MINDANAO, Philippines — In September 2006, Victor Danyan looked out over the corporate coffee plantation that had taken over his tribe’s land in the village of Ned, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
Danyan, the datu, or chief of his community, told me the tribe’s members weren’t afraid to sacrifice their lives to reclaim their land. “We are ready to die for our ancestral land if push comes to shove,” he said.
He’d anticipated the worst, and when it came, the shove was an armed assault: On the morning of Dec. 3, 2017, the military attacked, raining down bombs and bullets on the community members carrying out their routine farming and household chores.
When the smoked cleared, eight tribal members were dead, including Danyan, killed by a single shot believed to have been fired by a military sniper, and his two sons.
The military described the attack as a legitimate security operation conducted against the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, which the government has designated a terrorist group. The victims’ families and activists from church-based, human rights and environmental groups have vehemently denied that those slain were communist rebels or sympathizers.
The killings of Danyan and the seven others took place while Mindanao is under martial law that President Rodigo Duterte imposed across the island on May 23, 2017.
The move came hours after Islamic State-aligned militants seized the city of Marawi and triggered a grinding five-month urban war that displaced more than 350,000 civilians and left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them militants.
But while the heightened state of security under martial law likely contributed to the defeat of the militants, it has also intensified the already serious threats faced by land and environmental defenders.
“Mindanao is currently the deadliest place in the country for environmental defenders,” said Leon Dulce, campaign coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), an NGO. At least 112 environmental defenders were killed in Mindanao from 2001 to 2018, half of the total 223 killings monitored across the country during that period.
Since Duterte declared martial two years ago in Mindanao, at least 28 land and environmental defenders were killed across the island, according to data from the Kalikasan PNE. Dulce stressed the military rule severely “restricted the operational spaces of defenders.”
Female relatives of the slain Datu Victor Danyan weep as they recall what happened on that fateful day in South Cotabato, Mindanao. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento
“Martial law in Mindanao is seen as one of the vilest ‘investment guarantees’ that the Duterte government has implemented to pave the way for extractive and destructive big businesses,” Dulce said.
Under the current climate of fear, he said, environmental defenders in Mindanao have been muzzled, vilified, threatened, intimidated, and ultimately subjected to unspeakable violence by both private security groups and state armed forces. He lamented what he called an alarming trend of environmental defenders painted as supporters or members of the NPA.
The Philippine Congress has extended the period of martial law in Mindanao three times, the latest extension keeping it in place until Dec. 31 this year, upon request from Duterte. In that last request, Duterte cited as justification the ongoing communist rebellion and security threats from Islamist terror groups. The United States also classifies the NPA, which is waging one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world, as a terrorist organization.
The Philippine military has also justified the continued presence of soldiers in remote communities under its Community Support Program, part of “Oplan Kapayapaan” (Operation Peace), the military’s strategy for bringing peace and development to areas affected by the communist armed conflict.
Branding Danyan as a communist rebel or supporter was part of the plot to silence him, his family and activists allege. He was carrying a homemade firearm at the time, which his relatives said he used to defend himself and the community. But he didn’t fire it on the day of what his sister, Lita Wali, called the “massacre.”
“I was cooking for lunch. We heard volleys of gunshots and my brother rushed out of the house to see what’s happening. He was gunned down. There was no exchange of gunfire,” she said tearfully.
Danyan was believed to have been killed to stifle the tribe’s opposition to the coffee plantation and a proposed coal mining project in their ancestral domain.
In the Philippines, half of the land and environmental defenders murdered last year were opposed to agribusiness ventures, according to the watchdog NGO Global Witness. Mindanao accounted for a third of those killed in 2018, and two-thirds of those killed in 2017, Global Witness said.
The military is suspected of being responsible for more than a third of the killings of land and environmental defenders recorded by Global Witness in the Philippines since 2002. Paramilitary groups are accused of carrying out 11 percent of the killings.
Almost half of the more than 100 killings of defenders since Duterte rose to power in mid-2016 occurred in Mindanao, with 75 percent of these killings reportedly perpetrated by either the military or paramilitary groups, Global Witness said.
Mountains destroyed by mining operations loom large from a mining company’s base camp in Surigao del Sur, Mindanao.
Mining is the biggest contributor to environmental defenders deaths in the Philippines in 2018. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento
In its latest report, published Sept. 23 and titled “Defending the Philippines: How broken promises are leaving land and environmental defenders at the mercy of business at all cost,” Global Witness cites the case of Danyan and his seven companions as a chilling example of what defenders face at the hands of a “military that is in cahoots with business interests.”
“The imposition of martial law on the island of Mindanao has empowered an army already known for protecting business projects and attacking those who oppose them,” the watchdog said.
In a July report titled “Enemies of the State?,” Global Witness described the Philippines as the “world’s deadliest country” in 2018 for land and environmental defenders. It recorded 30 defenders killed in the Philippines that year, followed by Colombia with 24 and India with 23. It documented a total of 164 killings in 19 countries, or a rate of three deaths each week.
Global Witness says that the so-called red-tagging of land or environmental defenders “is an accusation that can amount to a death sentence under Duterte’s martial law.” Among those who have branded as such is Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.
In March 2018, Tauli-Corpuz, a Filipina, was included on a list of 600 alleged communist guerillas that the government wants declared as terrorists. Three months before, she had slammed the militarization of some indigenous peoples’ communities in Mindanao.
“They are suffering massive abuses of their human rights, some of which are potentially irreversible. We fear the situation could deteriorate further if the extension of martial law until the end of 2018 results in even greater militarization,” she said in a statement co-issued with compatriot Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons.
In the Philippines, Mindanao environmental defenders have proven the most effective in fighting for their causes, said Dulce from the Kalikasan PNE.
The peasant movements and the lumad, the collective term for Mindanao’s indigenous peoples, have sustained their defense of their ancestral lands in the mountain ranges of Pantaron, Daguma, Kitanglad and the Andap Valley from big mines, agribusiness plantations, and timber plantations, Dulce said.
But those victories have come at the ultimate price. Rodrigo Timoteo was a member of the Compostela Farmers Association (CFA), a group opposed to a gold-mining project by Agusan Petroleum and Mineral Corp., a firm allegedly financed by business tycoon Ramon Ang, the president of Philippine conglomerate San Miguel Corp. and a friend of Duterte’s.
On Nov. 29, 2017, Timoteo was shot in the head by two gunmen while out walking in the Compostela Valley province in Southern Mindanao region. Martial law had been imposed several months earlier.
Rene Pamplona, recipient of the 2018 Soros Foundation award, during a fieldwork in the mountains of South Cotabato, Mindanao. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento
More than a year before, on Oct. 10, 2016, Jimmy Saypan, the CFA secretary-general, was shot by two gunmen on a motorcycle while returning to his farm in Compostela Valley. He died a day later in hospital.
In the face of martial law, the New York-based Alexander Soros Foundation awarded a Mindanao-based defender, Rene Pamplona, as its champion for 2018. Established by the son of the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, the foundation recognizes outstanding activists working at the nexus of environmentalism and human rights. (Alexander Soros also sits on the board of Global Witness.)
“I received death threats and experienced intimidation because of my work to protect the environment and the human rights of indigenous peoples,” Pamplona told Mongabay. In a Twitter post, Soros said that Pamplona, a father of seven, was honored for “his tireless effort to seek justice for indigenous communities.”
‘Defending their way of life’
Based in Mindanao’s South Cotabato province, some 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) south of Manila, Pamplona, 50, has been at the forefront of the opposition to mining and agribusiness ventures that have encroached onto ancestral lands in the province and nearby areas. He also shared in the struggles of Danyan, the slain tribal chief.
Pamplona recalled seeing hundreds of empty and live shells from high-powered rifles during a fact-finding mission to the tribal community following the deaths of Danyan and the seven others.
“All these indigenous people wanted were to be able to reclaim their ancestral land and live in peace,” he said. “They rely on this land for their livelihoods and traditions, and I will not just stand by while indigenous communities are brutally cut down for defending their way of life.”
Even before martial law was declared in Mindanao, Pamplona moved around with caution, always scouring the horizon and looking over his back for suspicious individuals. People he worked with expressed fears that Pamplona could be on the hit list because of his work to protect the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples. Pamplona worked with the local Catholic Church in South Cotabato province as its environmental advocacy campaigner for 15 years, after which he founded the local nonprofit Convergence of Initiatives for Environmental Justice.
Militant groups and indigenous peoples conduct a lighting rally to protest the killings of eight lumads in Barangay Ned, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato in front of the 27th Infantry Battalion headquarters in Tupi, South Cotabato on December 10, 2017, Human Rights Day. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento
With the declaration of martial law and Duterte’s suspension of the privilege of writ of habeas corpus, Pamplona said he had gone “low-profile,” apparently to avoid drawing the ire of the military, and was being even more cautious while moving around.
The Duterte administration says the deaths of land and environmental defenders are due to alleged “rivalry between claimants.”
“That happens if there are conflicts among claimants to a particular land. Killings occur because of the viciousness of the rivalry between the claimants,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said at a press briefing.
To date, Duterte has been silent to appeals by land and environmental defenders to end martial law. While many acknowledge the current security situation is “vastly different” from the martial law enforced under former president Ferdinand Marcos from 1972 to 1981 — when thousands of activists were either killed, tortured or illegally arrested by the military and the police — it still needs to be lifted to ease the pressure on Mindanao’s defenders and indigenous communities, Dulce said.
These are people who, he noted, remained at risk with or without the shadow of martial law. Large-scale mining and agribusiness plantations now cover hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in Mindanao, Dulce said. They have dispossessed the lumad and other rural communities of their lands, caused pollution and environmental destruction, and increased the vulnerability of populations to disasters and climate disruption, he added.
For the family and community grieving Danyan’s death, there’s been little in the way of justice. Complaints were filed against the military commanders responsible for the operation, in which two soldiers also died. The officers insisted that Danyan and the others were supporters or members of the communist movement and that they were killed in a legitimate military operation.
For Pamplona, though, the story doesn’t end there. He said he would continue assisting the tribe in their struggle to reclaim their ancestral land. Businesses and the government, he said, must be held to account for cases like that of Victor Danyan, his sons and their companions.
Banner image of indigenous peoples rallying against Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao. Image by Sandugo – Movement of Moro and Indigenous Peoples for Self-Determination