari kasi siyempre, mabilis gumalaw 'yang mga 'yan."
(It no longer happens because culprits move fast.)
A measure creating the EPEB remains pending in both chambers in Congress. The DENR has reportedly sent a letter to President Rodrigo Duterte to certify the measure as urgent.
The proposed bureau aims to create the agency’s own “environmental police” that would focus on environmental crimes. The measure will also authorize forest rangers to carry firearms.
The DENR envisions EPEB as the country's lead agency in environment-related enforcement.
Antiporda assured the public that they are doing their best to fast track EPEB's creation and protect forest rangers.
"Again, it is not as if the government is doing nothing to protect the environmental defenders. We are doing everything but we need to pass through the due process, which is 'yung, we need to be mandated by law to totally protect our forest and our environment," he said.
Recently, two Masungi Georeserve foresters survived a shooting incident in Baras, Rizal after being attacked by violators.
Before this, several cease and desist orders were handed down by DENR and the interior department.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) on Wednesday vowed its support to the environment and its defenders.
PNP Chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar said they would “strictly enforce environmental laws” to aid the people at the frontlines conserving it.
ABS-CBN News has reached out to the office of Environment Usec. Ed Leonardo, the head of the country's anti-illegal logging task force, for his comments on the matter.
Leonardo has yet to respond as of this story's posting.
-- With a report from Anjo Bagaoisan and April Rafales, ABS-CBN News