For love of environment, advocates pay dearly

Nov. 16, 2012

Impunity, the activists say, because perpetrators remain scot-free, if not, unpunished.

Davao Today

DAVAO CITY, Philippines — For Stella Matutina, a nun leading Mindanao’s environmentalists, stopping giant mining firms have become deadlier, a price she herself, paid dearly.

Speaking during a public hearing initiated by Philippine legislators last week this city, Matutina rattled off glaring statistics to present what she termed as “the most salient and gravest trends” in human rights abuses under the Aquino government.

The numbers of slain victims were punishing: 32 leaders killed in two years, 24 of them indigenous peoples who opposed land grabbing in their ancestral domains.

The numbers of victims sued by courts were deplorable: 159 individuals who face pending warrants of arrests, subpoenas, and other forms of “legal harassment and intimidation.”

The numbers of displaced residents were glaring: about 1,017 families with 5,275 individuals, particularly in the regions of Caraga, Northern and Southern Mindanao, dislocated due to military encampments and operations.

In all these, Matuina, convenor of the coalition, Panalipdan (English translation: Defend) Mindanao, lamented that “the state of impunity continues to this day.”

The “state of impunity” was coined by rights activists following the carnage notoriously known as Ampatuan massacre involving the murder of 58 individuals, 34 of them media practitioners in Maguindanao province three years ago.

Impunity, the activists say, because perpetrators remain scot-free, if not, unpunished.

Matutina added that extrajudicial killings, particularly of indigenous leaders and environment advocates in Mindanao, escalated “at a faster pace, compared to the same period under (former President Gloria) Arroyo.”

Opposing large-scale mining is, indeed, dangerous for advocates, as they asked for an investigation on the “practices, business ethics, human rights and environmental records of mining companies and other extractive industries” like the Xstrata-SMI in Tampakan, South Cotabato, the TVI Resources in Zamboanga, the Taganito Mining in Surigao, the Russel mining in Compostela Valley and the A. Brown in Misamis Oriental.

A human rights victim herself, Matutina said her experience from the hands of the military was “of no consequence compared to the fate that befell other victims of human rights violations across Mindanao.”

Three years ago, Matutina, dead-tired from a day of environment seminar with residents, was rudely woken from sleep and detained for several hours by soldiers belonging to the Philippine Army’s 67th Infantry Battalion in a far-flung village in Cateel town, Davao Oriental.  Soldiers tagged her as a New People’s Army rebel, an accusation which Matutina brushed off as part of her “determined advocacy” in protecting communities and the environment.

Total disregard

The escalating violence in Mindanao has raised questions as to how serious is the Philippine military in respecting human rights and in reforming the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

But Major Jake Obligado, chief of the 10th Infantry Division’s Civil-Military Operations Battalion, in a text message to said, “We are very serious in performing our mandate professionally, much so with our increased advocacy in the utmost respect for human rights.”

He added, “if there are any complaints against our troops, we are always open for investigation with the assurance that we will fully cooperate.”

“(The) trend shames this (Aquino) government for its total disregard of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders,” Matutina said, adding that the “malicious charges” filed against activists are a “clear attempt to silence their advocacies through judicial intimidation, planting of evidence for frame ups, or through eventually imprisoning them on false and fabricated cases.”

Panalipdan has urged Congress, among others, to “take to task” the chain of command of the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP), including President Aquino “under the principle of command responsibility” to be accountable for the killings.

But Professor Luz Ilagan, Gabriela Women’s Party Representative and member of the House of Representatives’ Human Rights Committee said, the committee will “not” put President Aquino to task, only the AFP and PNP.  She pointed out, “there is a parliamentary courtesy between the two parts (executive and legislative) of the government.”

Panalipdan also asked for the “review and rescinding” of the counter-insurgency plan of the Aquino government, the Oplan Bayanihan, which it said, “provided the policy and operational framework” that has allowed the continuation of extrajudicial killings and other abuses.

Ilagan said they will now “consolidate testimonies of the accuser and the accused” before a meeting in Congress for a report “to be approved or disapproved by the whole committee.”

She said, there are 35 members who will review the report which will be passed early next year.  She added though that “it’s up to the chair of the committee to formulate the wording based on the results of the hearing.”

Schools, too

Schools in rural areas were also subjects of attack, according to Panalipdan.

Matutina cited the case of a school in Esperanza, Agusan del Sur where the town mayor Nida Manpatilan told community leaders and the teacher that the community “should allow mining if it wants development.”

Said schools are run by non-government organizations and Lumad support groups “in areas where government’s basic education services cannot reach or are underserved.”

Panalipdan has urged the Department of Education “to ensure that the rights and survival of alternative community learning schools are respected and protected from militarization, vilification, and other forms of intimidation and attacks.”  (Marilou Aguirre-Tuburan/

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