Fleeing Violence, the Philippines’ Anti-Mining Activists Are Trapped in a ‘Waiting Game’
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series on killings of environmental activists in the Philippines, funded by WPR’s International Reporting Fellowship. The first installment can be found here.
MINDANAO, Philippines—On a secluded banana plantation on the Philippine island of Mindanao, nearly 400 people pass each night in tents, huts and makeshift dormitories. They bathe in the plantation’s irrigation ditches, surrounded by blue bags of pesticides that have fallen from the banana plants. The entire camp subsists on rice donated from a local farmers’ association. The plantation’s residents almost never leave their hideout. It may be the only place they are truly safe.
Many of the residents are members of organizations like the Compostela Farmers Association, a peasant group that is fighting the expansion of large-scale mining in the Compostela Valley. Others are indigenous people who say they were forced off their land to make way for mining and other projects. All of them say they were harassed by the Philippine military and that the threats reached a point where they needed to flee for their lives.
Conflicts over natural resources and land have become commonplace in the Philippines, which has one of the highest murder rates for environmentalists and land activists in the world. According to Global Witness, a London-based NGO that tracks violence against environmentalists, there were 43 such homicides in 2017 alone, the highest annual death toll ever recorded for an Asian country. Rather than risk their lives, many threatened environmentalists are now choosing to flee their homes.
Listen to Lindsay Fendt discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. Her audio starts at 23:32.
For Rogelio Madrid, 54, the tipping point came after he received his fourth request to report to a military outpost for an interview. Madrid is married to Jhona Madrid, one of four CFA members jailed in Tagum City. As an active CFA member himself, Madrid feared that if he presented himself to the military, he might get arrested, leaving his young children alone. So instead of appearing for the interview, he and his kids packed up some clothes and headed to the banana plantation.
The entire Madrid family is now in limbo, waiting for their circumstances to change. Rogelio hopes that the petitions to the government and the courts from the CFA’s allies will eventually get Jhona released, but until then he’s grateful that he has a place to stay. The plantation’s high fences give him some piece of mind.
“At least here I can sleep,” he says. “Back home I was always too nervous that the military was going to come busting in at night.”
For the Madrids and the rest of the CFA, the trouble with the military began in 2011 after they began protesting against the Agusan Petroleum and Minerals Corporation, or AgPet. The company had obtained an exploration permit encompassing more than 30,000 acres of land in Compostela, including farms and small-scale mining operations that belonged to CFA members.
Though the CFA’s protests won support from human rights and environmental groups, the farmers’ organization was no match for the mining interests. AgPet is owned by the same parent company and run by the same CEO as San Miguel Corp., one of the largest companies in the Philippines. The company’s permit came with the full support of the national government, which ordered the military to “assist” AgPet in carrying out its exploration.
Following the military order, CFA members reported harassment both by men in uniform and by unknown men in masks. From 2015 to 2017, the height of the CFA’s resistance campaign, four CFA members were arrested on trumped-up charges and six were killed by masked men on motorcycles. This past August, three more CFA members were killed. Hundreds more were accused by the military of being members of the New People’s Army, or NPA, an armed communist insurgent group.
Ocampo Adlawan was among the CFA members accused of being part of the NPA. Knowing he would be arrested, he fled Compostela earlier this year and went into hiding. These days, he sits on a bench near his cot in the plantation’s old banana-packing house, smoking a long hand-rolled cigarette and sorrowfully stroking his grey goatee.
Before he went into hiding, Adlawan was one of the area’s datus, or chiefs. He says that AgPet officials approached him and asked him to sign a document granting permission for mineral exploration on tribal land. Under both Philippine and international law, the free and prior informed consent of indigenous people is required before any development can happen in their territory, but Adlawan refused to sign.
“We chose to protect the environment, because otherwise they will remove the mountain,” Adlawan says. “The mountain is our market, our hospital, our home, our everything.”
After he made clear he would not cooperate, Adlawan says the military ordered him to surrender and confess to being a member of the NPA. When he refused, he says they put a bounty worth 1 million pesos, or around $19,000, on his head.
“At least here I can sleep,” says one activist. “Back home I was always too nervous that the military was going to come busting in at night.”
Aside from cases that result in killings or arrests, it is difficult to verify intimidation claims from CFA members interviewed for this story. Allegations that the military and masked assailants acted on behalf of AgPet also cannot be confirmed, and AgPet officials did not respond to inquiries for this story. But one thing is certain: The CFA no longer operates in Compostela. Those who have not fled to sites like the banana plantation are either dead or locked up.
The United Church of Christ’s Haran Mission House, a church-sponsored shelter in Davao City, is one of the locations sheltering indigenous people who have fled violence on their land. A cramped outdoor pavilion alternately serves as their schoolhouse, cafeteria and living room. When I visited one day in March, it was also their funeral parlor.
A long white coffin sat on a table near the back of the common space. It was adorned with flowers, a few scattered candles and a framed photograph of a serious-looking young man. The same face looked up through a glass panel covering the coffin, unsmiling and lifeless. Though some people stopped to light a candle or glance at the body, the wake didn't seem to disturb the bustling rhythm of the 300-person camp. After all, the presence of a coffin isn’t that unusual.
The dead man was Garito Malibato, 23, a member of the indigenous Manobo ethnic group. He had been shot two days earlier in the mountains north of Davao City, in the group’s ancestral domain. Because the location is so remote, the details of Malibato’s death are murky, but family members suspect he was killed by paramilitaries. A human rights group brought his body to Haran, where most of his village had already relocated.
Camps for the internally displaced, like Haran and the banana plantation, are now littered across Mindanao. According to Global Protection Cluster, an NGO that tracks humanitarian crises, at least 1,895 people were internally displaced by conflict and violence in southeastern Mindanao as of this past January.
William Holden, a geographer at the University of Calgary who has studied the murders of activists in the Philippines, says the main drivers of the displacement are anti-communist operations carried out by the military as well as efforts by pro-mining politicians and mining companies to clear land. “It is all very hard to prove,” he says, “but the indigenous people are the most marginalized of the marginalized, and they often live on lands coveted by mining companies.”
plantation on the island of Mindanao, Philippines (Lindsay Fendt).
Given the number of other conflicts in the Philippines, including Duterte’s drug war and an Islamist insurgency, NGOs and human rights groups have limited resources to track the number of environmental activists and land defenders who have been murdered. Because the precise nature of Malibato’s death cannot be determined, his name will not appear on any lists of those murdered in land conflicts. This means the true toll of these conflicts in Mindanao remains unknown.
While environmental conflict in Mindanao is driving many from their land, those who choose to stay in their homes face a unique set of challenges.
Fifty miles across the Davao Gulf from the Haran Mission House, an abandoned mining pit sits on a mountain above the town of Banaybanay. It’s been three years since the Chinese-owned Golden Summit Mining Corporation extracted nickel from this site, yet the community is still coping with the effects of its work. Banaybanay is known as the rice-growing capital of Mindanao, but mining sediments have polluted the surface-water supply, threatening the town’s livelihood.
In 2012, officials from Golden Summit approached the village council with plans for a mine. It was to be an open-pit mine, where minerals are extracted directly from the top of the soil. Globally, open-pit mining has been criticized for causing contamination and deforestation, and cracking open the soil on a tropical archipelago like the Philippines is especially problematic. Like on most islands, the water table here runs close to the surface, and even the slightest bit of negligence can pollute entire watersheds, contaminating farms, killing off fish and threatening the health of residents.
The village council, drawn in by promises of jobs and economic prosperity, and allegedly paid off with bribes, waved off these concerns, granting Golden Summit near-unanimous support. The only holdout was Canoto Magalasing, a farmer who had been on the council for more than 40 years.
“The mine paid off the other officials,” Magalasing, now in his 90s, says. “But they hadn’t consulted the community. I felt bad that the mine was able to enter, but I was outvoted.”
Though roundly criticized for other aspects of his human rights record, Duterte has been praised for taking a stand against destructive mining practices.
According to Magalasing, the trouble with Golden Summit began as soon as the backhoes and bulldozers rolled into Banaybanay and began pulverizing the mountaintop. A thick layer of dust spread over the town, irritating the locals who, despite company promises, had not been hired to work in the mine. In December 2012, when typhoon season came, Banaybanay flooded for the first time, having been rendered vulnerable to the storms by the loss of protection from its tallest mountain. The rains also eroded soil at the mine, and soon the rivers were running red, filling the irrigation ditches at the rice farms with toxic sediment.
Local support for the mine quickly disappeared. But even though the village council filed closure orders for the project, the company continued to operate without authorization. The farmers began to protest, calling in thousands of people from all over the province. They led a protest march to Manila, a distance of nearly 800 miles, and wrote letters to the government.
In 2015, when the government’s Mining and Geosciences Bureau finally stepped in, it found that Golden Summit hadn’t obtained any of the proper permits. Additionally, Golden Summit had extracted millions of dollars’ worth of nickel from the mountains without having conducted an environmental impact study and without paying a cent in taxes. The case is still under investigation.
The fact that Golden Summit was able to operate illegally on such a large scale highlights the inconsistent enforcement of mining regulations in the Philippines. While the country does have provisions to ease the environmental and social impact of large mines, these laws aren’t necessarily respected or enforced during the permitting process. A recent audit by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources found that 15 of the country’s 41 mines were operating in watersheds, in direct violation of mining laws. And while the law requires that indigenous groups be consulted before a mine is put in their territory, there is no official system for ensuring that the leaders who are consulted actually represent the interests of their communities.
Because the laws governing local distribution of mining money are often vague, even the distribution of tax revenues can cause conflict. Reports of bribery in mining negotiations are common throughout the Philippines, though there is no way to corroborate Masalasing’s specific claims.
“There is no one that controls the sector, and there is no one that controls the revenue,” says Jewellord Nem Singh, a political science professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands who researches the distribution of mining profits in the Philippines. “You often hear this story from local communities; they’ll say, this person negotiated on their behalf and so the money went there.”
The farmers in Banaybanay were eventually able to get a closure order for the Golden Summit mine, but this type of victory is unusual. Other communities have not had the same luck.
The Powerful and the Powerless
The rural poor make up most of the people killed or displaced in land conflicts in the Philippines, but the anti-mining movement has gained some powerful allies in recent years. Though roundly criticized for other aspects of his human rights record, Duterte has been praised for taking a stand against the expansion of destructive mining practices. Following his election in 2016, Duterte surprised mining executives by nominating Gina Lopez, a staunch anti-mining activist, to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or DENR, an appointed Cabinet position. A member of one the wealthiest families in the Philippines, Lopez had for years used her influence to speak out against the environmental and social impacts of mining.
“I don’t understand how the money already very rich people want to make is ever more important than the water people need to drink and the food people need to eat,” Lopez says. “For every mine site, there are 1,500 farmers and fishermen who suffer. It’s horrifying.”
Villamor Air Base, Pasay, Philippines, July 3, 2018 (AP photo by Bullit Marquez).
Lopez’s nomination had swift repercussions for the mining industry. Mining stocks plummeted, and metal prices rose. Upon taking office, she immediately ordered an audit of the sector and issued closure orders for 26 mines that were operating in watersheds. She then canceled 75 mining applications that were pending approval and ordered a ban on all prospective open-pit mines.
But Lopez’s efforts to reform the mining industry were short-lived. She served for a year before appearing for formal confirmation before the Philippine Congress, where she was rejected. Several members of the Commission of Appointments owned mines or were involved in the mining industry.
While Lopez’s ban on prospective open-pit mines remains intact, all 26 mines that she ordered closed are still in operation. During her time in office, Lopez was unable to do anything to address the murders of anti-mining activists, and the number of dead continues to mount.
“It’s the weakness of humanity. Money is everything,” Lopez says of the activist murders. “The amount of money involved in mining is massive, and if any small-time farmer or fishermen or whatever is going to stand in their way, it’s nothing for them to just kill them. No one will know who did it.”
Back at the banana plantation hideout, an entire tribe of displaced indigenous people set about rebuilding a new, temporary version of their village. Using bamboo, fallen banana leaves and tarps, families had set up elevated huts and were building more. The camp’s organizers had received word earlier in the week that more people were on the way, fleeing violence in their villages.
“I don’t understand how the money already very rich people want to make is ever more important than the water people need to drink and the food people need to eat.”
While these displaced families have found temporary refuge in the banana plantation, there is no long-term plan for their safety. The plantation’s wards help with the farm, but can’t leave the camp to find other work. Even as its population grows, the camp is already starting to run out of food. As dire as these displaced families’ circumstances may seem, their crisis is just one in an unending string of land conflicts in the Philippines, a pattern that shows no sign of ending soon.
At one point during my visit in March, I stepped into one of the huts to talk to the camp’s leader. Datu Tungig Mansu has a dark goatee and wears a large wooden necklace over his bare chest. He looks too young for his leadership role. He’s likely in his mid-20s, though he does not know his exact age. Speaking through a translator, he told me that his village had begun relocating to the plantation two months earlier, after the military began harassing the villagers and threatening them with arrests. They never gave a reason for the threats, he said, but their land in the mountains has long been coveted by mining and logging companies.
He pointed to an older woman wearing traditional earrings connected with a long, beaded string that fit beneath her chin. As she began to speak, she pulled on her clothes and cried out. She squinted to fight back tears welling up in her eyes. A man in a military uniform stopped her on her way home, she said. He made her take off her clothes and stand in front of the other men in his unit as they laughed and jeered at her. When she was finally allowed to gather her clothes, she packed up her home and left town.
Rain began to fall as she completed her story. The others in the hut rolled a tarp over the windows. The small space quickly filled with the smell of wet earth and human sweat. Mansu made sure the woman was finished before he resumed speaking himself, giving voice to the widespread feeling among residents at the banana plantation that mining projects had robbed them of their way of life.
“It’s been hard because this isn’t our life here. This isn’t our home,” says Tungig Mansu. “Our life is there in the mountains. This is just a waiting game.”
Lindsay Fendt is a freelance reporter and photographer focused on the environment and human rights. For the past five years, she has been covering the rise of murders of environmental activists worldwide.