Gov’t employees among rising number of environment defenders killed this year, group says

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 11 2019 09:43 PM

MANILA – Forest ranger Bienvenido Venguilla Jr. was hacked to death in September this year while protecting El Nido from illegal loggers.

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Venguilla was conducting a forest patrol with other rangers when they confronted a group of illegal loggers, who escaped but left the chainsaw they were using. 

Later that day, the forest rangers were attacked by six men with bolos. Venguilla used his service weapon to fire back but he was cornered and hacked to death as the others escaped to call for help.

No less than Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu condemned the brutal killing.

A total of 46 individuals were killed this year because of environment-related issues, according to Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment’s (Kalikasan PNE) year-end report on the situation of Filipino environmental defenders. Ten, including Venguilla, were working for the government.

“The murders of Filipino environmental defenders are on the rise once again in 2019,” Kalikasan said. The group told ABS-CBN that the number significantly increased from last year when there were 30 cases of extrajudicial killings, three of which involved government employees.

Kalikasan claimed that 80 percent of the cases this year were perpetrated by state security forces or were done in “notorious death squad fashion.”

“Even forest rangers and other government officials working to protect the environment are not spared from this climate of impunity,” the group said.

The group said the killings show just how difficult it has been for environmental defenders, which include land activists and government foresters alike, to protect the country’s 1.2 million hectares of forest and agricultural landscape.

Of the 46 killed, 29 were farmers or agriworkers, 10 were working for the government (as DENR employees or village officials), and 9 were members of indigenous groups. Kalikasan said reported motives of the killings were mostly tied to land grabbing, mining, and illegal logging.

DENR Usec. Benny Antiporda told ABS-CBN News that the agency has already suggested the creation of an enforcement bureau.

“We have proposed it already with the House of Representatives so we can protect our enforcers,” he said in a phone interview. “Because right not (the enforcers) apply for their own guns and they are no match (for the illegal loggers).”

In a release last September, DENR announced that it is seeking additional funding for the enforcement bureau, which will allow the agency to better enforce environmental laws. 

“Those who are killed are our foresters or forest rangers in the field,” Antiporda said. “Now, we will empower them by means of arming them.”

Kalikasan claimed that many of the killings they recorded happened in areas subjected to “heavy militarization.”

“A total of 26 cases were the result of active police or military combat operations or hits where perpetrators were identified by witnesses,” the group said. “Death squad assassinations that followed the modus of ‘drug war’ operations were observed in at least 11 of the cases.”

ABS-CBN News tried to get the reaction of government agencies on this claim but DENR did not comment. Meanwhile, Philippine National Police spokesperson Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac said all homicide cases are “serious crimes that are investigated by police as a matter of standard procedure.”

“Indeed there had been several reports of violent attacks on government forestry and environmental workers by syndicates engaged in illegal activities,” he said in a text message to ABS-CBN News. However, he said what the police have encountered are insurgents “moonlighting as private armed groups for these syndicates.”

“We assure the public that the PNP under OIC PLtGen Archie Francisco Gamboa is looking into this matter,” Banac said.

Kalikasan’s year-end report follows an international report from the human rights group Global Witness saying that the number of land activists killed in the Philippines has spiked under the current administration.

In its report, Kalikasan called on the Commission on Human Rights and Congress to conduct inquiries and investigations on the “worsening situation faced by environmental defenders.”

The group also warned against state security forces supposed being employed for environmentally destructive businesses. Kalikasan said the DENR should declare more places as special protected areas to prevent paramilitary groups and businesses from entering.

With none of the previous cases of resolved, Kalikasan urged the Department of Justice and other government agencies to “step up efforts in prosecuting and convicting perpetrators and masterminds in the killings.”

“We strongly urge the United Nations to consider initiating an International Fact Finding Mission or establishing a Commission on Inquiry to probe deeper into this situation,” the group said.